The champions are up against the ropes and the Washington Capitals are ready to whale away with a quarter-century of pent-up frustration behind every punch to the body of their longtime nemesis.
Should the Penguins be concerned? Yes. Worried? Probably not.
The Penguins have been down this road far too many times for that.
As Mike Sullivan said Sunday: “What we’re looking at is going out and winning one hockey game and that’s all we need to do. I know we’re very capable of that. We’re not looking beyond it, we’re not looking behind it."
Win tonight, and all the pressure — and the frustration — is back on the Capitals.
1. Got Crosby?
Since entering the league together in the fall of 2005, comparisons between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were inevitable.
They are the faces of the league and its most intriguing personal rivalry. They've met in international competition and now four times in postseason play. Thing is, the Penguins captain has always — always — gotten the better of Ovechkin.
This will be the third time that Ovechkin will have a chance to end Crosby's season — after facing off in Game 7s in 2009 and 2017 — but this is the first time that the Russian will have two chances to get it done. Historically, teams with a 3-2 series lead have an 80 percent chance of winning the series.
Given their pasts — one as the ultimate champion and the other the perennial bridesmaid — it's still hard to count Crosby out.
But it's difficult to envision exactly how he can elevate his game any higher than he already has in these playoffs, and this series in particular. Yet somehow you have to think he will. It's what he does.
Crosby is second in both goals (9) and points (20) to only teammate Jake Guentzel. He has been on the ice for 12 of the 13 goals the Penguins have scored against Washington, including this goal in Game 5, a Phil Kessel shot that went in off his glove:
Obviously the Penguins would like to get more secondary scoring — and saw a few positive signs in Game 5 — but the best weapon is having the best player in the world.
2. Win it for the kid.
Since his three-game suspension went down prior to Game 4, Tom Wilson has remained in the shadows. He can usually be found standing outside the Capitals dressing room wearing high-end suits and a scowl, not this mischievous smile:
But Wilson hasn't been forgotten in Washington. Along the glass at Capital One Arena prior to Game 5 on Saturday, Capitals fans donned his No. 43 jersey backwards and held up signs that read "Free Willy." The game before that, T.J. Oshie — hardly a goon, and by all accounts a solid citizen — was saying how his teammates wanted to "win the game" for Wilson.
Well, what about Zach-Aston Reese, the player who Wilson tried to decapitate with an illegal hit?
The Penguins primary objective to win is to chase down a third straight Stanley Cup championship, of course, but if they need any extra motivation they should play for Aston-Reese.
Should the Penguins win tonight to force Game 7 in Washington, Wilson will be paroled. Aston-Reese's future is unclear at best. He suffered a concussion and broken jaw that required surgery and hasn't been seen in the five days since.
In Jakub Vrana, who scored the game-winner in Game 5, the Capitals seemed to have found a player who can fill Wilson's spot on the top line with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Vrana doesn't bring Wilson's size or tenacity, but his speed brings a different element that the Penguins will need to contend with.
3. Must bear down defensively.
Saturday night's Game 5 was a microcosm of Kris Letang's season. There are moments of sheer athletic brilliance followed by, for lack of a better description, brain cramps. Letang's decision-making, more than anything physical or injury-related, has been most troublesome this season.
The 31-year-old has 10 points — three of them on the power play — in 11 games this spring to rank fourth among all defensemen. Though he's an even player, for what plus-minus is worth, he's also been on the ice for far too many odd-man breaks and goals off the rush. All of them at crucial times.
• Game 1, he was on the ice for both Kuznetsov's 2-0n-1 and Ovechkin's breakaway in the opening minute of the first and third periods.
• Game 2, he was on the ice for the Ovechkin goal 1:26 in.
• Game 3, he was on the ice for Ovechkin's game-winner on a 2-on-1 with 1:07 to play.
• Game 5, he was on the ice for Kuznetsov's breakaway :52 into the third period:
No, Letang isn't at fault for all of the above — the Penguins still have a goalie whose job it is to stop the puck — but any goal in the opening or final minute of a period can be backbreaking. They have been for the Penguins.
More than any game they've played this spring, the Penguins desperately need a good start tonight. Expect Washington to come out looking to land a knockout blow early.
Letang is averaging 24:58 this spring, but played "just" 23:17 in Game 5, his least since Game 2 in the first round. In those critical 90 seconds to start and end periods, Sullivan might want to lean a little more on his second and third pairs.
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