Thursday, May 04, 2017

For Caps, just another ‘bad bounce’ for a pantheon filling up fast with them

 It’s a terrible state of existence when every odd bounce that works against you has to be woven into the tapestry as part of some generations-long drama — and a depressing one at that. But it is the very existence of the Washington Capitals, and who knows when — or if — that will change. Welcome, then, Dmitry Orlov and his right skate to this disaster. They’re part of the story now, like it or not.
This is what you need to know: Orlov, one of the Capitals’ very own defensemen, deflected the puck into his own net Wednesday night. He was not pressured to do so. There were no Pittsburgh Penguins within three rivers of him. Goalie Braden Holtby was happy to allow Orlov to play the puck, to clear the puck, to do anything other than — oh, I don’t know — kick the puck into his own yet.
Yet that’s just what Orlov did.
“It was just bad bounce,” Orlov said. “I don’t think if he [was] going to, like, throw 20, 30, 40 pucks — I don’t think it’s going to go in.”
Yet these are the Capitals. So, somehow, it did.
Mull that over for a bit. While your brain is thawing out, we’ll get to the impact of it all.
The Capitals lost, 3-2, in the fourth game of their second-round playoff series against the Penguins. They now trail the series 3-1. The Penguins won the game without Sidney Crosby, their captain and their conscience, who sat out with a concussion. To save their season, the Capitals must win Saturday night in Washington just to force a Game 6 on Monday in Pittsburgh, which they must win just to force a Game 7 next week back in D.C., which they must win to have any hope of altering their national reputation as chokers.
“Right now, it’s Game 7 every game for us,” said captain Alex Ovechkin, who was — rightly — critical of his own lousy play Wednesday.
The Capitals will point to a thousand little things that cost them Game 4 before they hang Orlov out to dry. “We overcame it,” Justin Williams actually said.
What we do know: If the world ends and it does so without the Capitals winning a Stanley Cup, Orlov’s own goal will be preserved in the time capsule sent to other civilizations to explain the Capitals’ entire tenure on Earth. Not many more details will be needed, and it won’t matter whether the aliens understand English — or Russian. Watch that clip. That’s about the extent of what you need to know.
This isn’t to blame Orlov for the loss. Freaky things happen in hockey, in the playoffs. It’s all rather maddening.
But it can’t feel coincidental that this happened to a player wearing a Capitals sweater. It might be coincidental. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like it’s springtime, and the Caps had the best record in the sport during the regular season — again — and they outshot Pittsburgh 38-18, and they lost anyway at least in part because one of their own players kicked the puck into his own net.
“It’s kind of just a perfect storm,” Holtby said.
This hurricane, then, feels like it’s raged for 40 years.
The play in question came with the Penguins holding a 1-0 lead, but with the Capitals right in it. Something, perhaps Crosby’s absence, left PPG Paints Arena feeling a little lackluster, and the teams largely felt each other out for most of the first period. Less than four minutes into the second period, Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel corralled a puck along the left boards in the Capitals’ zone. He really had no play.
“The guy basically has nothing but to shoot short-side,” Holtby said of Guentzel. “The pass option’s so far wide that I can commit to that and get over.”
Guentzel flung the puck across the crease, ostensibly for fourth-line center Carter Rowney, who was playing only because Crosby was out. But really, the puck was all Orlov’s.
“He’s in the proper position,” Washington defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said, “where he needs to be to take away that pass.”
And yet, instead of playing the puck with his stick, Orlov allowed it to bounce off his skate.
“It’s one of those you’re supposed to expect the unexpected,” Holtby said.
Except where the Capitals are concerned, stuff like this is, by now, expected.
The funny thing is, Orlov’s goal — sorry, Guentzel’s goal — seemed to spark the Caps. How weird. Evgeny Kuznetsov beat Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury first, less than four minutes after Orlov’s gaffe. When Nate Schmidt fired one past Fleury 72 seconds later, the Capitals had 21 shots, the Penguins just 10.
“In the driver’s seat,” Williams said. “Going forward. Pushing for the next goal.”
And yet Orlov’s goal — sorry, Guentzel’s goal — was inescapable. When Pittsburgh scored on the power play to go up 3-2, it was impossible to wonder what the game might have felt like if Orlov hadn’t been lumped into Caps’ lore.
“It sucks, you know?” Orlov said.
Yes, we know.
It was not, of course, the only bit of indignity on this night. The final slice of embarrassment came just inside of the two-minute mark, when Holtby was skating toward the bench so the Capitals could bring out an extra attacker. It is reasonable, given their skill, that Washington could have tied the game in a six-on-five situation. Heck, the Penguins had scored twice in the final two minutes Monday to force overtime in Game 3.
But before Holtby was over the boards, T.J. Oshie was called for high-sticking — perhaps erroneously, but the call stood nonetheless, and a man advantage for the Capitals turned into a power play for the Penguins. It was, amazingly, the sixth penalty the Capitals had taken in the offensive zone in a catastrophe of a loss.
Blame that, then? The Caps’ own stupidity? Sure. It was a factor.
The stupidity, though, can’t be preserved on video for generations as a lesson about the fortune of this entire franchise. What can be: Dmitry Orlov, his right skate, the puck and an open goal mouth. The only way to remove that bit of evidence from the time capsule — to completely alter the way this franchise is viewed now and far into the future — is to win three straight games against a team that just doesn’t seem to make mistakes, much less put the puck in its own net.

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