Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) makes a save against Washington Capitals Justin Williams (14) during the first period of Game 4 in an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinals in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (Gene Puskar/AP)
PITTSBURGH – A team with Stanley Cup aspirations should have won this game. Let’s start there. The next 900 words are just filler.
The Capitals did not, of course, win this game. The Penguins claimed a 3-2 overtime victory Wednesday night, in the most essential contest Washington has played this season, at least until Saturday rolls around.
The Penguins were without perhaps their least replaceable player in suspended defenseman Kris Letang. The Capitals had supposedly found their game in Monday night’s loss, and pledged to “play Game 4 exactly the way we played Game 3,” as one player put it. They were on the road, but with Letang out, the Caps were actually a betting favorite.
And whether they admitted it or not, they knew this showdown was likely critical to their playoff survival. The surging Penguins haven’t lost three straight games since mid-December. NHL teams with 3-1 series leads win 90 percent of the time. The best team in franchise history wasn’t supposed to be reduced to a Hail Mary before Mother’s Day.
So how was it that the Capitals went more than eight minutes without a shot to start the second period, a near-replay of Game 2’s second-period silence? How was it that they again struggled with discipline, with T.J. Oshie taking a penalty miles from the puck and Karl Alzner getting dinged with a late call? How was it that Washington’s power play continued to look as dangerous as a soggy off-brand paper towel? How was it that the dominance from Monday was gone, and the Capitals were left hoping to win an overtime coin flip?
“We got our fair share of chances toward the end of the game and overtime and we just didn’t cash in at the big moments,” defenseman John Carlson said. “It’s something we’re going to have to do. At this point, you lay it on the line, and that’s not good enough. And now we’ve got to reach back and dig deeper, work harder and lay it on the line a little bit more.”
This, though, was the time to cash in on the big moments. The Penguins had been just 2-8-1 without Letang, who was averaging more ice time than anyone in this series. Washington had lost three straight games itself just once during its record-setting regular season. The Capitals thought they had found a way to impose their style on the Penguins, to control the puck and unleash their combination of strength and skill. That made this night feel like the pivotal moment of the series.
“We didn’t take advantage of it,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
This was a mostly entertaining game between the Eastern Conference’s best two teams, and each had stretches when they controlled the pace. Washington looked out of sorts for much of the early going; the Penguins were on their heels early in the third. The Capitals had no shortage of chances, although it was the Penguins who rung shots off both the crossbar and post.
But the mission wasn’t to create chances, not after Game 3’s flurry of them still led to a loss. The mission was to regain home-ice advantage, to capture a split and to back up all those assurances that things now were finally different.
Indeed, this was a club brimming with confidence in the lead-up to this game, secure that its regular-season resilience, combined with momentum from a strong showing in Game 3, would carry the day. There’s a balance between faith in your abilities and desperation as your opportunities begin running out; this team veered toward faith.
“I think what this group has learned is that you stay to the plan, you execute and do your job well,” Trotz said before the game. “And if you do that, it will turn your way.”
That’s why it was surprising to see the coach make a lineup change before Game 4, turning to gritty veteran defenseman Mike Weber over the younger and swifter Nate Schmidt. Weber was on the ice during Pittsburgh’s game-winning goal, and Washington’s defense was erratic throughout the night, with the Penguins zooming into Washington’s zone with space. Trotz said the game-winner came on “an unlucky play,” but whether Weber was to blame or not, his insertion into the lineup won’t soon be forgotten.
Washington’s season-long “stick to the script” mantra gets more complicated now, because the script has been covered with graffiti and red scribbles. Letang will be back Saturday night. Washington’s power play has been one of its bedrocks, but that unit now is 1 for 12 in this series. And it gets ever more difficult to argue that Vezina Trophy front-runner Braden Holtby gives Washington a significant advantage in net, not when Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray has looked so unshakable. For the second straight game, he stoned breakaway wizard Oshie alone in front of the net, and he out-dueled the more heralded Holtby.
Washington’s comfort with adversity was supposed to be another edge. The Capitals were 27-6-8 in one-goal games during the regular season, the league’s best mark. In the playoffs? They’re now 2-4. They showed backbone, sure, tying the score after Justin Williams won a puck in the corner, and surviving that Alzner penalty despite the absence of two of their top penalty killers. I promise you that those moments will not be fondly recalled if the Caps lose this series.
“We’ve been in some tough spots before,” Alzner said. “It just comes with the job. You find a way to get over it as fast as you can.”
Of course, it isn’t over quite yet. Washingtonians are plenty familiar with blown 3-1 series leads, and the Capitals will get at least one more chance to back up their Presidents’ Trophy. But it’s hard to imagine they won’t look back with regret on this game – against a shorthanded team, and with desperation supposedly on their side.
It’s the kind of game that would have looked great in a Road to the Stanley Cup commemorative book. Because it’s the kind of game a champion might have won.