EditorsNote: adds quotes
Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on a breakaway 5:27 into overtime, giving the visiting Washington Capitals a 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday and a six-game triumph in the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The Capitals, who won the series 4-2, advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 20 years. They will take on the Tampa Bay Lightning, who beat the Boston Bruins in a five-game semifinal series.
Washington is in the Eastern Conference finals for just the third times in team history, the last being in 1997-98 when it beat the Buffalo Sabres and then lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Capitals also had lost seven consecutive playoff series to Pittsburgh, who won the Stanley Cup the past two seasons.
Alex Ovechkin started the game-winning play by pushing the puck forward through the neutral zone and springing Kuznetsov, who then raced in alone and beat Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray.
“Finally ... we move forward,” said Ovechkin, who will be making his first conference finals appearance. “I think everybody took a step forward for (us tonight). Nobody wants to believe in us. Lots of guys took a huge step forward. I’m just happy right now.”
Washington had to play without Nicklas Backstrom, one of its top offensive threats, due to an upper-body injury. He played only briefly in the third period of Game 5 but was a scratch in Pittsburgh.
Both teams played great defense throughout the game, making shots hard to come by. The Capitals repeatedly clogged up the neutral zone, and Pittsburgh often was effective defensively when Washington found chances.
Murray (28 saves) and Washington goalie Braden Holtby (21 saves) both made several spectacular stops that helped get the game to overtime.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan lauded Murray despite the loss.
“He made some big saves,” Sullivan said. “He gave us a chance to win. That’s all you can ask. He’s a competitor. He’s a real good person that loves this team and he battles.”
The Capitals a took a 1-0 lead in the second period thanks to an Alex Chiasson goal on a short-side shot from Murray’s left at 2:13. Nathan Walker got the primary assist in his first NHL playoff game on a quick pass from behind the goal.
The Penguins tied it on a Kris Letang goal with 8:08 left in the second period. Letang ripped a low slap shot past Holtby from near the blue line.
Both teams had some good scoring chances in the second period, including the Penguins getting two in the final minute, but the Caps escaped the period still tied at 1-1.
Each team also found a bunch of scoring opportunities in the third period, but no one could convert until Kuznetsov’s overtime goal.
And now it’s off to Tampa Bay, the team that finished the regular season on top of the Eastern Conference.
“We don’t feel that much pressure,” said Caps defenseman and former Penguin Brooks Orpik. “Just go out there and lay it out there and see how it goes.
“We’ve gotten this far for a reason.”
—Field Level Media