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Jakub Vrana leads Capitals to Game 5 win with top-line heroics

May 6, 2018

Barry Trotz’s had a “Plan B” for his top line, and it panned out.

Rookie forward Jakub Vrana was moved from the third line to the top mid-game, recorded one of his two assists after the switch and scored the go-ahead goal. As a result, the Washington Capitals are a win away from the Eastern Conference Finals after a 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday night at Capital One Arena.

Devante Smith-Pelly started the game on the top line in Tom Wilson’s place, but Trotz swapped him for Vrana midway through the second.

Evgeny Kuznetsov posted a game-tying goal and an assist and John Carlson, Brett Connolly, T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller also scored for the Capitals. Braden Holtby saved 36 shots.

When a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoff series starts out tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 goes on to win the series 78.9 percent of the time (202-54). The Capitals will have two chances to finish off the Penguins, starting with Game 6, Monday night in Pittsburgh.

The action in the opening minutes matched and heightened the building’s noticeable pre-game energy. The first two minutes alone saw Alex Ovechkin take the first shot of the game on a bang-bang chance and Holtby stand on his head on a Penguins rush to force Riley Sheahan’s shots wide.

But it was Pittsburgh D-man Jamie Oleksiak who opened scoring in the third minute. Derick Brassard recovered a puck from the left corner and sent it to Oleksiak for a blue-line one-timer.

Late in the first, on the Capitals’ second power play of the evening, Carlson scored on a slap shot from the high slot, assisted by Kuznetsov and Oshie.

Washington rode that wave into 5-on-5 hockey and struck again 33 seconds later. The Capitals scraped a puck out of a left-corner scrum and Vrana hit Connolly by the left circle for a goal.

But back-to-back penalties in the second period nearly doomed Washington. Ovechkin was called for his second slashing penalty of the night in the early minutes of the second period, and the Penguins used the window to tie it. Phil Kessel’s shot hit Sidney Crosby’s elbow and redirected past Holtby’s glove.

On the next power play, brought on by a Smith-Pelly tripping, Patric Hornqvist shoved a puck in the crease under Holtby’s pads. The Capitals have allowed a power-play goal in every game since their streak of 22 kills was broken in Game 3.

Midway through the second, Barry Trotz enacted “Plan B,” swapping Smith-Pelly with Jakub Vrana on the top line. Playing on the third line, Smith-Pelly contributed his second tripping penalty.

Although Washington took eight of the game’s first 10 shots, Pittsburgh caught up and outshot the Capitals 31-18 through two periods. By the third period, Smith-Pelly temporarily was dropped to the fourth line with Jay Beagle and Shane Gersich.

In the first minute of the third, Vrana found Kuznetsov behind two defenders and hit him with a long pass up the ice. Kuznetsov dangled and snuck it past Matt Murray to tie the game at three.

At 15:22 into the third, Vrana put the Capitals back on top when Ovechkin took the puck on a rush just past the goal line, deked and flipped it to Vrana in the slot. Murray had his back to the play as Vrana’s easy wrist shot triggered roars in the rafters.

Oshie and Eller tacked on empty-net goals in the last 90 seconds.