The Washington Capitals were outplayed twice on their home ice this week.
In Saturday night’s Game 2 loss to the Penguins, they were dominated for at least 40 minutes, appeared ill-equipped to handle Pittsburgh’s high-flying offense and couldn’t stay out of the penalty box. They went 14 minutes without taking a shot at one point, misfired on the few dangerous chances they did generate and coughed up the home-ice advantage they had worked months to secure. They gave up the winning goal to a popular former teammate, activated one of their ugliest bits of history and now have to hold their breath as the NHL scrutinizes a bad hit by one of their best defensemen.
The good news? The Caps will travel to Pittsburgh tied 1-1, rather than in the 2-0 hole they probably deserve.
But they’ll leave Washington knowing they’re on a path to trouble, that the showing they made in Saturday night’s 2-1 loss won’t be close to enough against the league’s hottest club. The Penguins hadn’t lost consecutive games since mid-January. To win a second straight at home, the Caps needed to start quickly and keep the Penguins from flying through the neutral zone. They needed to rely on their size advantage, make life difficult for rookie netminder Matt Murray and play crisply in their defensive zone.
They needed, in other words, to play better than they had in Thursday’s Game 1 win. Instead, they went backward, offering their worst performance of the postseason. Ignore the final score, because it should have been worse.
For the first two periods, Washington’s offense was evidently stuck in White House correspondents’ dinner traffic, and the results were just as appealing. Exiting their zone was a minor victory, and launching a shot on goal a cause for celebration. Finishing their best chances was hardly even a question, because there were so few of them. After two periods, they had 10 shots. That’s a good game for Alex Ovechkin.
“We just couldn’t get anything going; never had the puck, never had any pressure,” Matt Niskanen said. “Even if we don’t have the puck much, you’ve got to be able to apply pressure somewhere on the ice, make them feel uncomfortable. That was too easy of a game through the first  minutes for them.”
This Washington team has relied on its third-period dominance all season, and that led to some hope late Saturday, as Marcus Johansson tied the game and the Caps finally began generating an offensive push. The late surge might have worked against a lesser outfit like the Flyers. Pittsburgh probably deserved four or five goals on Saturday, though, and old friend Eric Fehr finally got them the go-ahead tally to equal the series.
As the Caps now head on the road, they must confront the fundamental question of this series: how can they control possession against a team as greedy with the puck as the Penguins? Coach Barry Trotz had said puck management would be “the law of the land” in this series, and the Penguins have stacked the jury box. That was evident from the opening minutes on Saturday; the more aggressive Penguins had 12 of the first 13 shots in front of a restless crowd.
The fact that the Caps spent so much of the night killing penalties contributed to the drudgery, but the issues went beyond that. It took more than 14 minutes for Washington to take a shot in the second period; when it came, it was on an Ovechkin one-against-everyone rush. Not exactly how you draw up your scoring chances.
When the Caps finally scored, it was on the power play, which has been their postseason crutch. That’s a celebratory toast with a bitter aftertaste, because Washington needs to compete at even-strength if it wants to advance deep in these playoffs. Of their 19 playoff goals, a ridiculous nine have come with an extra man. Pittsburgh, by comparison, has 18 even-strength goals in one fewer game. Those numbers shouldn’t be a surprise after watching Saturday night’s game; one team moved up the ice with precision, the other team often looked like it was passing the puck through granola.
“We made lots of turnovers, didn’t execute the puck in our zone, made bad decisions, and obviously we don’t have any traffic control in front of the net,” Ovechkin said. Everything else was great, though.
Then there’s the matter of defenseman Brooks Orpik, who in the first period went late and high at Olli Maatta. The Penguins defenseman wobbled off the ice and didn’t return.
It’s a hit that will certainly earn a look from the league’s department of player safety; NBC’s Mike Milbury labeled Orpik “a predator” during an intermission discussion, and Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan made it clear he was unhappy with the play. A league-mandated timeout for Orpik could test Washington’s blue-line depth, with Dmitry Orlov already benched for his Game 1 performance. The Caps had talked of imposing their size and muscle on the smaller and fleeter Penguins, but penalized head shots likely weren’t a part of that plan.
With the offense non-existent, the game was turned over to Braden Holtby and Washington’s penalty-killers. Pittsburgh failed on five chances, in the process failing to put away the league’s best third-period team. The Caps threatened repeatedly in the final period, but winning one period out of three won’t work often, and it didn’t work on Saturday.
Now for that history. Washington Coach Barry Trotz hates all talk of the past, so kindly ask him to avoid this paragraph. Washington has played Pittsburgh in eight previous playoff series. Seven of those times, the Caps won the first game. And six of those times, the Penguins still won the series. Washington’s cumulative postseason record against Pittsburgh, if you exclude Game 1? How does 12-30 sound? That’s more imbalanced than a conversation between Milbury and a wall, and it will have Washington hearts fluttering Monday night.
The consolation is clear: the Capitals haven’t played particularly well, and yet they’re still even in the series. A couple more efforts like Saturdays, and that’s likely to change for the worse.