Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Washington Capitals 2
Series: Pittsburgh leads, 1-0
Full series schedule
Game 2: at Washington, 3 p.m. Sunday
Game 3: at Pittsburgh 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Game 4: at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. Thursday
Game 5 (if necessary): at Washington, TBD
Game 6 (if necessary): at Pittsburgh, TBD
Game 7 (if necessary): at Washington, TBD
• Penguins ride third-period outburst to a Game 1 win. (Read more)
• Another two-goal lead lost at home, and this one was a serious missed opportunity. (Read more)
• Washington won’t soon forget that third-period flurry. (Read more)
• The loss fit neatly into Washington’s anguished postseason history against these Penguins. (Read more)
by Isabelle Khurshudyan
In perhaps a fitting sequence for two superstars whose careers have become intertwined through repeated postseason battles, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby raised his arms in celebration as Washington’s Alex Ovechkin was smacking his stick against the glass in frustration.
Ovechkin’s pass had led to the Capitals’ first goal, and he had scored the second. Then Crosby played a part in the next three, the Penguins’ top line outdueling the Capitals’ in what was ultimately the difference in Game 1 of this second-round series. Pittsburgh’s 3-2 win effectively stole the Capitals’ home-ice advantage in the best-of-seven matchup.
What might make the loss sting more is that Washington had a two-goal lead in the third period and Pittsburgh was without one of its best players. For a second straight year these teams are meeting in the second round, and both times the Capitals have dropped the opener at home.
“One mistake, one bad bounce, and they’re back in the game,” Ovechkin said. “That’s it, nothing you can say. It’s over, so we have to focus on the next game.”
On a two-on-one less than five minutes into the game, Ovechkin shanked a feed from defenseman Dmitry Orlov, missing a wide-open net and then dropping to both knees in disappointment. But with Washington clinging to a 1-0 lead as the third period started, Ovechkin barreled down the ice on another two-on-one, and this time he didn’t miss, lifting the Capitals to a two-goal cushion just 28 seconds into the frame.
That marked Ovechkin’s 100th career playoff point and his second of the night after he set up Evgeny Kuznetsov’s first goal of the game, just 17 seconds after the puck dropped. But Washington had struggled to protect leads in its first-round series against Columbus, and that bad habit followed the Capitals into Game 1 against the Penguins. Less than three minutes after Ovechkin’s snap shot, Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist tipped a shot past goaltender Braden Holtby.
“We had areas where we played well, but we played into their strengths a little bit too much at times,” Holtby said. “But we had our chances, too. It was one of those games that, with a lot of chances at both ends, you never know really what’s going to happen. It’s probably going to come down to a bounce or something like that.”
That bounce was off Ovechkin’s stick. On that Pittsburgh top line’s next shift, a puck went off Ovechkin’s blade and landed on Crosby’s. He wristed a shot past Holtby to tie the game, and as Ovechkin skated around the back of the net, his frustration showed as he hit his stick against the glass.
The Penguins’ top trio went back to the bench, and the next time they hopped over it, they scored once again. Crosby shot a puck off the wall, and Jake Guentzel deflected it, the puck changing direction as it fluttered under Holtby’s armpit.
That capped a three-goal outburst on three consecutive shifts by the Penguins’ first line in less than five minutes.
“It’s pretty tough to talk about that right now, but overall I think we play pretty much an even game,” Kuznetsov said. “They have good looks, we have good looks, but those three shifts changed the game, and it’s again our third period. We have to be better over there.”
Injuries to Penguins forwards Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin presented the Capitals with an advantage before they even stepped on the ice. Malkin, the team’s second-line center, was Pittsburgh’s leading scorer during the season with 42 goals and 56 assists, and his absence gave Washington an edge up the middle. But the Capitals have blown similar opportunities against the Penguins in the past. In the series between the teams last year, Crosby missed Game 4 with a concussion, and Washington still lost. The year before that, top defenseman Kris Letang was suspended for a game in the series, and the Capitals didn’t win that one either.
Washington got off to a good start with its first shift of the game. Ovechkin sprung Kuznetsov for a partial breakaway, and his quick release beat goaltender Matt Murray. But both teams seemed jittery for the rest of the frame. Several of the Capitals’ passes were just a little off the mark, the puck landing in players’ skates. But while his teammates played through some nervous energy, Holtby looked steady, protecting the 1-0 lead through 40 minutes.
