PITTSBURGH — After two mediocre showings last week, the Washington Capitals promised a better effort as their second-round playoff series shifted to Pennsylvania. They instead delivered domination. Washington more than doubled the Pittsburgh Penguins’ shot total. The Capitals threw not just a few wrenches but some screwdrivers and pliers into Pittsburgh’s offensive machine. They blitzed a young netminder, hovered around his net and managed to crescendo their already fierce attack into a final-minute symphony of chances.
“They had the puck all night and we didn’t,” Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan said.
“That’s our game” Washington Coach Barry Trotz said. “If we can stay with that game, that’ll be our game.”
Here’s the punchline: Washington lost, 3-2. And so, domination or not, the Capitals are staring at the ledge. Another loss here Wednesday night, and they’ll be teetering over that edge, trying to grab at any outcrop or Terrible Towel on their way down. Their effort in Game 3 reeked of urgency. Now they have to do it again.
“You just do the right things and you keep pounding the rock; you pound the rock and you’ll get results,” Trotz said. “You’ve just got to believe in your plan. I think we believe in our plan.”
On this night, though, the plan didn’t come through. The culprits were easily identified: a few devastating defensive lapses, a couple of bad bounces, and a young goalie named Matt Murray, who made a career-high 47 saves. Washington fell behind early thanks to a pair of fluke goals: one after the Penguins retrieved a floating puck in their offensive zone and another off the back of Tom Kuhnhackl, whose shoulder blade has somehow become as dangerous a weapon as Alex Ovechkin’s stick blade.
Such flukes balance out over an 82-game season. They can be debilitating in a short series, when the hockey gods can’t promise a payback goal off Daniel Winnik’s rear end. And as well as the Capitals played Monday, they’ll be forced to replicate the effort in a game with greater stakes.
“You can’t really focus on the results of this one; you’ve got to focus on what we did,” Washington goalie Braden Holtby said. “In order to win a seven-game series, you have to make sure you have that every single game. Sometimes the pucks aren’t going to go your way. That’s hockey. That’s life in general. It’s just that way. So we have to battle back next game and make sure we have the same effort, the same focus.”
If you ignore panic and fear, there’s every reason to think the Caps should fare well on Wednesday. Their relentless Game 3 push created too many terrific chances to count: T.J. Oshie in front of the net, Nicklas Backstrom on a succulent rebound, Justin Williams off the goal post, Oshie and Ovechkin on the doorstep, a hailstorm of lasers in the dying minutes.
Then there’s the matter of Kris Letang, Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, who managed to do the one thing he absolutely needed to avoid: launching his shoulder into the head of a puckless opponent.
Marcus Johansson returned to the game after taking that blow, which in the wacky world of NHL justice may lessen Letang’s punishment. But after Washington’s Brooks Orpik was given a three-game suspension for a similar offense, and after Trotz already suggested the league was showing favoritism to Pittsburgh, it’s possible Letang might be missing on Wednesday. Pittsburgh’s record without Letang this season? Try 2-8-1.
The problem is the Capitals have now already delivered the performance they’d been promising, and it didn’t lead to a win. They discombobulated Pittsburgh’s fluid offense, which was almost never dangerous. They sent traffic and pucks to the net. Their passing was crisper, and their physical play more effective. This was the showing they had talked about Monday morning.
“We have yet to play our best hockey,” forward Tom Wilson said then. “We know that we can play better, and when we do, watch out, because it’s going to be a pretty mean Caps team once we put it all together here.”
They put almost all of it together on Monday, especially in the offensive zone. But Pittsburgh’s first goal came on a bouncing deflection after Washington couldn’t get the puck out of its zone. Its second goal came after Nicklas Backstrom failed to control a puck in the neutral zone. Its third goal came when Nate Schmidt was unable to clear a puck.
“Got beat by a couple unlucky bounces,” Holtby said.
“A couple lucky bounces,” forward Marcus Johansson offered, reversing the description.
Perfection might be too much to ask, but the fluke goals came on real chances that Washington could have snuffed out before they developed.
And while the Caps rallied so often in the regular season — once erasing a 3-0 deficit against these same Penguins — their late onslaughts haven’t been rewarded in the postseason. The Caps are now 1-4 in the playoffs when giving up the first goal and 0-4 when trailing after two periods. That’s a reversal from the regular season, when they rallied to win or force overtime 11 of the 22 times they faced a second-intermission deficit.
They also continued to have issues with discipline, with Williams taking two offensive-zone penalties. And they haven’t rattled the 21-year-old Murray, who has stopped 60 of the last 62 shots he faced. Goaltending was supposed to be one of Washington’s big advantages in this series. Murray has upended that assumption.
Again, the Caps played well enough to win, no matter what the scoreboard read. If they continue to outshoot the Penguins like that — the tally was 49-23 on Monday — they will win eventually.
“Eventually,” though, has a limited lifespan in the postseason. The Caps came to Pittsburgh looking for a split, and despite their incessant attack in Game 3, they’re now out of wiggle room. That takes us to the issue of urgency, one of Trotz’s buzzwords.
“You can’t create urgency sometimes,” Trotz said of the Philadelphia Flyers, when they staved off elimination in the last round. “They don’t have any room for error, and that allows you to play at a level that is an extreme.”
The Caps played well on Monday, certainly well enough to win. But a few mistakes, a brilliant goalie and a fourth-liner’s goal-scoring back meant good enough wasn’t enough. By Wednesday, Washington’s room for error will be smaller, and their already frantic level had better move closer to extreme. Because it’s a lot harder to remain optimistic when you’re one step closer to the ledge.