The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Capitals need to fix their slow starts. Quickly.

(Photo by John McDonnell / The Washington Post)
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PHILADELPHIA — If the Washington Capitals perform like they did in the third period Wednesday night, they’ll have no trouble moving past the Philadelphia Flyers and into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. If they continue their bothersome habit of starting games in slow-motion sludge, they might not go much beyond that.

With a chance to complete the first 4-0 sweep in franchise history, the Capitals spent the opening minutes of Game 4 wandering around and searching for a dustpan. Urgency is a Stanley Cup playoffs buzzword; that spark must have been hidden in the same hard-to-find broom closet. The result was a 2-1 loss and a return to Washington for a fifth game Friday night.

“We didn’t kick it up quick enough,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I didn’t think we made their goaltender work very hard. We made it a very easy night for him for the first two periods. And in the third period we came with the effort that we’re going to need to have for 60 minutes.”

Washington’s third period was relentless, the team’s hallmark all season. When these Caps surge, goals feel inevitable, and they got one from T.J. Oshie early in the final session. It was a four-line frenzy, and the prime chances came from a variety of role players: Nate Schmidt, Andre Burakovsky, Mike Richards, Tom Wilson. Washington was a bowling ball slowly rolling down the middle of the lane; you were just waiting for the pins to drop. This time, though, time ran out before the ball made contact.

“It’s a good lesson for us,” Alex Ovechkin said. “We have to start better, manage the puck better, get more traffic.”

In truth, that lesson could have been learned by now. For the fourth game in a row, the Caps were on their heels early, and for the second straight game they gave up a quick goal. They’ve been outshot in the first period in all four games of this series, by a total margin of 53-30.

After 14 minutes, the Flyers had nine shots on goal. The Caps had two. The Philly fans had taken more shots at a goalie than that; they chanted Braden Holtby’s name at least four times in the opening minutes. With the Flyers suddenly disinterested in sitting in the penalty box, the Caps were forced to play five-on-five hockey, something they’ve said works to their advantage. It didn’t look like it. Early in the game, Washington appeared to be skating through maple syrup. The results were predictably sticky.

“We really only made [Philadelphia goalie Michal Neuvirth] play one period,” John Carlson said. “We’ve got to get to him earlier and give ourselves more chances throughout the whole game.”

The halting beginning, though, brought back memories of the regular season, when the first period was easily Washington’s worst, with a minus-four goal differential. The Capitals were plus-60 in the second and third. During one stretch this spring, they gave up the first goal 13 times in 15 games. They often rallied in hard-to-believe fashion, erasing 3-0 leads against the powerful Penguins and Kings and nearly crawling out of a 4-0 hole in Dallas. Their perseverance is impressive; their willingness to rely on it is dangerous. All three of those games wound up as losses.

“In the first two periods they worked harder than we do,” Burakovsky said. “Just their mindset was better than ours, they came out harder. I think that’s been a little bit of our problem in the second half of the season: that we’re so much better in the third period. We just have to find a way to play the same way in the first two.”

Earlier Wednesday, Trotz had ticked off all the advantages of winning a series in four games: It allows players to rest and recuperate, it allows coaches more time to prepare, it gives everyone “a little mental break from the pressures of playoff hockey.” And there’s no doubt the Caps would rather be reciting the Four Questions at their Seders on Friday night than asking themselves how to beat their former teammate Neuvirth.

But the recent history of four-game, first-round dominance at least offers some comfort. Of the 15 teams to sweep their opening-round matchups since 2000, eight failed even to get out of the second round. Only two went on to win the Stanley Cup. And after Washington played virtually no meaningful games for months and seemed to accumulate a bit of rust, a lengthy break in late April would bring its own concerns.

That’s the sugar-coated version. The salty version would note that a loss Friday night now leads to a stream of stories about past playoff collapses, and that this team should want nothing to do with an unexpected goalie getting on a playoff hot streak.

And also this: Wednesday was the eighth potential clinching game this team has played since 2013. Washington is now 1-7 in those games. Trotz wants a killer instinct. One series win in eight chances is more cuddly than killer. That allowed the Flyers to leave their arena buoyed, almost cheery.

“Tonight was the first game in the series that we actually enjoyed playing,” Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux said. “We have more momentum than after Game 3, that’s for sure.”

The Caps had a 13-4 advantage in shots in the final period. They’ve now outscored the Flyers 7-0 in that session. The late push made it clear which team should win this series, and you can bet that Washington will emphasize a strong start in Game 5, not the maple syrup version of its game.

“You’re not going to win every series 4-0,” Ovechkin said. “So forget about it and move forward.”

Forget about the result, sure. But don’t forget about why it happened. Those slow starts were about the only troubling thing during the regular season. They’re worth remembering.