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Kevin Gorman: For Penguins, Game 6 is no time to count on a curse

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, May 6, 2018, 6:06 p.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby balances the puck on his stick after a whistle during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby balances the puck on his stick after a whistle during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2018.

By losing Game 5 to the Washington Capitals, the Penguins have placed themselves in a precarious position.

It's one with long odds and a longer memory, the latter of which could help the Penguins and haunt the Capitals.

First, the odds: Teams that have won Game 5 have won 78.9 percent of the best-of-seven series in the Stanley Cup playoffs, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

With a 3-2 lead going into Game 6 on Monday night, the Capitals are positioned to eliminate the Penguins, end their quest to three-peat as Stanley Cup champions and make for an uncomfortable scene in the handshake line at PPG Paints Arena.

Now, the history. When it comes to hockey, Washington has been our whipping boy.

Penguins fans have taken great delight in watching the Capitals win the Metropolitan Division, only to lose to the Penguins in the playoffs. To win the three Cup championships in the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin era, the Penguins have gone through the Capitals all three times.

That should serve as all of the motivation Washington needs to reverse its curse, which is why Capitals coach Barry Trotz preferred to savor the 6-3 victory Saturday night instead of talking about the chance to clinch.

That's where the pressure is less on the Penguins than it is on the Capitals. The Penguins can reach into a past as recent as the 2016 Eastern Conference final to remember what it's like to win a Game 6 while facing elimination. Trailing Tampa Bay, three games to two, the Penguins won Game 6, 5-2, and Game 7 at home 2-1.

“We know that we've got to go home, and we've got to win a game and give ourselves a chance to go to a Game 7,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “That's where our focus needs to be. We've just got to make sure we learn from the experience. We put it behind us. We get ready for the next one.”

The Capitals can't do that.

They haven't been to the Eastern Conference final since 1998, and theirs is a tortured playoff history with Ovechkin. And it's not just against the Penguins. The Capitals blew a 3-1 series lead and lost Games 6 and 7 to the N.Y. Rangers in 2013 and '15.

This second-round series with the Penguins has been different.

In the matchup of world-class captains, Ovechkin has been close to Crosby's equal. Not only does Ovechkin have three goals and six points to Crosby's three goals and seven points, but he has served as a defensive distraction. Ovechkin's presence near the blue line caused the miscommunication between defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang on Evgeny Kuznetsov's tying goal, and Murray mentioned the threat of Ovechkin's shot playing a part in setting up his assist on Jakub Vrana's Game 5 winner.

Braden Holtby has been better than Matt Murray in goal, finally living up to his Vezina Trophy pedigree in the playoffs. Where Murray had a strong start in the first period but allowed two late goals, Holtby turned away 12 of 13 shots and shut out the Penguins in the third.

And, believe it or not, Trotz outmaneuvered Sullivan in Game 5, despite losing Tom Wilson to a three-game suspension and second-line center Nicklas Backstrom to an injury. Where the Penguins have been desperate to find secondary scoring, the Capitals got the winner from rookie Vrana, who went a 25-game stretch this season without a goal.

Where the Penguins have the edge is in depth and desperation. The Capitals will be without Wilson and could be without Backstrom and John Carlson, who was rocked in the final minute by a Jake Guentzel check.

As for the desperation? The team that has needed to win a game to even this series has done just that, whether it was the Capitals in Game 2 or the Penguins in Game 4. That's a trend the Penguins need to continue if they want to continue.

“I think your desperation level is a little bit higher,” Crosby said. “You're aware of the situation. I think that brings out the best in everybody, but we knew it was going to be a tight series. We've played some good hockey here, so I think we've just got to go out there and focus on winning one game and make sure when we go out there we give ourselves a chance to get back in it.

“I don't think you have anything to save it for, so you go out there with one focus and that's to win the hockey game and get it to Game 7. That's our mindset here, and we've got a lot of good things to build off of. We just need to make sure we keep going.”

The odds are against the Penguins winning this series, but so are their chances of winning a third consecutive Cup. If there's a silver lining, it's that the Penguins have a history of beating the odds and the Capitals, who have a history of beating themselves.

But this is no time to count on a curse.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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