The Washington Capitals were pushed to the brink of another early playoff exit on Wednesday night, falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-2, in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. The win gives the Penguins a 3-1 lead in the series.
It was a completely “Capitals” sort of postseason loss, falling behind by a pair of goals before the game was 24 minutes old, striking back to tie the game with goals just over a minute apart, then allowing the game-winner on a power play to set aside all the hard work they did to get back into the contest.
Patric Hornqvist opened the scoring for the Penguins early in the first period, taking a lead pass from Olli Maatta just outside the Caps’ blue line, cutting between Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner, and breaking in alone on goalie Braden Holtby, beating him on the short side at the 4:39 mark to make it 1-0, Pens.
That score held up for almost 20 minutes, into the early moments of the second period, when Jake Guentzel gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead. It was one more “Capitals” moment in a franchise history chock full of them. Guentzel took a pass off the wall from Maatta and from the far side of the left wing circle threw the puck in front. Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov had his stick perfectly place to redirect the puck past his own goaltender 3:51 into the period to make it a 2-0 game.
Washington started its comeback less than four minutes later. Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams teamed to pry the puck from along the left wing wall, Williams sliding it free to Evgeny Kuznetsov gliding into the left wing circle. Kuznetsov stepped up and snapped a shot that beat goalie Marc-Andre Fleury on the blocker side to make it 2-1, 7:21 into the second period.
Nate Schmidt got the Caps even with his first goal of the postseason 72 seconds later. Kevin Shattenkirk’s attempted slap-pass to T.J. Oshie went awry and skidded into the left wing corner where he took an odd rebound off the boards. The puck came back out to the circle where Schmidt leaned into a one-timer that slithered through Fleury at the 8:33 mark to tie the game.
Two minutes later, the Caps planted the seed of their loss. John Carlson was sent to the penalty box at the 10:45 mark for roughing Scott Wilson, and the Penguins converted their opportunity. Justin Schultz one-timed a pass from Evgeni Malkin past Holtby, and it was the difference. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all nine third period shots he faced, and the Pens held on to push the Caps to the edge of the postseason cliff once more.
-- In a game of this importance, your best player can’t take as many penalties as he had shots on goal, but that’s what Alex Ovechkin did in this game. Two minor penalties, two shots on goal. Sure, he had six hits, but that’s not how they keep score.
-- And it was not any better for Nicklas Backstrom. No shots on goal, two attempts, minus-1, in 20 minutes of ice time. It was part of a top line effort that generated a total of three even-strength shots on goal (Ovechkin had one; T.J. Oshie had two).
-- The mysterious misfortune of Andre Burakovsky continues. He has no goals on 19 shots in ten postseason games after going 0-for-3 last night. He is not in Alexander Semin territory for frustration (Semin was 0-for-44 in seven games in the 2010 postseason), but it is one of the big holes that has not been filled in this postseason for the Caps and especially in this series.
-- Evgeny Kuznetsov had a goal, his fourth in ten postseason games and third in this series. His six shots led the team. But 3-for-16 on faceoffs? Woof.
-- The Caps are 1-5 in the postseason when allowing three or more goals. They allowed three goals in this game.
-- Pittsburgh, the smaller team, was credited with 40 hits spread among 15 of 18 skaters. Maybe it was a home-scoring thing, but maybe it was an indication of which team had more determination.
-- According to scoutingtherefs.com, 44 percent of the penalties referee Kelly Sutherland called this postseason came in the third period. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that the Caps were whistled for three minor penalties in the third period.
-- Matt Niskanen had one hit in 24:53 of ice time, so there was that. Oh, and he was on the ice for the game-winning goal, so Pens fans are probably thrilled.
-- Of 16 goalies with at least 100 minutes played in this postseason, Braden Holtby now ranks 13th in save percentage (.909). He’s faced two of the best scoring offenses in the league in Toronto and Pittsburgh, but he has yet to really “steal” a game, certainly in this series.
-- The Caps out-shot the Pens, 38-18. They out-shot them, 31-15, at even strength. They out-attempted them, 72-38, overall. They out-attempted them, 57-28, at 5-on-5. Same story…same result.
In the end…
You just have the feeling that the Caps don’t have an answer for this team in any of its incarnations. The Caps have dominated possession in just about every period of this series, and yet they have just nine goals and three losses in four games to show for it. Marc-Andre Fleury looks poised to take his place among John Vanbiesbrouck, Kelly Hrudey, Johan Hedberg, and Jaroslav Halak as the “hot goalie” who did in the Caps.
The Capitals are at that point where the season will end in one of two, and only two ways – their most glorious season, punctuated by the most dramatic comeback in team postseason history, or their most disappointing one, a season in which their “best ever” team was revealed to be no different than any that preceded it. Stay tuned. It’s not over yet.