Once again the Washington Capitals are on the brink of being eliminated in the second round of the postseason with Wednesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game four of the Stanley Cup Quarter Finals. The Pens lead the Caps three to one with game five set for Saturday night at the Verizon Center at 7:15 pm, a post Kentucky Derby start time.
Here are 12 thoughts on the Capitals following game four:
It was a huge game, Sidney Crosby was out of the lineup injured due to a concussion, yet the Caps came out as flat as a pancake in period one. Before 15 minutes were gone, the Pens had a 21-13 edge in shot attempts and a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard courtesy of Patric Hornqvist’s breakaway tally that he notched after he split Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik. It was an awful defensive breakdown and miscommunication by two veteran defensemen you would normally expect to be tactically sound.
Offensive zone penalties were a big problem for Washington on Wednesday night, they took five of them that led to Penguins power plays. You can argue about the iffy calls on John Carlson and T.J. Oshie and perhaps the slashing on Alex Ovechkin in period three, but the bottom line is that four of the five were the result of laziness and not playing the right way. The first two penalties, by Ovechkin and Lars Eller, were in the first period when Washington seemed to be in sleep walking mode.
The Caps stabilized things in the last five minutes of period one, but the start to period two was another bad one. After failing to score on their carry over power play, shortly thereafter they lost several loose puck battles, which was a major problem in the first frame and a sign that they weren’t mentally or emotionally ready to play this contest. Jake Guentzel won one of those one on one battles and threw a puck to the middle of the ice and with Dmitry Orlov rushing to get back in position defensively, the puck hit his leg and went into the cage behind Braden Holtby.
After that goal, it was all Caps for the next several minutes and they tied the game up with two goals just 72 seconds apart. Marcus Johansson won a board battle, even after losing his stick, to keep a puck alive and Justin Williams grabbed it on the left wing wall and fed Evgeny Kuznetsov in the slot. Kuzy, for a change, was thinking shoot first, and his quick shot beat Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Capitals life. It was a smart play and by shooting right away, it caught Fleury off guard. Nate Schmidt would then tie the game by one-timing a missed Kevin Shattenkirk shot off of the backboards. Again, it was a fast shot like #92’s and it found the twine. Quicker shots are a must for Washington going forward. Waiting to fire away gives Fleury time to set up and it also allows the Penguins defensemen to get in the lanes to block shots.
Washington finally started to carry the play, like they should have been doing from the start, but then a bad penalty call on Carlson combined with a not so smart play by Andre Burakovsky on an extended zone time shift turned the game around. #65 caused the “so-called” penalty by being soft and carrying the puck up high in the offensive zone instead of keeping it low on the wall, where the Caps had just put reinforcements on the ice while the Pens were hemmed in due to the long change. Carlson tried to rotate down to give Burakovsky room and he and Scott Wilson collided and the bad zebras whistled a penalty. Penalty or not (and it really wasn’t a rough, which was listed as the call), Andre had already made the wrong decision and had lost the puck to the neutral zone.
Pittsburgh’s power play had been struggling in the series, but it finally connected to swing momentum big time. You’d like to see your goalie make a save there, though. Justin Schultz’s rocket was slated for the top shelf, but there was no screen and if the Holtbeast is in his usual mode he is out at the top of the crease and makes that stop. Instead he was deep in the cage and was beaten badly over the shoulder when he went down in the butterfly.
That goal came with 28 plus minutes remaining, lots of time left to recover, but the Caps couldn’t connect, including wasting a four minute power play that started in period two and carried over to the final stanza. The power play needs serious adjustments before Saturday. Ovechkin is not getting his looks and the Pens are being very aggressive on Nicklas Backstrom on the half wall making Washington’s usual plays ineffective. The Gr8 is at his best when he’s getting shots early and being physical. He only had four shot attempts in game four. Washington must figure out a way to get the power play going again and get Ovechkin more looks. Your move Caps coaching staff as well as Alex, who must work harder to create space for himself.
On the positive side of things, the Capitals second line was really good with 20 shot attempts out of the 46 the 11 Caps forwards had in this tilt. The third line had 17 shot attempts, including Eller’s great chance on Fleury in the third period where he waited too long to fire away. A quick shot there by #20 in front and perhaps he gets the puck by #29 or a rebound comes back to him and he’s in control of the situation? Waiting on Fleury has proven to be deadly except in one instance, Kuznetsov’s goal in game three where he had all day to get the goalie out of position. Tom Wilson was very much involved on that third line and was probably the only player that matched the Penguins intensity in the first period. He, along with Jojo, have been superb in this post season.
On the bad side of the ledger, you can start with the leaders of this team, Ovechkin and Backstrom. They were pretty much no shows for this affair and played with a lack of urgency in a critical contest. That first line, adding in Oshie, had only eight shot attempts! I’ll say that again, eight shot attempts in an almost must win playoff contest. That’s just unacceptable for the Captain and one of the Alternates to perform that way. They did not do their respective jobs and if the Caps do not come back, they deserve the brunt of the criticism given their play in game four and their inability, yet again, to get out of the second round with their fourth different playoff coach.
The final shot attempts were 72-38, but who cares? The start is what matters in these games and the team that has scored first has won every contest. Fleury is in the Caps heads and Holtby is fighting the puck. Meanwhile anyone Coach Mike Sullivan puts on the ice brings a maximum effort while Coach Barry Trotz’ crew has too many passengers.
Simply put, the Capitals were not ready to play this game. Without Crosby in the lineup they had an opportunity to seize the game and the series and let Pittsburgh know that it was the Caps time to shine. Instead they totally shunned the saying on their “Will Over Skill” t-shirts and acted like all they had to do was show up to win. It was a lack of leadership and a total lack of focus. It is maddening that this core group of players still doesn’t fathom what it takes to win in the postseason and you can’t put a lot of it on the coaches or General Manager, this is their fourth playoff coach while it has been the same core in charge on the ice.
As Justin Williams told me after game two, the playoffs are all about doing the little things and winning the one on one battles to put yourself in position to score or defend and ultimately win the game. Washington has not been committed to doing that and as a result they are a game away from the golf course, once again. There is no excuse for the effort from Ovechkin and the top line in game four. It is disturbing and if the Caps don’t come back, the blame starts with the Gr8 for failing to appear in this contest. Washington had to come out on the offensive and not take their foot off of the gas to tie the series up. Instead, they never found the throttle and played scared, which allowed the Penguins to dictate what type of game this would be. It’s inexcusable from a group that knows this is the last time this crew will be together. We’ll find out what these guys are really made of over the next week.