Like Kuznetsov did in 2014, Vrana has made his presence known with the definitive performance of his young NHL career with the Washington Capitals: He set up the game-tying goal and scored the game-winning goal in a Game 5 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.
“When it’s your first time playing in the playoffs and the coach moves you onto the top line and you play against top guys and you made one goal, one assist … I don’t have to say anything about him. He said it about himself,” Kuznetsov said.
Vrana, 22, was the unlikely hero of Game 5, assisting on Kuznetsov’s tying breakaway goal 52 seconds into the third period and then scoring the game winner with 4:38 left.
The Capitals defeated the Penguins 6-3, earning the chance to eliminate their postseason tormentors on Monday in Pittsburgh.
Vrana wasn’t playing with Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin when the game started. That honor went to Devante Smith-Pelley, who was moved to the Capitals’ top line after forward Tom Wilson was suspended for a hit that broke the jaw of Pittsburgh forward Zach Aston-Reese in Game 2.
But Smith-Pelley was ineffective on the Ovechkin line, which failed to generate an even-strength goal with him through four periods. In Game 4, Ovechkin was even held without a shot.
In the second period of Game 5, coach Barry Trotz made his move, swapping Vrana for Smith-Pelley. “I had a Plan B and C and D today,” Trotz said. “I think [Vrana] settled into this series, settled into the playoffs. He’s a good young player. He has dynamic speed, he can make something offensively happen, for sure.”
That he did — and when the Capitals needed it most.
The Penguins had a 3-2 lead entering the third period. They were 4-1 in the playoffs with a lead after two periods and were 24-0-2 in the regular season. But Vrana found Kuznetsov with a long outlet pass, exploiting a defensive lapse by Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, for a breakaway goal just 52 seconds into the period.
“I usually don’t score on the breakaways. I don’t [know] how to score. That one, I was very confident, and I know where I go,” Kuznetsov said.
Vrana’s goal later in the period capped an incredible sequence for Washington. Goalie Braden Holtby was often brilliant in making 36 saves, but none was more critical than his stop on a pinching Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin in the slot late in the third period.
“I jumped in, had a great play. Obviously, if I score there, it’s a different game,” Dumoulin said.
Instead, Ovechkin was off to the races with Vrana, taking advantage of the Penguins’ having a forward back on defense after Dumoulin’s play near the Capitals goal. Ovechkin veered to the right and sent a deflected pass to Vrana, who tucked it into a gaping net.
“Obviously, it feels really f—ing good,” Vrana said. “I try to stay cool. [Ovechkin] make a great play there. He just put it in front of the net. I was driving the net hard, try to get the rebound.”
For one game, Trotz could take satisfaction knowing that the buttons he pushed to get his top line going worked to perfection. Not only did the move to Vrana spark the Capitals’ rally, but his decision to play Ovechkin and Kuznetsov against Evgeni Malkin‘s line, rather than the Sidney Crosby line like they did in previous games, energized them.
“It was more of a challenge to them,” Trotz said. “They knew they could be better, and they were. They didn’t have the right stuff the other day, and tonight they had the right stuff. I thought the Malkin line was dangerous in Pittsburgh, and I challenged Kuzy and Ovi to step up tonight.”
Like his star captain, Barry Trotz has never appeared in a championship round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Capitals are now one win away from reaching that uncharted territory and one win away from eliminating their archrivals in Pittsburgh. Taking Game 6 won’t be easy, and the Capitals left the arena after Game 5 with concerns about two players in particular: center Nicklas Backstrom, who left the game due to a lingering upper body injury, and defenseman John Carlson, who was hit high by Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel near the end of the game.
Trotz said after the Wilson suspension that the NHL needs to take a serious look at the Guentzel hit: “John took a high hit. He was unsuspecting, with about a minute left. He’s being evaluated right now. I know the standard’s been set, so I’m going to leave it up to the league. It was a head shot in my opinion.”
Were there to be any supplemental discipline for that hit, it would be another unexpected twist in a series that has been filled with them, including, for example, the Washington Capitals’ being up 3-2 against the Pittsburgh Penguins and having a rookie forward to thank mostly for it.
“I’m really happy for today, but I try to stay cool,” Vrana said. “Next game is huge. We got it done today, but next game is huge.”