Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins leaves the ice with trainer Chris Stewart after taking a hit in the first period while playing the Washington Capitals in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on May 1, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — Down, but not out. That’s where Capitals defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was before Monday night’s Game 3 in Pittsburgh, which Washington entered trailing in this playoff series two games to none.
Shattenkirk was a team-worst minus-seven through eight playoff games and both he and coach Barry Trotz had said that he needed to be better.
Shattenkirk can throw that plus-minus out the window, now. His first goal of the playoffs, scored 3:13 into overtime after the Capitals gave up a 2-0 lead with two minutes left in regulation, won the game at PPG Paints Arena, savedWashington from going down 3-0 in the series, and beat down this team’s spring demons that seemed to have risen yet again.
The Capitals had all but won it, it seemed, with less than two minutes to go in regulation and a two-goal lead.Pittsburgh’s best player, Sidney Crosby, was off the ice, hurt. Then Evgeni Malkin scored, Pittsburgh took a timeout, and Justin Schultz scored again.
“First one I didn’t see anything. Just was right by Karl [Alzner],” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Just one of those shots, he makes a good shot. Second one was just a bad bounce. [T.J. Oshie] was kind of in the lane, shot it kind of wide, off to the side, probably a deflection. Hit his stick, hit the ice or something else and it’s just, you know, those things happen.”
As 19,000 terrible towels twirled with glee, the Capitals trudged off the ice and prepared to regroup for overtime after a meltdown all too familiar for this franchise in May.
Crosby was gone after a brutal collision with Matt Niskanen left him motionless on the ice for some time in the first period. Crosby was bent over on himself as he skated, gingerly, off the ice. He missed the rest of the game and is being evaluated overnight. It is unclear when he will return to the series.
If Crosby misses significant time, that will be the worst loss the Penguins suffered Monday.
Crosby was skating in front of the Capitals net when Ovechkin got him in the back of the head with his stick. Niskanen was already bracing for impact when Crosby began to fall and, by the time the two actually collided, Crosby caught Niskanen’s cross-check in the head. Crosby has a history of concussions and has already had one this season.
Niskanen was given a five-minute major and game misconduct, sending him to the locker room for the remainder of the game.
Any significant injury can not, by definition, be considered good fortune, but the Penguins were suddenly in a position familiar to the Capitals in the playoffs: One where everything is going wrong. It seemed that way for 58 minutes of regulation.
The Capitals survived the five-minute major, which was tempered by a two-minute minor on Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, without allowing a goal.
Trotz elected to dress seven defensemen for the game, adding Alzner back into the lineup in place of Paul Carey, which left him playing with 11 forwards.
Alzner had missed the previous six games with an undisclosed upper-body injury but had been practicing, which led to speculation that he was being held out not entirely due to his health.
Alzner took warmups and, at game-time, he was in the lineup. That decision paid off in an unexpected way: Without Niskanen, Trotz would have otherwise been left with five defensemen had Alzner been scratched.
“I didn’t expect him to play as much but he played very very well,” Trotz said of Alzner. “He did a really good job. And from that standpoint, good on us to have 7D.”
The Penguins, incensed over the loss of their captain, followed up Crosby’s exit with a few good rushes and a pair of costly penalties. Carl Hagelin was called for hi-sticking after 11:28 and, less than a minute later, Bryan Rust was called for delaying the game. The Capitals got 1:17 of five-on-three to work with, and they didn’t need all of it. After 54 methodical seconds around the Pittsburgh net, Nicklas Backstrom banked the puck off defenseman Ian Cole’s chest and scored.
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who was benched during Saturday’s 6-2 loss, made 28 saves, a handful of which had a degree-of-difficulty in the stratosphere. Holtby was particularly excellent with his boots and his glove. He also got an assist in the first period from left winger Daniel Winnik, who saved a goal by getting his stick on a wraparound shot by Rust just before it crossed the goal-line.
Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz nearly evened the score early in the second period. His would-be goal was upheld upon review, but overturned after Trotz challenged that there was goalie interference on the play that knocked Holtby’s net out of place.
Holtby and the Capitals weathered three penalties in the second period. By the eye test they were chasing, but go figure. The Capitals were dominant for parts of Games 1 and 2 and came away with nothing to show for it.
“Your best penalty killer is your goaltender I thought Braden was outstanding today. Kept the puck out, they had some really good lucks and he found a way,” Trotz said.
Center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal in the third period that stretched the lead to 2-0 came via a play with linemates Marcus Johanssen and Justin Williams that required the most deliberate patience. It seemed that Washington had rebounded from Saturday’s loss with commendable poise, before they fell to pieces in the final minutes and needed Shattenkirk to play the hero.
It is hard to tell if this win strengthened the theory that the Capitals are destined for playoff failure or contradicted it but, either way, they will take it. Wins are hard to come by in the playoffs, whether or not you’re being chased by ghosts.
The Capitals remain in Pittsburgh for the time being. Game 4 is scheduled for Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. They have assured themselves at least one more home game.