By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008
There are tough losses, and then there are heartbreaking ones. Somehow, the Washington Capitals managed to squeeze both varieties into the same weekend.
One day after blowing a late lead in Boston, the Capitals outdid themselves against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center, where Nicklas Backstrom accidentally scored into his own net with 28 seconds remaining to deal his team a devastating 4-2 defeat in one of the most anticipated games of the regular season.
"That was officially heartbreaking," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I feel bad for Nick. He was doing everything that he could to prevent it and ends up shooting it in his own net."
Alex Ovechkin (two assists) dropped to the ice, burying his face in his gloves. Goaltender Cristobal Huet did, too, pressing his mask into the ice.
Neither of them could believe what had just transpired.
The play began when Penguins captain Sidney Crosby one-handed a pass through the crease. Backstrom, parked at the opposite side, presumably went to clear the puck into the corner. But instead of firing it out of harm's way, the 20-year-old snapped it between Huet and the goal post to put the Penguins ahead 3-2.
The goal was credited to Crosby, his second of the game and 19th point in 11 career games against the Capitals. Evgeni Malkin contributed three assists and Jordan Staal added an empty-net goal in the final seconds to clinch the result.
"We've been on the other side of that before, and it's not fun," Crosby said. "Obviously, it's a big break for us."
Backstrom, a rookie of the year candidate with 58 points, left the building without commenting to reporters.
"We don't want Nicky to beat himself up, because he played a great game for us tonight, and he's played great for us all season," said Brooks Laich, who scored his eighth goal in 10 games in the second period. "We'll be there for him tomorrow."
The Capitals' playoff hopes dimmed significantly yesterday, 24 hours after the Bruins pulled off an improbable 2-1 victory at TD Banknorth Garden with two 5-on-3 power plays in the final 5 minutes 1 second.
With 12 games remaining, Washington is seven points behind Carolina for the Southeast Division lead and six points out of eighth place in the conference.
"Obviously, it puts a damper on it," Boudreau said of his team's chances to making it to the postseason for the first time since the 2002-03 season. "We still have a goal in mind of how many games we've had to win to get into the playoffs. Now we give ourselves less chance of error, that's all."
What made the loss even more devastating for the Capitals was that they had outplayed the playoff-bound Penguins for much of the afternoon. At one point early in the third period they were out-shooting Pittsburgh 36-14. The scoreboard, though, showed a tie at 2.
Then, about midway through the third period, the Penguins came to life just as Washington appeared to tire. Huet (22 saves) did his best to force overtime, but he was helpless to stop Backstrom's shot.
"You could see that they turned it up a notch in the last 10 minutes," Boudreau said. "I thought when we got it to the final minute, we were fine; we were going to take it to overtime. But as it turns out, that's not [the] way it happened."
The intensity always rises when the longtime rival Capitals and Penguins meet, and yesterday was no exception.
The big question was how the Capitals would respond after Saturday's debacle in Boston. Would they come out angry, or flat? After a few minutes, the answer was obvious: They were still angry.
Ovechkin crushed Malkin along the sideboards early, Shaone Morrisonn leveled Crosby in the slot with a shoulder check and Matt Cooke demolished Jarkko Ruutu with an open-ice hip check -- all in the opening period.
The game settled in the second, and Laich opened the scoring on the power play, redirecting an Alexander Semin wrist shot at 7:23.
The Penguins, however, came right back 1:19 later on a fluky goal by Petr Sykora and Crosby's first tally put the Penguins ahead 2-1 at 18:08. The reigning league most valuable player, in his third game back from a high ankle sprain, followed his own rebound, whacking it between Huet's pads.
But Semin sent the game into the third tied with his 21st goal of the season, which he fired from the doorstep between Marc-Andre Fleury (36 saves) and the post.
Boudreau gave his players today off to recover physically and mentally from a difficult weekend.
"We just got to keep our heads up," Boudreau said. "It's going to be a depressing 24 hours and that's why they've got nothing to do tomorrow. Then they'll come back to the rink on Tuesday with a little bit of life and get ready for next week."