Up by a goal in Game 5 heading into the final 20 minutes of the game, everything looked like it was coming up roses for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Though they have been out-shot and well out-attempted every game, they were playing the role of opportunistic team backed by stellar goaltending, a perfect recipe to defeat a top team.
Then suddenly and without warning, the opportunities ceased. The Capitals reeled off three straight goals in the 3rd period of Game 5 to take that at home. Game 6 was much of the same, the Penguins could barely generate anything and the now-confident Caps kept pouring it on, jumping out to a 5-0 lead before two garbage time goals for Pittsburgh.
Those 8 straight goals though over Games 5-6 proved the point: Washington's a deep, strong team that has figured out how to bottle up the Penguins in their own zone, and then pick apart Pittsburgh's defense and goaltending.
Still, we head to a Game 7 tomorrow night in Washington. And, as they say, anything can happen in Game 7's. Look back to 2009 for these same teams (though only a handful of players are left). Every game early was so close, in fact the Caps won Game 6 in Pittsburgh to force a Game 7 back in DC and many thought they had all the momentum. Sound familiar? The Pens won a blowout Game 7.
Is that likely this time? Probably not. But here's 3 things the Penguins can do to maximize their chances to move on:
1) Forget the past
This proves to be the easiest and is already underway.
Sullivan: "Got to find ways to re-energize. Can’t let this one affect us. We’re certainly not going to dwell on it, I promise you that" -MC— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) May 9, 2017
There's no denying or avoiding that the Capitals have been a superior team in this series. They're a healthier, stronger side who have confidence and have played very well in the past few games.
However, the Penguins just need to win 1 game. They will be underdogs, but they've got a fighting chance.
2) Figure out personnel
Defensively the Penguins pairings haven't been able to reliably move the puck with control, if at all. It's a huge problem. And it's probably not going to change no matter what. But will Trevor Daley be available (still slowed all playoffs after knee surgery a couple months ago)? Can Mark Streit be an option, even though he's been a healthy scratch all playoffs?
Offensively there should be more strength, but there's as many questions. Conor Sheary has looked lost at times is he still a top-line guy? Will the Pens keep Malkin+Kessel together? Do they pin hopes on HBK to make something happen? There's a lot of strings for Sullivan to pull, and what he tried for Game 6 was a rare swing and a miss for him.
There is no perfect or glaringly obvious "right answer" for Sullivan to make on personnel. But if he makes the right calls (or maybe if the players just step up and execute) that is a huge key for Pittsburgh.
3) Get the first goal
Scoring first doesn't guarantee a victory (like Game 5 where the Pens scored first and still lost), but it sure does give more hope and life for Pittsburgh. With as strong as Washington is, if they jump out to a lead, it's unlikely the Pens are going to be able to rally for a comeback.
The Pens have strong records when they score first; 3-0 these playoffs when leading after one period, 6-1 when winning after 2. The Pens are 6-1 when they score first, 1-3 when they don't. Jumping out means they can lean back on Marc-Andre Fleury and their defensive shell, if it comes to that and to pray it holds out (see Detroit Game 7). That isn't an ideal game plan, but it's sure preferable to playing from behind on the road while having a weaker team on paper.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have a perfect 5-0 road record in Game 7's. This is a franchise that's dealt with adversity before. As mentioned, Crosby/Fleury/Malkin era have won a Game 7 Stanley Cup Final game on the road, as well as a G7 in Washington. They'll need to hit on the keys above and get some good luck to extend their season this time around.