For six months we have seen ways in which the Washington Capitals differed from previous editions of the club – an ability to win one-goal games, an ability to hold a lead and come back from a deficit, a resistance to losing streaks. Now, with the Caps falling behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, two games to one in their playoff series, after the Penguins’ 3-2 win on Monday night, Caps fans will get to see what might be the ultimate test of this team’s differences with those in the past – and ability to stare adversity in the face, in the form of trailing in a postseason series to a bitter rival, and overcoming it.
Pittsburgh put the Caps in a hole early in this game with a pair of goals 60 seconds apart in the first period. Patric Hornqvist got the home team off and running by setting up in the high slot, in perfect position to tip a drive from Trevor Daley out of the air, the bouncing puck eluding goalie Braden Holtby at the 6:37 mark to make it 1-0.
A minute later, Tom Kuhnhackl double the Penguin lead. It was a bit of an unfortunate bounce for the Caps, even as the Pens entered the offensive zone with speed. Matt Cullen darted down the left side through the faceoff circle when he tried to slide the puck across to Kuhnhackl on his right. The puck slid up the stick of Nicklas Backstrom, popped into the air, and deflected off the numbers on the back of Kuhnhackl’s jersey past Holtby to make it 2-0 7:37 into the period.
Pittsburgh went out to what looked like an insurmountable 3-0 lead late in the second period on a Carl Hagelin goal. An attempted clear out of the defensive zone by Nate Schmidt ended up on the stick of Phil Kessel, who took advantage of the Caps flying out of the zone by sending the puck to Nick Bonino all alone in the low slot. Boninio tried to sork the puck around Holtby’s left pad, but Holtby had that path cut off. The puck slid out from under Holtby, and Hagelin managed to get his stick between Schmidt’s legs to poke the puck in to make it 3-0 with just under five minutes to go in the period.
Pittsburgh has not lost a game this season when leading after two period, but the Caps tested that record in the third period. It started with Alex Ovechkin getting his first goal of the series, taking a drop pass from T.J. Oshie at the top of the left wing and rifling a shot past the left ear of goalie Matt Murray to make it a 3-1 game 8:02 into the period.
Despite withering pressure, the Caps could not solve Murray again until the last minute. A one-timer by Alex Ovechkin hit the far post and ricocheted behind Murray to Justin Williams at the near post. Williams had nothing but open net to shoot at, and he did not miss, getting the Caps to within 3-2 with 53.9 seconds left in regulation.
It would be as close as the Caps would get, though. There just was not enough time for them to complete the comeback, and the Pens took their first lead in the series with the 3-2 win.
-- The Caps are being bled to death by the rank-and-file for the Pens. Nick Bonino, with an assist in this game, has figured in four of the Penguins’ eight goals (1-3-4). Ditto for Carl Hagelin (2-2-4).
-- Meanwhile…Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky have combined for two points in this series (a goal by Burakovsky, an assist by Kuznetsov), neither of them marking the score sheet in this game.
-- Alex Ovechkin was a monster in this game. A goal, an assist, seven shots on goal, 18 shot attempts, nine hits, a takeaway, and a blocked shot in 24 minutes.
-- Less dominant was the third line. Mike Richards, Jason Chimera, and Burakovsky combined for six shots on goal, no points. The fourth line was even more quiet. Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, and Daniel Winnik combined for two shots on goal (three shot attempts, none by Winnik) and no points.
-- A sign that the end is nigh…Marcus Johansson was credited with nine, count ‘em, nine hits. He also had six shots on goal, the most he had in a game since December 30th against Buffalo and the most he had ever had in a playoff game.
-- The power play continues its drought after the hot start in Games 1-3 against Philadelphia in the first round. Going 0-for-4 in this game, the Caps are now 1-for-10 in the series and 1-for-20 in their last six games.
-- On the other hand, the penalty killers continued their amazing run. Killing all three Penguin power plays, the Caps are now 33-for-34 in the postseason (97.0 percent), tops in the league.
-- Every Capital except Justin Williams was credited with at least one hit. Nine Caps had at leat three hits in piling up a 58-25 edge in that column.
-- Three goals allowed by Braden Holtby seems like an off night, but none could be considered “soft,” and two of them might have been a case of the hockey gods being kinder to the home team than the visitor. The Kuhnhackl goal will be a snipe from the low slot in the retelling of the tale 20 years from now, but a puck hitting him in the “3” on the “34” on the back of his jersey qualifies as good fortune. The Hagelin goal was just a matter of the puck having eyes to sneak through to his stick three feet from the goal line.
-- The Caps had a whopping 64-31 edge in shot attempts at 5-on-5, a 28-13 edge in scoring chances, and a 7-4 advantage in high-danger scoring chances. Their plus-33 Corsi-differential at 5-on-5 was the fifth-highest for a Caps team in the postseason in the post-2004-2005 lockout era (numbers from war-on-ice.com). Ominously, two of the games in which the Caps had a larger differential came in the 2010 postseason series against the Montreal Canadiens that the Caps lost in seven games.
In the end…
The Caps did everything right…almost. They outshot, outhit, and outworked the Penguins almost without interruption. They had balance of effort in terms of pressure from the scoring lines. Even when falling behind, they stayed to the script and made life difficult for the Penguins. But two things that crept into their play from time to time have had a bright light cast upon them – slow starts and lack of production down the roster. It is not enough to get chances, the Caps have to finish them. There is no trophy for “Corsi.” As for the down-roster problem, this is the difference in the series so far. The Penguins have had production from their “no-names.” The Caps are still waiting. If they wait much longer, we might be waiting until October for an end to the drought.