He caught a break when Dominik Simon hit the post in the first period. He made a fantastic save when he slid across the crease to make a pad stop on Guentzel. He caught another break when Guentzel’s shot on the first shift of the second period caromed off the cross bar. That luck turned in the third period, when Pittsburgh’s top line was able to crowd Holtby and redirect pucks past him.
“It’s one of those situations where you say it’s 50-50 when there’s two layers of screens,” Holtby said. “You obviously want to shift into the deflection area, and I was shifting into both guys who were in front of me, not the high guys. Especially that last one, it kind of just hit him. It wasn’t a planned thing. So I have to look at them again, but that’s what happens when you have deflections.”
The Penguins won the first two games in this building a year ago, putting the Capitals in a 2-0 hole before the series moved to Pittsburgh. A playoff format that pits division opponents against each other in the first two rounds has had these teams meet in the second round three years in a row now. The past two series were a pit stop for the Penguins en route to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, while Washington, the league’s best regular season team, was left devastated by how it again failed to reach the conference final.
With less than a minute left in Thursday night’s Game 1, some fans started to head for the exits, the scene of Penguins celebrating on the Capitals’ home ice all too familiar.
“You never want to go down, right? But sometimes, hockey gives you those opportunities to win the game, but you didn’t,” Kuznetsov said. “That’s fine. It’s just one game. We have to regroup and we have to stay positive because overall, we got some good looks.”
• We’ve seen this movie before: No, not the one where the Capitals lose to the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs, but that other horror flick in which Washington blows a two-goal lead and loses at home. It happened in Games 1 and 2 of the Capitals’ first round series against the Blue Jackets and it happened again Thursday against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. All of the red towels the Capitals gave away to fans at Capital One Arena wouldn’t be enough to clean up the mess Washington made during a five-minute span after Alex Ovechkin gave the home team a 2-0 lead with a goal 15 seconds into the third. Patric Hornqvist opened the scoring for the Penguins, Sidney Crosby tied the game and Jake Guentzel’s seventh goal of the playoffs with 12:12 remaining was the game-winner.
• It’s only one Game 1: For what it’s worth, Game 1 hasn’t been much of an indicator of how the series will go when these two teams face each other in the playoffs. Washington entered Thursday with eight Game 1 wins in 10 previous postseason meetings with the Penguins. Remarkably, the Capitals went on to win only one of those series. That’s not to suggest that losing Game 1 was preferable to winning; as Washington learned last year, when it dropped the first two games at home to the Penguins, digging out of a hole against this team isn’t easy, either.
• A missed opportunity: If the Penguins could combine center Evgeni Malkin’s healthy upper body with winger Carl Hagelin’s healthy lower body, they’d have a pretty decent two-way weapon named Carni Hagkin, but they can’t, so Pittsburgh was without two key contributors for Game 1. Washington couldn’t take advantage. Malkin, who had three goals and five assists in the first round, made the trip to D.C. and could be available for Sunday’s Game 2, while Hagelin did not travel with the team.
• Special teams don’t get a chance to shine: During NBC Sports Washington’s pregame show, analyst Brent Johnson suggested the Penguins would miss Hagelin, one of their best penalty killers, even more than Malkin. It’s hard to say whether that was the case, because Washington’s only power play of the game, which came midway through the third period, lasted all of 32 seconds. The Capitals had great success with the man-advantage against Columbus, scoring nine goals in six games. The pressure will be on the team’s power play unit to capitalize on whatever chances it does get in Game 2.
Final: Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Washington Capitals 2
A disastrous third period doomed Washington, which lost home-ice advantage and failed to take advantage of two key Pittsburgh absences.
The Penguins trailed 2-0 early in the third period, but three goals in a five-minute span, including one by Sidney Crosby, stunned the Capital One Arena crowd.
The Capitals outshot Pittsburgh 18-8 in the third period, and had a couple of dazzling chances in the final minutes, but Matt Murray’s 32 saves helped the Penguins take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 2 is Sunday in Washington.
NHL teams with home-ice advantage in the second round win the series just 41 percent of the time after losing the opening game at home.
Murray sparkles: With less than three minutes remaining and the Capitals looking for the equalizer, Matt Murray made a sprawling save with his blocker to deny Brett Connolly’s rebound attempt in front of the net. Washington used its timeout with 47 seconds remaining.
