WASHINGTON – For the first five minutes you would have thought that the Pittsburgh Penguins had no shot to keep Game 7 close, such was the hometown Capitals’ dominance.
For the first four or five shifts of the game the Pens couldn’t get the puck out their zone, couldn’t get a change, couldn’t really draw a deep breath.
There was only one thing Washington couldn’t do but it turned out to be that one thing that matters most: They couldn’t put the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury. Ergo, it wound up Pittsburgh 2, Washington squat. Twenty-nine shots, 29 saves.
“He stole us a couple of games in this series and kept us in a couple of other games,” centre Matt Cullen said. “Flower has been our best player in the playoffs.”
And he’s the Penguins’ best story on a team with a lot of them.
For his part, Fleury tried his best to spread the glory around.
“[Washington’s] a good team,” Fleury said. “They came at us hard. They came at us hard the last few games but we have some experience in this room.”
Of course, Fleury has abundant experience and it’s decidedly a mix bag.
If you go back in the day, he performed excellently in the world juniors but got silver twice, once on weird magic-bullet goal in the death throes of the final. He came up clutch in the last minute of the deciding game in the 2009 final and got to raise the Cup.
Other years, he fought the puck in the most meaningful games and the puck won too often. Then last year, he wound up with a second Cup ring, but watched the games from the bench with a towel around his neck, backing up Matt Murray, a kid, green as a cucumber, who stood in the crease in Fleury’s stead.
He wasn’t even going to play in this series or this spring. It was going to fall to Murray once again. But in the warm-up of Game 1 in the opening round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Murray tweaked his knee and the Penguins had to turn to Fleury, who was the subject of much discussion during the season, none of it confidence building.
All the talk focused on where he would land when the wind kicks up around the expansion draft in June, at best awkward with a limited no trade clause. However, the hypotheticals played out, no one had what he is right now: the savior.
Washington’s energy ebbed after the electrifying start. For the Penguins, it was a slow build to play on somewhat level terms until the midpoint of the game.
Fleury had put the defending Stanley Cup champions in the ideal position in Game 7 against the Caps—that is, needing only a single goal to win. Enter Sidney Crosby.
Crosby wasn’t the best story in this series, but doubtless he was the biggest one. Through the first seven games of this post-season—a five-game roll over the Blue Jackets and two wins in Washington to open this series — Crosby was better than ever and that’s a heck of a base to build on.
You could have made a great case that he was the middle of the best line in hockey, flanked by rookie Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist. You could have made the case that another couple of guys beside him would be right up there.
Then, early in Game 3, he wound up on the business end of the shaft of defenceman Matt Niskanen’s stick and he missed Game 4 —an improbable, inspirational 3-2 win for the Penguins. He managed to come back for Games 5 and 6, both Pittsburgh losses, and looked something considerably less than the player we saw earlier this spring.
In Game 7, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan shuffled Hornqvist off Crosby’s line and brought in Bryan Rust. For the coach, it wasn’t a small move at this juncture. Game 7, though, was a near-complete return to form for Crosby—he’s had many clutch moments but maybe none bigger than this one.
The first and really only necessary goal came midway through the second period and it came off the stick of Rust, as these things seem to do—last year he scored a pair of goals in the Penguins’ Game 7 win over Tampa Bay. Crosby was credited with the second assist but it was a piece of skill that outstripped Rust’s finish.
Crosby found Guentzel with a feathered pass and then went to the net, throwing a moving pick on Niskanen (payback), allowing Rust, who never slept this night, to find the open ice and enough of an opening to beat Washington’s goalie Braden Holtby.
When asked about his return to form, he put it in the team context.
“We knew we had to be more aggressive than we were the last couple of games,” Crosby said. “We got through that first wave there. We were much more on our toes. We got the goal and had some great looks to add on it.”
Eventually they did add on it and you could see the Capitals break into a thousand little pieces after it.
Five minutes into the third, only a goal down, Alexander Ovechkin lost a race to defenceman Justin Schultz for a loose puck at the Washington blue-line. You’d say that for Ovechkin it was a token effort, but only if you haven’t had to buy tokens lately.
Schultz threw the puck over to Patric Hornqvist, who beat Holtby just under the crossbar. It wouldn’t be fair to call it a “shot” so much as a backhand lob from the slot, a complete whiff.
That was the Capitals’ series in a nutshell. Ovechkin was relegated to the third line and yet was still a liability there. Holtby, for all his regular season heroics, looked vulnerable against the Leafs in the first round and effectively let the air out his teammates in the third period in Game 7.
The Capitals managed but five shots in the last 20 minutes and boos rained down on them from fans who thought this was the year Ovechkin et al., would finally make it to the third round.
The Penguins will face the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference final. Excellence: Sidney Crosby versus Erik Karlsson, check. Inspiration: Marc-Andre Fleury versus Craig Anderson, check.
You might think the Senators have no shot of getting out of that series. But after five minutes against the Capitals Wednesday night, you figured the Penguins would be clearing out their lockers on Friday.