Maybe it is the Washington Capitals' year.
Washington put the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on the brink of elimination Saturday with a 6-3 victory in Game 5 of their second-round playoff series at Capital One Arena.
The Capitals now lead the series 3-2 and took a critical step toward finally putting their Penguin troubles in the rearview mirror. Pittsburgh eliminated Washington in the second round in each of the past two years—as well as 2009—and the Capitals haven't been past the conference semifinals since they lost the Stanley Cup Final in 1998.
Washington received goals from John Carlson and Brett Connolly in the first period, as well as Evgeny Kuznetsov in the third period. But it was the Jakub Vrana and Braden Holtby combination that played the role of hero.
With the contest tied at three in the final five minutes, Holtby stonewalled Brian Dumoulin with an incredible save, which spearheaded a rush in the opposite direction. Vrana buried the game-winner off assists from Alexander Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, completing the comeback after the Penguins took a 3-2 lead and all the momentum into the locker room after the second period.
While Jamie Oleksiak, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist all beat Holtby, the Washington goaltender deserves plenty of credit for keeping his team within striking distance in the middle of the contest before the Vrana and Kuznetsov goals in the final period.
Holtby turned away 36 of the 39 shots he faced, outlasting his counterpart, Matt Murray (26 out of 30), in the game's critical moments. It was another impressive performance for the veteran, who has been a steady presence between the pipes since he replaced Philipp Grubauer—who started both of Washington's losses in the first round to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Just for good measure, the Capitals added open-net goals from T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller to clinch the victory.
Despite the win, it appeared as if the Pittsburgh thorn in Washington's side would remain when Oleksiak buried a slap shot from the blue line to start the scoring.
Washington needed something to swing momentum, and it received just that when Carlson capitalized on a power play by beating Murray top shelf to tie it. The crowd hadn't even settled down when Connolly's shot deflected in a mere 33 seconds later after a tricky bounce slipped past Murray.
A lesser Washington team would have folded, though, when the power-play luck shifted.
Pittsburgh's constant pressure in front of Holtby forced a slashing call on Ovechkin—which led to a Crosby goal—and a Devante Smith-Pelly tripping call—which led to a Hornqvist goal. It was 3-2 Penguins just like that, as Holtby was left largely helpless when his defenders failed to clear the puck on Hornqvist's goal.
Washington could have used right-winger Tom Wilson during the tenuous moments, but he was suspended three games for an illegal hit against Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3. He is typically one to deliver punishing hits and help the Capitals protect a lead, but they worked from behind in the final minutes to seize control of the series.
A defensive breakdown from Pittsburgh in the first minute of the third period left Kuznetsov all alone, and he beat Murray five-hole to tie the contest and give the home team the momentum after the Penguins had largely controlled play with a number of dangerous scoring chances.
It was just the type of Pittsburgh mistake and golden opportunity a Capitals team with its back against the wall needed, and Holtby and Vrana took control from there to earn the win.
The Penguins will need to take advantage of home ice in Monday's Game 6 if they plan on keeping their quest for a three-peat alive against their Metropolitan Division rivals.