You get a penalty, and you get a penalty: With all the momentum and a 3-2 lead, the Penguins went to the power play with 10:20 remaining in the third period after Chandler Stephenson was sent off for high-sticking. Pittsburgh’s second power play of the game lasted 32 seconds before Jake Guentzel caught Devante Smith-Pelly with a high stick, resulting in some extended 4-on-4 action. During the Capitals’ ensuing half-minute power play, Nicklas Backstrom camped out in front of Matt Murray, but couldn’t get a stick on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s beautiful cross-ice pass to tie the game. Pittsburgh kept its lead.
Pittsburgh leads: The Capitals blew a couple of two-goal leads at home in the first round against Columbus and they’re in danger of doing it again to start the second round. With 12:12 remaining in the third period, Jake Guentzel tipped a shot past Braden Holtby, who was screened on the short side by Patric Hornqvist. Pittsburgh thus erased a two-goal deficit with three goals in less than five minutes, silencing what had been a rowdy Capital One Arena crowd.
Crosby ties it: About two minutes after Pittsburgh’s first goal, Sidney Crosby scored on a broken play to tie the game, 2-2. Crosby has scored on seven of his 20 shots on net during this playoff run, giving him a career-high postseason shooting percentage of 35 percent this month.
Penguins get one back: So much for a Capitals rout. Less than three minutes after Alex Ovechkin gave Washington a 2-0 lead, the Penguins cut the deficit in half when Patric Hornqvist redirected Justin Schultz’s shot from the point past Braden Holtby.
Ovechkin strikes: After the Capitals finished off Columbus, Alex Ovechkin said he couldn’t wait to face the Penguins in the second round for a third straight year. He didn’t take long to make his presence felt, earning the primary assist on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game-opening goal early in the first period. Improbably, Ovechkin didn’t have a shot on goal through 40 minutes, but he went top shelf against Matt Murray only 28 seconds into the third period to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead. It was Ovechkin’s 100th career postseason point.
End Period 2: Caps 1, Penguins 0
The second period opened with quality scoring chances at both ends, but neither team lit the lamp, so the Capitals will take their 1-0 advantage into the third. Washington, which rarely trailed in its first round win over Columbus despite losing two games, has led for 39 minutes and 43 seconds out of 40 minutes in this one. That’ll do.
With Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin out for the Penguins, Phil Kessel is skating with Riley Sheahan and Dominik Simon, and it was uncertain how well that line would do, considering its members shared only a few minutes of ice time all season. Through two periods, that line has at least one scoring chance against every one of Washington’s skaters, and eight total against Washington’s John Carlson and Michal Kempny.
“There are no secrets here between the Caps and the Pens,” NBC Sports analyst Eddie Olczyk said before puck drop. Through two periods, it shows. Grab another beverage and gird your loins for what is sure to be a tense final 20 minutes of regulation.
Nice ice, baby?: It wouldn’t be a playoff game at Capital One Arena if the announcers weren’t talking about the condition of the ice. “When it gets snowy down here, the pucks are jumping,” NBC Sports’ Pierre McGuire reported from his ice-level spot “inside the glass” midway through the second period.
Capitals’ PK stays hot: Three minutes into the second period, a Tom Wilson interference penalty produced the first power play of the game. Washington’s special teams unit, which killed off 17 consecutive power plays to end the first round against Columbus, was up to the task again, limiting the Penguins to one shot with the man advantage. After 30 minutes, Washington still had its 1-0 lead.
Another fast start to a frame: The Penguins almost outdid the Capitals’ lightning-quick first-period goal when Jake Guentzel received a pass from Sidney Crosby and rang a shot off the post 15 seconds into the second. That’s two friendly pings for Braden Holtby tonight. A couple of minutes later, Matt Murray made the best save of the game by sliding across the crease to deny Devante Smith-Pelly on a rebound attempt.
End Period 1: Caps 1, Penguins 0
The first period had a lot of sizzle but not much steak. Pittsburgh edged Washington in scoring chances, 13 to 11, with Sidney Crosby leading his team with three of those chances. John Carlson’s two scoring chances led the Capitals, who had nine other skaters with at least one scoring chance in the opening frame. Washington did get the only goal in the period, which is good news: the Caps are 33-6-3 this season, including the playoffs, when they score the game’s first goal.
