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Capitals finally make good on owning play, and hope is it’s a sign of what’s to come

Despite dominating play, Washington had come up empty handed in three of the first four games against Pittsburgh. But the Capitals’ breakthrough Saturday might be a sign their luck is about to change.

It wouldn’t be fair to say Capitals fans sitting in the Verizon Center or glued to their TVs on Saturday evening were entirely without hope as the third period began. That said, there was reason to be wary about the chance their beloved Washington club could mount a third-period comeback. After all, in the regular season, few teams were better at sealing the deal when holding a lead after two frames than the Penguins. Only twice during the regular season did Pittsburgh lose when entering the third with a lead.

But in yet another game where the Capitals had persistent pressure, dominated the flow of play and continuously tested Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, there was finally a breakthrough. It started with Nicklas Backstrom’s game-tying goal less than three minutes into the third, was followed up by Evgeny Kuznetsov’s go-ahead goal four and a half minutes later and capped off 20 seconds after that when Alexander Ovechkin made no mistake on a second-chance effort, wiring home an insurance marker. Three goals in five minutes and the Capitals had turned the tables on the Penguins, snatching back Game 5 after it appeared set to slip through their fingers.

You can say what you will for Washington’s unwillingness to drop the series in five games or the heart and effort and desire and all the intangibles that went into defeating a team that has done so well to close out games in the final frame, but the truth is we should have been expecting a game like this to come at some point in the series. Maybe not exactly in such a fashion, with the Capitals firing home three goals in five minutes in the third period to stave off elimination, but certainly one where the Washington offense broke through and powered a victory.

Since the start of the series, the one thing that has been abundantly clear is that the Penguins are having an awfully tough time hanging with the Capitals when it comes to the possession game. In fact, it hasn’t even really been all that close. Washington has been dominant in a way that no other club in the second round has, which is somewhat shocking given the Capitals are up against a team that was, for some, the favorite to win the Stanley Cup for the second-straight season and remains the favorite as we head towards Game 6.

Through five games thus far, the Capitals have managed to boast a 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage of 63.2 percent. The next-best possession team in the second round is the Anaheim Ducks, but they’ve only managed 55.6 percent of the shot attempts at five-a-side. Washington’s dominance when both teams are at full strength has manifested itself in the shots on goal totals, which are tilted heavily in the Capitals’ favor. Across the five contests, coach Barry Trotz’s squad has managed 134 shots on goal. As for the Penguins, they’ve only put 84 pucks on net at 5-on-5, which is far and away the fewest of any team in the second round, especially when you consider the Anaheim Ducks have fired nearly twice as many in roughly 27 extra minutes of play. The Capitals' dominance was again the case in Game 5, too. Washington boasted 54.8 percent of the shot attempts and scored all four of their goals at 5-on-5.

It’s not just shots on goal where the Capitals are dominating, though, because putting so much rubber Fleury’s way has also resulted in a sizeable advantage in scoring chances. Washington has 30 chances and just 19 against at 5-on-5, good for a scoring chances for percentage of 61.2. In addition, 23 shots on goal have come from the so-called high-danger area of the ice. In Saturday's game, Washington had eight chances to Pittsburgh's five, and Fleury was tested 19 times from mid- and high-danger areas. Capitals netminder Braden Holtby saw only 11 shots against of the same difficulty. So, given how much pressure the Capitals have been putting on Fleury and the Penguins’ defense, it seemed only a matter of time before Washington’s offense was the difference-maker in an outing. The question now is whether the Capitals’ offense can sustain their play as we head towards a crucial Game 6 and potentially series-deciding Game 7.

Given what we’ve seen over the course of the post-season and this second round series, the obvious answer is that, yes, with the depth of talent up front and the strength on the backend, there’s little reason to believe all that much is going to change in terms of Washington’s run of play. The Capitals should be able to continue to take the game to the Penguins, controlling possession and generating shots and chances against Fleury. Actually getting pucks past the Pittsburgh netminder could be a different story, however.

Through the first four games of the series, Washington had only managed to beat Fleury nine times on 142 shots. He had turned in a sparkling .937 save percentage against the Capitals, stopping 30 or more pucks as the Penguins rushed out to a 3-1 lead. But the fifth game of the series was the first time the Washington offense really poked holes in Fleury, the first time they really managed to rattle his cage with successive scores. 

When Game 5 ended, Fleury had managed to stop 28 of the 32 shots that came his way, but he was beaten clean twice in the final frame and three times in the contest — once low over the right pad by Andre Burakovsky, once low over the left pad by Backstrom and once high over the left shoulder by Ovechkin. That gels more with what the Capitals were able to manage against Fleury in the regular season, too, as they beat him 11 times on 95 shots across two outings. Saturday was the first time in the series Fleury posted a sub-.900 SP, though, and while it would seem foolish to suggest one game means the Capitals have suddenly figured out how to beat this seemingly new-look playoff Fleury, blasting four pucks past the netminder is a positive sign for Washington. 

Winning three-straight against this Penguins team, one that lost three in a row only twice all season, was never going to be easy and needing to do so is an unenviable position to be in. However, if there’s a team that’s capable of doing so and one who has proven through five-straight games that they can dictate play against the mighty Penguins, it’s these Capitals. And the hope in Washington has to be that Saturday’s performance was the spark the Capitals needed to mount a season-defining comeback.

(All advanced stats via Corsica)

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