Game 6 of the second-round series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight is undoubtedly a crucial match. If the Penguins lose, they’re headed back to Washington for an elimination game on enemy ice. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly going into the game as the Penguins struggle to hold onto a tenuous 3-2 series lead.
The Good: The Return of #43 and #87
After being diagnosed with concussions after two ugly hits in Game 3, Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary were both in the lineup for Game 5. Even beyond that being incredible news for the players’ well-being- with this being Crosby’s second concussion this season, concerns were that it could result in long-lasting damage to his health – it’s great news for the Penguins as well. Each of the two played a full game, with Crosby on the ice for almost twenty minutes and Sheary on the ice for fourteen, the longest he’s played in a game so far this second round.
Both of the players looked solid. Sheary, whose play has been less stellar than usual lately, especially did- so much so that in this morning’s practice, Sheary was back on Crosby’s wing on the Penguins’ top line. Perhaps those few days of rest when he was recovering from the concussion diagnosis helped his flagging performance. This means that Jake Guentzel, who is tied for the league scoring lead with eight goals so far, was shifted back to play on Evgeni Malkin’s wing.
If Sheary and Crosby start connecting like they did in the regular season, when they combined for a total of 44 goals scored during 5-on-5 play when on the ice together, they could be a significant boost to a team looking for an offensive hero this game. They could also open up significant scoring depth for the Penguins now that Guentzel is on the second line and Phil Kessel is on the third.
The Bad: #70 in Red
Braden Holtby looked good last game. Blocking 20 of 22 total shots, his save percentage climbed above .900 for only the second time this series. It’s no coincidence that these two games with higher save percentages by Holtby (.933 and .909) are the two games the Penguins have lost. This save percentage earned him third-star honors in the game – as well as the ability to beat back any chance of the Penguins overcoming a late two-goal deficit.
Stats from last night's 4-2 victory in Game 5. #RockTheRed
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 7, 2017
The Penguins, who have been outshot by large margins every single game, have been relying in large part on Marc-Andre Fleury being incredible and Holtby being human in their respective nets. This has allowed the Penguins to capitalize on their significantly fewer shot opportunities while helping protect them from all the shots against they are allowing. Holtby getting hot is the last thing the Penguins, who have been for the most part out-possessed and out-played this series, want. They aren’t getting enough offensive opportunities to run into a goaltender on top of his game.
The Ugly: A #6-less Blue Line
Trevor Daley is out.
He’s day-to-day with a lower-body injury after an ugly hit from the Capitals’ Tom Wilson, which means the Penguins’ blue line- already severely depleted with the loss of top defender Kris Letang – will take yet another blow. It hasn’t been announced yet who will be replacing Daley. It looks like it might be Chad Ruhwedel based on who was playing with the different units during practice this morning. If so, that means the Penguins would be introducing to the mix a defender with no playoff experience and limited NHL experience in general – certainly not the move the Penguins wanted to be making in an already tenuous series.
The Capitals won on Saturday night largely because of an absolute breakdown in the Penguins’ defense that resulted in two Capitals goals in 27 seconds. Ian Cole and Justin Schultz, who have been two of the Penguins’ top defensemen as of late, each ended as -2 on the night. Brian Dumoulin, who has been playing over twenty minutes per game, is most likely playing hurt. Losing Daley, whose ice time has been crucial to replacing Letang’s, will push the Penguins’ depth to its absolute limits as they once again dip into the AHL to find replacements for their battered ranks.
But hey, sometimes that ends well for everyone- just look at the story of Guentzel. The Penguins are at the very least used to finding clutch players in their minor leagues, and perhaps another will rise up tonight.
The Takeaway: Hope For More Capitals’ Own Goals?
The Penguins need to step up their play if they want to end this series tonight. Not being outshot by such a wide margin, especially if the other goaltender is heating up, would be a good place to start. Crosby and Sheary combining for more shot attempts tonight would make that much easier. Daley being out will make it much more difficult.
Keep an eye out for that hole in the Penguins’ blue line – it’s going to be important. After all, the Penguins really, really don’t want this series going to seven games.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.