Despite a frantic and exciting start, Washington managed only six shots on goal and failed to capitalize on a couple of other chances to extend its early 1-0 advantage, but Braden Holtby was sharp and made the lead stand up with nine first-period saves.
“This game could be 3-1, Pittsburgh,” NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick said during the first intermission.
There were no power plays in the opening 20 minutes.
Ping!: Holtby turned away the Penguins’ first eight shots, including a beautiful save on a shot by Guentzel from the doorstep. Holtby, who has won four straight playoff games for the first time in his career, also benefited from a generous deflection off the post on a shot by Pittsburgh’s Dominik Simon. On the unofficial Puck Luck Counter for this series, it’s Capitals 1, Penguins 0.
A sizzling start: Washington only managed three shots on goal through the first 10-plus minutes of the first period, but the Caps have been buzzing around the net with a 1-0 lead. On one odd-man rush, Evgeny Kuznetsov sent a pass between Matt Murray’s skate and the goal post that trickled through the crease and out of harm’s way. A couple of minutes later, Murray made his most difficult save of the game thus far on a point-blank shot from Alex Chiasson.
The pace was intense, and the Penguins defense suffered repeated breakdowns under the pressure.
A rare miss for Ovi: The Capitals had a golden opportunity to take a 2-0 lead less than five minutes into the first period, but Alex Ovechkin’s one-timer off a two-on-one feed from Dmitry Orlov sailed wide left of an open net. At that point, shots were even at two apiece.
Kuznetsov with a bolt: It took all of 17 seconds for the Capitals to jump out to a 1-0 lead at home. Tom Wilson found Alex Ovechkin on a breakout and the Washington captain flipped a perfect pass to a streaking Kuznetsov, who beat Penguins goalie Matt Murray high on his glove side. It was two seconds from being the fastest goal to start a playoff game in Washington franchise history.
Fast starts haven’t been a problem for the Capitals this postseason. They scored first in five of their six games against Columbus, but only won three of those games.
Pittsburgh’s penalty kill could decide this series: Washington has one of the best power-play units in the NHL. The Caps scored on 55 of their 244 opportunities during the regular season (22.5 percent, seventh-best in the league) and have converted on a third of their postseason opportunities (9 for 27) utilizing their now-famous 1-3-1 system, which “creates four triangles to pass around and take one-timer shots” while forcing “the defense to focus on the middle players causing the penalty kill to shrink.”
However, the Penguins’ penalty killers are very good at harassing opponents along the half wall, which will cause two problems for Washington: It forces Alex Ovechkin to track down and fire the puck near the blue line, or it prohibits the Caps from setting up in the offensive zone altogether with the possibly of a turnover going the other way. It’s also possible Pittsburgh decides to shadow Ovechkin on the left side when Washington has the man advantage. If that’s the case, it will be up to the rest of the team to create quality chances, which has been an issue. In the four-game regular season series, Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team with seven scoring chances, followed by T.J. Oshie (three) and Lars Eller (two). None of the other skaters for Washington had a power-play scoring chance. Ovechkin was also held without a power-play goal in those four games.
Can the Capitals get over the hump?: Fresh off a West Coast road trip and with an off day before the Nats host the Diamondbacks to begin a 10-game homestand on Friday, Nationals Manager and camel enthusiast Dave Martinez was at Capital One Arena for Game 1. There’s some debate about whether Martinez, who led the “Let’s Go Caps!” chant before puck drop, should go by Dave or Davey. If he were a hockey player, there’s no question it would be the latter.
Penguins bring danger: The Capitals will need Braden Holtby to stay locked in. He stepped up big in the relief of Philipp Grubauer during Washington’s first-round series against Columbus, stopping 39 of 44 high-danger chances against, and will face a Penguins team that excels at creating shots in the slot and the crease.
Pittsburgh ranked third in the NHL in high-danger chances per 60 minutes at even strength (12.3), and the Penguins have converted 12 of 41 (29 percent) high-danger chances in the playoffs.
“He’s phenomenal,” Caps winger Tom Wilson said of Holtby on NBCSN before Thursday’s game. “He’s a leader on and off the ice for us.”
Immerse yourself in the Capitals’ postseason with The Post’s coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs: