The Caps spent the first two-thirds of the season running away from the pack in the NHL standings, but they have spent the last six weeks watching the Penguins slowly and methodically chipping away at their status as the league’s favorite to take the Stanley Cup. The breakaway might have been a symbol of the Penguins breaking free of the Caps as the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup final.
Then again, maybe it was just a game.
And what a strange game it was. For 37 minutes, the Caps sleepwalked through what should have been, for them, a game with which they could make a statement that they were still the class of the conference. It was Pittsburgh who scored the game’s first three goals, all of them coming from unexpected sources.
Matt Cullen scored a pair, one coming in the first minute of the first period, the Caps getting caught facing a 3-on-2 rush. Tom Kuhnhackl led the rush and fed Cullen on the left side just as the Penguin trio reached the Capitals blue line. Cullen had an open lane to skate and shoot, and he did both effectively, snapping the puck past goalie Braden Holtby’s blocker to make it 1-0 just 44 seconds into the game.
Cullen struck again in the first minute of the second period with the Caps on a power play. He led Eric Fehr on a 2-on-1 break into the Caps’ end. As he closed on Holtby, he tried to slide the puck over to Fehr, but the puck struck the skate of defenseman Matt Niskanen and slid past Holtby to make it 2-0 just 28 seconds into the period.
When Conor Sheary made it 3-0 at the 9:03 mark on another rush after the Caps made a sloppy line change, it looked as if the only team making a statement was the Penguins, and it wasn’t a pleasant one to the ears of Capitals Nation.
Then, the Caps discovered the charms of going to the net. Late in the second period Andre Burakovsky threw a shot at the Pittsburgh net that was blocked aside to the far wing. John Carlson collected the puck and fired a slap pass to the slot where Marcus Johansson was set up. Johansson redirected the puck past goalie Matt Murray, and the comeback started at the 17:19 mark of the period.
Washington inched closer mid-way through the third period when Johansson caught the Penguins standing around. Evgeny Kunetsov fended off Justin Schultz behind the Penguin net and passed the puck in front. Niskanen flagged it down and slid it over the Johansson cutting across the high slot. Johnasson took a stride and fired just before Fehr could reach out and poke the puck away, the puck sailing under the right arm of Murray to make it 3-2 at the 10:05 mark.
Less than three minutes later the game was tied on some fine stick work all around for the Caps. Kuznetsov settled a bouncing puck at the blue line before it could escape into the neutral zone, upon which he pivoted and fed it to Justin Williams, who wasted no time chipping it to John Carlson in the left wing circle. Carlson settled the puck and drew it back from a closing Ben Lovejoy and sent it to the far side of the Penguin net. Burakovsky moved the stick from his forehand to his backhand, reached out, and redirected the puck out of mid-air past Murray’s left pad to make it 3-3.
That would be it for the scoring in regulation, and it looked as if the teams might need the freestyle portion of the evening to settle things, but the Penguins – and Crosby – ended that thinking with just 60 seconds left in the extra session, giving the Penguins the 4-3 win.
-- Marcus Johansson scored two goals in a game for the first time this season and for the first time he had a pair in a 6-2 win over the Maple Leafs in Toronto on January 7, 2015. He broke an 18-game streak without a goal and gave him five points in his last two games after a three-assist effort in the 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday.
-- Andre Burakovsky also had a two-point game with a goal and an assist, breaking an eight-game streak without a point. It was his seventh multi-point game this season.
-- John Carlson had a pair of assists, giving him his first multi-point game since he had a goal and an assist in a 4-1 win over the Penguins on December 14th.
-- The Caps faced four power plays, the most they faced on home ice since they faced four in a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 2nd.
-- This was the rubber match in the season series between the team, the Penguins taking a 3-2 edge. The Penguins outscored the Caps, 16-13 in the series, but they were just 1-for-18 on power plays (5.6 percent), while the Caps were just 2-for-16 (12.5 percent). The shorthanded goal scored by the Pens in this game was the only one of the series this season.
-- Tom Wilson had a rough night. He was on ice for the game’s first goal by Matt Cullen, he took a major penalty for boarding Nick Bonino, had no shot attempts, and he took just two shifts in the last 32 minutes of the game, eight in all for just 5:50 in ice time, his low for the season and his lowest ice time since he skated 4:14 on April 2, 2015 in a 5-4 Gimmick win over the Montreal Canadiens.
-- Matt Niskanen recorded his 27th assist of the season, matching his total last season in his first year in Washington.
-- Back to Johansson… he was on ice for all four Pittsburgh goals. It was the first time he finished as poorly as a minus-2 since he recorded such a plus-minus in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Calgary Flames last November 18th.
-- Braden Holtby is not going to be sad to see this 3-on-3 overtime thing end once the regular season ends. Among 25 goalies with at least 25 minutes played at 3-on-3 this season, Holtby ranks 23rd in save percentage (.792; numbers from war-on-ice.com).
-- The Caps, who came into this game as the substantially inferior possession team overall, acquitted themselves well in that regard, out attempting the Penguins, 39-35, at 5-on-5 and winning the scoring chances, 24-20 (numbers from war-on-ice.com).
In the end…
If this game had been played in December, instead of it being Game 80 of the regular season, Caps fans might find solace in the comeback after a ghastly start to the game. But it is Game 80, and this could be a second round playoff matchup if both teams advance past the first round. The takeaway from this game, if you are a Caps fan, is that the game did not turn on the play of the Penguins. You cannot look at the raw possession numbers and conclude that the visitors took it to the Caps. It was how the Caps played that dictated the pace and momentum. They were awful early, especially prone to giving up odd-man rushes. They found a spark late in the second period, and it served to give them momentum through the third period. You could conclude that if the Caps play like they did in the first 35 minutes, their postseason will be short. If they play as they did in the last 25 minutes of regulation, theirs could be a deep playoff run. It’s really up to them which way the road takes them.