Washington — Jakub Vrana came to the rink expecting to play on the Capitals’ third line again. He left as a top-liner on top of the world.
Vrana made the most of his promotion to the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, setting up the tying goal and scoring the Game 5 winner as Washington beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3 Saturday night to take a 3-2 lead in the second-round series and put the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions on the brink of elimination.
After replacing an ineffective Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line, the 22-year-old rookie sprung Kuznetsov on the breakaway that tied the score early in the third period and took a pass from Ovechkin and scored the go-ahead goal with 4:38 left to send a fired-up crowd into a frenzy. Vrana made Barry Trotz look like a genius for bumping him up the lineup but wasn’t expecting to be his coach’s plan B.
“That’s just how the game rolls,” said Vrana, who also assisted on Brett Connolly’s first-period goal to give him three points. “Sometimes you’re gonna make changes. Today we did. We were all ready. I felt comfortable out there. Ready for next game.”
That next game, Monday night in Pittsburgh, is the Capitals’ chance to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in the Ovechkin era and for the first time overall since 1998 when they lost in the Cup Final. They may have to do it without star center Nicklas Backstrom, who left in the third period with an upper-body injury that Trotz said the team will have more information on Sunday.
With Backstrom unable to play the final 13 minutes, Lars Eller double-shifted and Vrana looked like a perfect fit with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. The Capitals are on the verge of beating Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins for the first time in four playoff series dating to 2009 on the strength of top-end scoring and goaltending from Braden Holtby, who stopped 36 of the 39 shots he faced.
“Obviously Holts right now playing unbelievable,” Ovechkin said. “He’s a big wall over there. When he play like that, it give us confidence.”
Confidence isn’t lacking on either side. The Capitals hope they can build off an emotional victory, and the Penguins will try to win their fourth consecutive Game 6 after falling behind 3-2 in a series.
“Your desperation level is a little higher,” said Crosby, who scored his ninth goal of the playoffs. “You’re aware of the situation, and that brings out the best in everybody. We knew it was going to be a tight series. We need to make sure we leave it all out there, give ourselves a chance to get back here.”
The Capitals ensured at least one more home game this postseason with goals by John Carlson and Connolly 33 seconds apart in the first period and a rebound effort in the third after being outshot 18-5 in the second. Pittsburgh got goals from Jamie Oleksiak at even strength and Crosby and Patric Hornqvist on the power play, often hanging goalie Matt Murray out to dry as he allowed four on 30 shots.
Kuznetsov’s goal brought out his bird-flapping celebration and awakened a crowd that booed the Capitals at the end of the second period. Vrana’s goal was followed by deafening chants of “Lets’ Go Caps!” at the next timeout, among the loudest in the building over Washington’s decade-long run of contention.
“Tonight was one of those games where we needed to earn it from our fans,” Holtby said. “They probably think ‘Here we go again’ and we’re not thinking that. We’re thinking we’re pushing forward, we’re focusing on the moment and hopefully we gave them belief with that third period because this group in here believes in ourselves.”
Western Conference semifinals
Winnipeg 6, (at) Nashville 2: Kyle Connor scored two goals and had an assist as the Jets beat the Predators, pushing the Presidents’ Trophy winners to the brink of elimination with a 3-2 lead in their Western Conference semifinal.
Now the Jets, who just won their first playoff series in the first round, will have a chance to clinch a spot in their first Western Conference final Monday night in Game 6 back in Winnipeg.
Connor Hellebuyck made 38 saves for the Jets.
Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Scheifele each had a goal and an assist, and Paul Stastny and Mathieu Perrault also scored as the Jets got four goals on 14 shots in the second period. Blake Wheeler also had three assists, and Nikolaj Ehlers added two.
Yannick Weber and Ryan Johansen each scored for Nashville. The Predators have not won consecutive games since taking a 2-0 lead over Colorado to start the playoffs.
Pekka Rinne, Nashville’s Vezina Trophy finalist, was pulled for the third time this postseason after giving up six goals on 26 shots.
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