PITTSBURGH – It has been 15 and a half periods of tight, fast, compelling hockey.
The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins have largely delivered on the promise of their second-round series so far. And as we shift back to Consol Energy Center for Game 6 on Tuesday night, the possibility this turns into something memorable remains high.
With that in mind, here’s a look at five burning questions hanging over the series:
WHO PLAYS NET FOR PITTSBURGH?
On the surface this appears to be an insane question to ask given the way rookie Matt Murray has performed since taking over the crease for the concussed Marc-Andre Fleury.
But in the wake of Saturday’s 3-1 loss – just the third in regulation Murray has suffered in 21 career NHL starts – it is now being discussed in Pittsburgh.
Fleury was cleared to play earlier this week and has served as Murray’s backup the last three games. However, the fact remains that it’s been nearly six weeks since he suffered his second concussion on March 31.
Even though Fleury had a strong season and is the longtime No. 1 goalie here, it would be a difficult situation for him to enter after the long layoff. It would also be tough to pull Murray and his .937 save percentage out of the goal to make it happen.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan wouldn’t publicly commit to a Game 6 starter, but didn’t seem inclined to make a change.
“I thought Matt played extremely well (in Game 5), as he has this whole series,” Sullivan said Sunday. “He made the saves that he was supposed to make for us. He made some timely saves for us to give us a chance to climb back into that game last night. The reality is we’re fortunate that we have two guys right now in Matt and Marc that we’re (confident) about both goalies and their ability to help us win.
“But certainly I thought Matt’s game last night was as solid as it’s been all along here.”
If the series ends up getting stretched to seven games, this question will persist.
SID AND GENO
It was Alex Ovechkin that broke through with a big performance for the Capitals in Game 5. Can Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin do something similar in response?
The Penguins’ top two centres have been kept largely in check offensively – although Crosby, in particular, has played a strong all-around game against Washington.
He and Malkin have been limited to two points apiece in these five games and are both plenty capable of delivering a big performance to book a trip to the Eastern Conference Final.
Sullivan thought his stars did a good job of possessing the puck and controlling offensive zone time in Game 5, but wants his team to make life a little more difficult for Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.
“I think we can try to get the puck to the net a little bit more,” said Sullivan. “A lot of times a shot on goal breaks coverage down better than any pass or play. Sometimes instead of looking for that next pass I think we can look to put the puck to the net more, and then go to the net.
“I think that that’s the nature of playoff hockey. The teams that are left are very good defending teams and they make you work for your chances.”
History suggests it will be Crosby and/or Malkin leading the charge.
Washington’s leading point-getter during the regular season has been conspicuously absent on the scoresheet ever since.
Evgeny Kuznetsov has just one goal and one assist to show for 11 playoff games.
He found himself elevated to the top line between Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie on Saturday night and generated some quality scoring chances without success.
Is a breakthrough coming for the Russian centre?
“I thought it was very encouraging last night the way he played,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Sunday. “That line was, I thought, real strong. You know, from my standpoint, I really trust that Kuzy will be productive for us.
“He’s too good of a player to not be.”
Time is running short.
Games are often decided in the margins at this time of year and both teams saw their power play come to life in Game 5. It looms as a major tilting point going forward.
Who will win the special teams battle?
Ovechkin and Oshie each scored with the man advantage on Saturday, giving Washington three power-play goals in the series. Chris Kunitz replied with Pittsburgh’s first.
While the value of the added offensive boost is obvious, the power play is also where the top players on both sides can rack up points – and the confidence that usually accompanies them.
MR. ELIMINATION GAME
Justin Williams is a riding a three-game points streak and further burnished his image as someone who delivers in the clutch by scoring in Game 5.
That brought about this fascinating statistic courtesy of the Caps public relations staff – Williams has 13 goals and 24 points in 18 career elimination games. His 0.72 goals per game average in those situations places him third in NHL history behind Maurice Richard (0.88) and Pavel Bure (0.80), according to Elias Sports Bureau.
If the Caps are able to rally in this series, it’s likely that Williams will play a notable role in the comeback.
“That’s one of the main reasons we got him here,” teammate Karl Alzner said after Saturday’s game. “That’s a lot of pressure – to come in and have everybody think that you’re the guy that gets us over the hump that we’ve had. I couldn’t imagine having that pressure.”
So the question becomes: Can the 34-year-old winger continue to make a difference?
The teams Williams has played for have a 13-5 record in elimination games. The next one comes Tuesday night.