Capitals, Jets push Penguins and Preds to the brink
And just in case Alex Ovechkin and his teammates ever forget about their playoff missteps, they need only step in front of a camera or a microphone, where the same questions are posed year after year.
There’s only one way to hop off the hamster wheel: close out the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins this week – preferably at the end of Game 6 Monday night (7 p.m., NBCSN) in Pittsburgh – to earn the franchise’s first trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 20 years.
”I don’t know if I could tell you exactly what it would mean,” Washington forward T.J. Oshie said.
”None of us have ever been there. We’re just looking to get the job done and maybe after we can talk about the feelings. But right now we still got a lot of work to do.”
Work that in the past has proven to be too much. Four previous times during the Ovechkin Era – including in 2009 and 2017 against Pittsburgh – the Capitals have won three games in the second round of the playoffs. It’s that fourth one that’s proven elusive.
No pressure or anything. All Washington has to do to produce a cathartic breakthrough is hand the Penguins their first series loss in 37 months.
Pittsburgh has never lost an elimination game under head coach Mike Sullivan, capturing a pair of Game 7s – including a 2-0 shutout in Washington in the second round – during its run to a second straight Cup last spring and rallying from a 3-2 deficit against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals two years ago.
”They know what it takes to win,” Sullivan said. ”They’re not afraid of challenges and they embrace these types of situations.”
To become the first team in 35 years to earn three consecutive titles, the Penguins don’t really have a choice.
They were the better team for long stretches in Game 5 only to have the Capitals surge past them in the third period for a 6-3 win – the second time in three games Pittsburgh lost in regulation when leading after two, something it didn’t do at all in the regular season.
No matter. Recovering quickly and moving forward has kind of been their thing under Sullivan. The Penguins are 17-5 following a playoff loss with Sullivan on the bench.
Pushing that number to 18-5 would send the series back to Washington and force the Capitals try to explain – again – how this time will be different.
”We knew it was going to be a tight series,” Crosby said. ”We need to make sure we leave it all out there, give ourselves a chance to get back (to Washington).”
At least the Capitals put themselves in position for playoff heartbreak. That’s hardly the case with the Jets, who until a month ago had won exactly zero postseason games in their 18 years of existence and now find themselves one victory away from the Western Conference finals.
Winnipeg has never been this far. Ever. The Jets put themselves in position when they stunned Nashville by scoring four goals in the second period against Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne during a 6-2 romp in ”Smashville” in Game 5, sending them home for Game 6 (9:30 p.m., NBCSN) with a chance to wrap up the series.
Not that the Jets want to talk about it.
”That’s noise. It’s kind of a distraction,” Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said.
”What we’re focused on is what’s given us success all year long, and that’s just finding a way to win one hockey game. If we’re able to do that, then when it’s all said and done you’re reflecting on the season and you’ll think about what you were able to accomplish and the magnitude of the situation. But we can’t make it bigger than a game.”
The Predators, unlike the Jets, have been here before. They faced elimination in the first round against Anaheim in 2016 but came back to advance, triumphing in the crucible of Game 7 for the first time in franchise history in the process.
”It’s pretty simple, we win we keep playing,” Nashville forward Filip Forsberg said. ”If we don’t, we don’t play anymore. Obviously that desperation level is going to be a determining factor for sure.”
It’s a feeling long familiar in Washington. The Capitals received a dose of good news on Sunday when coach Barry Trotz said center Nicklas Backstrom will travel with the team after leaving in the third period of Game 5 with an upper-body injury.
Whoever is on the ice will be forced to shoulder the weight of playoff failures, one Trotz is confident his team is finally ready to shrug off for good.
”I can tell you there’s not a player, a coach, a trainer, ownership, (general manager) who is not trying to do everything they can to win this series,” Trotz said. ”Trust me. We’re trying as hard as we can and at the end of the day that’s all we can promise.”
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
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