The Washington Capitals dropped their second game in two tries on home ice, coming out on the short side of a 6-2 decision in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.
The Caps looked like world-beaters in the first period, dominating possession and pinning the Pens in their own end, but they did not convert their advantage on the shot clock into goals and went to the first intermission scoreless.
The Caps paid for their failure. It started, almost as a cliché, given their opponent, with a Caps power play in the first minute. Jake Guentzel took a hooking penalty 29 seconds into the middle frame, putting the Caps on a power play. However, it would be the Penguins taking advantage to score first. A Kevin Shattenkirk drive from the top of the offensive zone was blocked by Matt Cullen into the neutral zone. Cullen worked his way around Shattenkirk to win the race to the puck, broke in on goalie Braden Holtby, and with a delayed penalty on Shattenkirk about to be called, slid the puck between Holtby’s pads to make it 1-0, Pens, 1:15 into the period.
The Caps scored later on that same power play to tie the game. Holtby sent a long pass up the right wing wall that found its way into the Penguin end. From the corner, Nicklas Backstrom worked the puck to Alex Ovechkin at the right point. His slap pass was right on the tape of Matt Niskanen at the edge of the left wing circle, and his one-timer beat Marc-Andre Fleury at the 2:09 mark to make it a 1-1 game.
The teams remained tied for more than ten minutes, but Pittsburgh scored a pair of goals in a three-minute span late in the period to take command of the game. Phil Kessel took a pass from Sidney Crosby in the right wing circle and snapped a shot past Holtby at the 13:04 mark to break the tie. Guentzel added to the lead off a blocked shot in his own end when he led a 2-on-1 rush with Bryan Rust. He called his own number, snapping a shot on the short side past Holtby’s glove to make it 3-1 at the 16:14 mark.
Holtby was pulled to start the third period, but the goal scoring did not stop for the Penguins. On an early power play, Kessel circled out of the left wing circle and ripped a shot past Philipp Grubauer to make it 4-1.
Backstrom got that one back less than two minutes later, following up an Alex Ovechkin shot off Fleury’s right pad, beating Ian Cole to the puck, and stuffing in in the open side of the net at the 3:44 mark.
It would be the Caps’ last gasp. The Penguins scored less than two minutes after Backstrom’s goal, Evgeni Malkin redirecting a shot by Cole past Grubauer, the goal allowed after initially waved off for what was first seen as goaltender interference. Guentzel added an empty net goal with 43 seconds left for the final 6-2 margin.
-- The Caps out-attempted the Penguins, 30-8 in the first period at 5-on-5, but the seeds of their destruction were sown in the last few minutes of the period. They did not have a 5-on-5 shot attempt in the last two-plus minutes of the period (numbers from Corsica.hockey).
-- Let’s put this another way. The Caps recorded their 30th shot attempt at 5-on-5 at the 17:41 mark of the first period, an Alex Ovechkin shot that was blocked by Matt Cullen. Pittsburgh recorded their 30th shot attempt at 5-on-5 at the 5:31 mark of the third period on Evgeni Malkin’s redirect of an Ian Cole shot for a goal to make it 5-2. Those two moments more or less captured this game.
-- Through two games, the Caps have out-attempted the Penguins by a 141-68 margin at 5-on-5 (67.5 percent Corsi-for), including 61-32 in this game.
-- Alex Ovechkin had two assists, his seventh career multi-assist game in the postseason. The Caps are 3-4 in those games.
-- Second line had a rough night. Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams each finished minus-3, were blanked on a combined six shots on goal and had 15 generally fruitless shot attempts.
-- This was the fifth game in the postseason that the Caps finished with 35 or more shots on goal (they had 36). They are 2-3 in those games, and both wins came in overtime.
-- This was the first time in 54 career postseason games that Braden Holtby was pulled early, not involving getting an additional attacker on the ice. He’d never finished a game with less than 57:33 of ice time in his postseason career before this game.
-- Washington had more shot attempts go awry (52; 33 blocked, 19 missed) than Pittsburgh had in total (45).
-- Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and an assist, his 16th career multi-point game in the postseason. It was the first time in his career Backstrom had a multi-point game in a regulation loss in the playoffs. The Caps are now 10-6 in those games, the first five losses coming in overtime.
-- Matt Niskanen’s goal was his first postseason goal as a Capital in his 34th playoff game with the club.
In the end…
This was the team built specifically to vanquish the Penguins. The Penguins were the team it seemed all of Capitals Nation wanted to play on the way to the Stanley Cup. Well, if it can be said that all roads to the Stanley Cup go through Pittsburgh for this franchise, the Caps have never found a way out of town to continue that journey. And if this team is different, really and truly different, they are now going to have to find in ample supply of the one thing that no team before them has evidenced in large supply – resolve. Without it, Caps fans might have seen their last game at Verizon Center this season. No one would have said that a week ago.