In Game 1 of their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals’ 2-0 lead evaporated in less than five minutes in the third period Thursday night at Capital One Arena. Pittsburgh won, 3-2.
“It was a little bit of a kick in the stomach,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
When Washington scored first in regular season games, it had a 30-4-3 record, and it lost just four games all season when leading after the second period. When the Capitals had a lead after the first period, they were 28-0-1. But Washington also had a negative goal differential in the third period because of a bad habit of succumbing to the other team’s desperate offensive push. The opponent’s response is expected, and the trick is to continue piling on rather than sit back. Washington has lost a lead of at least one goal in six games this postseason, going on to win two of those in overtime.
“We want to play a lot of ways the same way to get the lead,” Trotz said. “The key to me is to not get on your heels, and I don’t think we’ve gotten on our heels a whole lot. But teams have been able to get back in the games.”
The two two-goal leads blown against Columbus in the first round were a result of costly penalties that allowed the Blue Jackets to rally with their power play. Against Pittsburgh, Washington’s greatest crime might have been that it missed several chances to extend its lead. Captain Alex Ovechkin had a wide-open net on a two-on-one less than five minutes into the game, with the Capitals already leading 1-0, and his shot was wide.
“We had a number of chances to pull away, but we just weren’t able to pull away,” Trotz said. “We had some chances when it was 1-0. We have two or three glorious chances to make it 2-0 earlier in the game. Obviously we got the goal early in the third, but you just want to make sure you keep pressing forward for the next one or just handle the puck right, be on the right side of people, all of those type of things.”
Said forward Devante Smith-Pelly: “We took our foot off the gas for three or four minutes, and that’s the game.”
Several Capitals felt they handled the two-goal cushion better against Pittsburgh than they did early in the series against Columbus. The sentiment in the dressing room after the loss was that Washington had played well for the vast majority of the game. Most frustrating was that the Capitals had done some good things on the three shifts on which they gave up goals in the third period. Patric Hornqvist’s goal was a tip of a shot by Justin Schultz that Ovechkin correctly had attempted to block.
On the second goal, Ovechkin got his stick on the puck, interrupting a pass across the ice from Jake Guentzel to Sidney Crosby. But it bounced right to Crosby’s stick, and he quickly shot it into the net. Then 2:28 later, goaltender Braden Holtby played the puck behind the net, rimming it around to disrupt Pittsburgh’s possession. Crosby got to the puck on the wall, and his shot from there was tipped by Guentzel for the winner. The Capitals got players back in each instance, in good position for the most part.
“I feel like they got momentum and then they score again and again,” Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “But then it’s pretty tough to get that goal back.”
Though Washington has shown a two-goal lead can be a burden, it has also shown a 1-0 series hole is easily overcome. The Capitals lost the first two games against the Penguins in this series a year ago, but they stormed back to force a Game 7 on home ice, which they then lost. Against Columbus, the Capitals again fell into a 2-0 hole at home, but then they won four straight to advance in six games.
On Thursday night, they seemed ready to swiftly move on from the loss. But if there is a lesson to take away from it, what can the team do better when it has a two-goal lead?
“Win the game,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said bluntly. “We played pretty good, so I don’t think you need to overanalyze that.”