The Washington Capitals find themselves in a 2-0 series hole after a 6-2 loss at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night at the Verizon Center. Games three and four will be in Steeltown on Monday and Wednesday, respectively.
The Caps came out and played a superb opening frame, doing everything but score a goal. They dominated possession with a 35-8 edge in shot attempts and they even received two power plays. Unfortunately for the Capitals, Marc-Andre Fleury (34 saves) was at the top of his game again and the Pens also blocked 13 shots to keep things scoreless after twenty minutes.
In game one, the Penguins would score twice in the first 64 seconds of period two, but it was Washington who came out strong to start the stanza. Just 29 ticks in, Jake Guentzel was boxed for hooking and the Capitals power play came on the ice for its third attempt of the evening. The Caps top unit was put on first and just over 30 seconds in they were set up in the offensive zone. Kevin Shattenkirk had the puck at the point and instead of making an open pass to Alex Ovechkin, who only had two of the Capitals 35 first period shot attempts; he hesitated, and then fired the puck on net. The shot was blocked and that allowed the speedy Matt Cullen to go in on a breakaway and beat Braden Holtby via the five hole.
Coach Barry Trotz’ crew, however, would answer that potentially devastating shorthanded tally when Nicklas Backstrom got the puck to Ovechkin at the point. The Gr8 then found Matt Niskanen all alone in the slot and Nisky beat Fleury to the far post to tie the game up at 2:09 of period two. The Caps would continue to carry most of the play, but then a series of turnovers allowed Sidney Crosby to steal the puck, come into the Washington zone with speed, and then feed Phil Kessel on a two on one that #81 placed perfectly top shelf, short side on the Holtbeast at 13:04. If Washington gets the puck deep there, the goal doesn’t happen.
Things then got worse three minutes and ten seconds later. Justin Williams carried into the offensive zone, wound up to fire on net, and Crosby went down to block the shot. The puck then caromed off of #87 and out to the neutral zone to give Jake Guentzel a two on one rush. The Caps defender appeared to give Holtby the shooter and #59 beat #70 short side. It was an odd man rush goal, but one many felt that the Holtbeast should have stopped. That goal deflated the building and to start the final frame, Coach Trotz yanked Holtby for Philipp Grubauer.
That move did not go well as Kessel scored on the power play just 2:19 into the third period after Shattenkirk took a terrible delay of game penalty. Backstrom would score on a rebound of an Ovechkin shot to make it 4-2 with 16:16 to go, but any hope of a comeback was ended when Malkin tallied from the paint less than two minutes later.
Simply put, this was a very tough loss for the Caps and they now have to go into Pittsburgh and try to win at least one game to bring the series back to DC for a game five. I wasn’t a fan of pulling Holtby for Grubauer, but Coach Trotz said afterwards he didn’t regret the move because he felt he had to try and change things up.
It was a bit of a panic move, much like some of the plays Washington made in period two where the “game opened up” as Brooks Orpik described it to me afterwards. #44 felt that the Caps got away from their strong first period by trying to do different things and he thought that was a mistake. He’s right and the Shattenkirk play on the power play was a perfect example of that. That puck has to go to Ovechkin or back to Backstrom, or at worst, #22 has to fire a wrist shot through traffic quickly. On goal two, three Capitals rushed to Crosby and left Kessel wide open. For the third Penguins goal, Williams needs to get that puck deep and not into #87’s shin pads. Those plays and Trotz pulling Holtby were all examples, in my mind, of not sticking to what was working and getting away from the script.
Game two is now over, so there is nothing Washington can do about it. Afterwards, the media had to wait between 10 and 15 minutes to enter the locker room due to a team meeting. There weren’t many details given, but Williams, when asked who spoke up, noted “Backy” [Nicklas Backstrom].
While many in Caps Nation were in full “Here We Go Again” and doomsday mode, the Capitals locker room was anything but that.
“We’re in a little hole. We need to focus on game 3 and winning that and that was it,” said Stick on the team’s predicament.
As for not deviating from what was working in period one, Williams had some very telling words.
“Yes, repetition in playoffs and wearing a team down is crucial. We had a good first period, yes, we didn’t score a goal. That happens. We just got away a little bit and they capitalized on their opportunities,” added #14 on what the Caps were trying to do and how things went awry.
The Capitals had many looks in this game, 88 shot attempts, to be exact, and when their shots did make it past the Penguin defenders it rang iron on at least three occasions.
“You’re not going to get me to say “Whoa is me” and “Oh, I can’t believe it.” You make your own breaks and I truly believe that. We’re going to work our butts off to get one in our column. A lot of guys said some good stuff after the game here. We have an opportunity; I’ve been down 3-0 and 2-0, a couple of times. You just have to win one game, one at a time. It’s an overused cliché, but it’s exactly right come playoff time. We’re right there, we’re just not quite there,” stated Williams.
As for Holtby getting pulled after yielding tallies on three odd man rushes, Stick wasn’t willing to give anyone a pass on the loss.
“Listen, everybody’s in the same boat right here, we’re just not doing quite enough and to beat the Cup Champs you have to do everything right. We’re not going to shy away from it. We’re going to go there and see what we’re made of.”
I asked Williams if the Caps were trying to be too perfect with their play, which was causing mistakes, but he said they weren’t.
“No, we’re just a hair off. Sometimes you go to the puck and you just get it tipped away. There’s little tips here and there. There’s little races, little battles throughout the ice that we’re not quite there,” stated the three time Stanley Cup Champion.
As for all of the shot blocks, the Penguins had 33 of them in game two. I asked Williams about the blocks, especially the one Crosby had on him, and what the Capitals need to do to adjust.
“You have to give credit where it’s due and they’re blocking a lot of shots. Just like any chess match, they make a move, you need to try and do something to alter that, shoot for tips, shoot wide, change shooting angles, all of those things. They’re blocking a lot of shots. I’m not sure what the stats are, but we’re not getting them through,” finished Williams.
Getting them through and behind Fleury is imperative if Washington wants to make this a series. We’ll find out what adjustments are made on Monday in game three.
Notes: Final shot attempts were 88-45 for the Caps. They also won the faceoff battle, 41-33. Lars Eller went 10-3…Ovechkin led the Caps in ice time with 23:19. Crosby played 20:12, but Brian Dumolin led Pittsburgh in ice time at 24:07…Patric Hornqvist blocked a shot in period one after playing 5:02 and didn’t return. A source tells me he’s out for the rest of the series and likely the season..Ron Hainsey took an Ovechkin shot to the head in period three and did not return…Ovechkin ended up with 12 shots attempts, but only three were on net…the Caps had 37 hits to just 19 for the Penguins.