Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, a goalie decision and the return of two defensemen are X factors in Game 6 of the Penguins-Capitals series.
Questions asked, and answered, ahead of tonight's must-see Game 6 showdown between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins (8:00 ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS):
What will Brooks Orpik's return mean?
Stability on Washington's back end, and not a moment too soon. Orpik's three-game suspension for his late hit on Olli Maatta in Game 2 started a revolving door on the blue line. Nate Schmidt stepped in for Game 3, but his costly turnover led to him being scratched for Game 4. Mike Weber dressed for that contest, but coughed up the puck on Pittsburgh's game-winning goal and was benched for Game 5. The Caps' third pair survived that one without any major gaffes, but got hammered in the possession battle—a fight they can't afford to lose in Game 6.
Orpik's return isn't a cure-all, but it solidifies the top-four and brings a much-needed physical presence down low. That should make life easier on Braden Holtby, who had to battle through more traffic than usual while Orpik was out. It also allows for a Taylor Chorney/Dmitry Orlov combo on a third pair that, while not ideal, is preferable to what coach Barry Trotz trotted out in his absence.
And a hint of menace can go a long way this time of year, too. The Pens might be more inclined to rush a play if they know Orpik is in the vicinity and it only takes one mistake to change the course of a game.
Will Olli Maatta return as well?
The Pens are calling him a game-time decision, but count on Maatta (upper body) being in the lineup. He worked on both his regular pair alongside Trevor Daley and on the second power-play unit in practice on Monday and took part in this morning's optional skate. He should be good to go.
Like Orpik, Maatta's return will have a trickle down effect. Now only does he solidify his pairing, bringing mobility, positioning and a reliable defensive game, his presence means a sharper third pair as well.
If he's in, look for Justin Schultz to sit.
Did Pens' coach make right call in net?
Absolutely. The 21-year-old wasn't at his best in Game 5, surrendering three goals on 19 shots in the 3–1 loss, but Matt Murray has gotten the Pens to within one win of the Eastern Conference Finals, going 6-2 with a 1.96 GAA. He's already closed out one series, and has earned the trust of his coach and his teammates to do it again.
Marc-André Fleury is fully recovered from the concussion symptoms that have sidelined him for the postseason and is good to go at any moment. This, though, isn't that moment. The veteran hasn't played since March 31, so throwing him in now would be a bit of a Hail Mary. Better to keep him on the bench as Plan B until there's a real sign of trouble from Murray.
Will the Pens' stars finally break out?
Sidney Crosby has provided a strong defensive presence in this series. And Evgeni Malkin has had moments when he's looked capable of taking over the contest. No one's questioning the effort. But here we are, five games into this series, and Crosby has two secondary assists and Malkin has a goal and an assist. These are impact players whose impact to this point has been minimal.
Meanwhile, Washington's Alex Ovechkin has two goals and three assists in the series and is coming off a dominant performance in Game 5 that was everything you'd want from a big player facing a big moment. He did all those little things, just like Sid. But he also scored a goal and added an assist, both on the power play, to key Washington's 3–1 win. And with the Caps' season on the line again tonight, you can count on another follow-me-boys effort from the Great 8. (For what it's worth, Ovechkin has 10 points in 10 career Games 6.)
That puts the pressure on Crosby and/or Malkin to match.
It's hard to believe that Crosby, who was Pittsburgh's best player throughout the first-round win over the Rangers, can be kept off the board much longer. He's averaging just over two shots per game in this series, down from slightly more than three during the regular season. If he gets more pucks to the net, he'll get results tonight.
Can the Caps score at even strength?
Washington has been aces on the power play during the postseason. Even strength? Not so much. The Caps have averaged just 1.09 goals per game at evens during the playoffs after scoring 2.02 during the regular season.
Why is that happening? Look no further than the struggles of Evgeny Kuznetsov. Like Crosby, Washington's top regular-season scorer has been snakebit in this series ... except in his case, the slump has lasted the entire playoffs. Through 11 games, he's yet to score a single point at five-on-five.
The fancy stats suggest he's been largely effective but the bounces haven't gone his way, or the way of his linemates. Over a larger group of games his luck would probably even out and his 3% shooting percentage would trend closer to the 10.4% he shot during the regular season. But this is the time of year when small samples are the only ones that matter, and Kuznetsov is coming up short.
He can't wait for those bounces to start coming his way. He, along with Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Andre Burakovsky, have to do more to create them. For his wingers, that means getting more pucks to the net and following them with grim determination. But for Kuznetsov, it might mean looking to pass first. As counterintuitive as that sounds, he needs to lean on his strengths to be at his best. And that means setting up his linemates with top-tier chances. If he can do that, the Caps will get the five-on-five breakthrough they need.