Best bounce-back game: After getting pulled following the second period of Game 2, Braden Holtby came up huge for the Capitals in Game 3, making 28 saves on 30 shots. After the win, Holtby told NBC Sports Network’s Pierre McGuire that he had a talk with his sports psychologist, who reminded him that “the puck doesn’t know it’s a big game.”
Best news: Go ahead and delete the asterisk next to Game 5. The Capitals still trail their second-round series with the Penguins two games to one, but Monday’s win ensures that Verizon Center will host at least one more hockey game this spring. Wednesday’s result in Pittsburgh will determine whether it’s to stave off elimination or take a 3-2 series lead. The Capitals snapped a six-game losing streak at PPG Paints Arena, which included all three games in Pittsburgh last postseason.
Worst stress: Trailing 2-0, the desperate Penguins pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with more than three minutes remaining in the third period. Evgeni Malkin, who leads all players in points this postseason, scored his fourth goal of the playoffs with 1:53 to play because Capitals fans haven’t suffered enough over the last two weeks.
Worst odds: Penguins fans were leaving the arena and beat writers were putting the finishing touches on their game stories before Malkin’s goal, and for good reason. Eighteen minutes six seconds into the third period, Pittsburgh’s chances to win stood at 1 percent. By the end of regulation, their chances had jumped to a coin flip.
Worst equalizer: Forty-eight seconds after Malkin scored, the home net still empty and the Penguins refreshed after a timeout, Justin Schultz beat Braden Holtby to tie the game. Pittsburgh managed only six shots in the third period, but two of them resulted in goals, and Game 3 was headed to a familiar place: overtime.
Best patience: A two-goal lead is supposedly the worst lead in hockey, but it sure seemed like the best when Evgeny Kuznetsov beat Marc-Andre Fleury top shelf 9:46 into the third period. After receiving a pass from Marcus Johansson, Kuznetsov waited … and waited … and waited before an overcommitted Fleury lay helplessly prone in the crease.
Best diving stop: On a Capitals power play early in the third period, Marcus Johansson was staring at a wide open net with a chance to double Washington’s lead, but Fleury dove across the crease to make a glove save and keep Pittsburgh within striking distance.
Worst Capitals on Capitals violence: Later in the same power play, Shattenkirk’s slap shot from the point deflected off Matt Cullen’s stick and drilled T.J. Oshie in the side of the face. Oshie was slow to get to his feet before eventually making his way to the bench.
Best record: The Capitals were 41-1-1 during the regular season and are 1-0 in the postseason when leading after two periods. They took a 1-0 lead into the third period of Game 3 against the Penguins, whose captain, Sidney Crosby, remained out with an injury he suffered early in the game.
Best denial: Evgeny Kuznetsov made a bid to give Washington a 2-0 lead and make up for all the time he had spent in the penalty box, but he didn’t get much wood on a rebound off a shot by Marcus Johansson. That allowed Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to reach back with his stick and make a dazzling save just before the puck crossed the goal line.
Worst ow: Chris Kunitz wasn’t penalized for this second-period hit on T.J. Oshie, but maybe that’s the wake-up call Oshie needs to get back in the scoring column?
Best penalty kill: The Capitals never, ever make it easy. They survived three Pittsburgh power plays in the second period, including two foolish penalties by Evgeny Kuznetsov in the span of three minutes. Kuzy can thank his goalie for bailing him out, as Braden Holtby was especially sharp with his team shorthanded.
Best snag: The Penguins ramped up the pressure after the first intermission and peppered Braden Holtby with seven shots in the first seven minutes of the second frame. Holtby stopped every one of them, including one with his glove while sitting down in the crease.
Worst Penguin on Penguin violence: Patric Hornqvist absolutely leveled teammate Conor Sheary early in the second period, sending Sheary to the locker room for repairs.
Best reversal: The Penguins appeared to tie the game one minute into the second period, but Washington challenged the ruling on the ice and replay officials determined that Chris Kunitz interfered with Braden Holtby on the play. No goal. Breathe.
Best save: A bad line change led to a breakaway opportunity for Bryan Rust with two minutes to go in the first period, but unlike in Games 1 and 2, Brady Holtby was up to the task and made the save to preserve Washington 1-0 lead. Holtby made eight saves in the first 20 minutes.
Best lead: For the first time this series, the Capitals scored first, and, hark, had a lead. Nicklas Backstrom scored 13:05 into the first period on a 5-on-3 power play after Carl Hagelin and Bryan Rust were sent to the penalty box for high-sticking and delaying the game, respectively.
Best right place, right time: The Penguins came terrifyingly close to scoring the game’s first goal in the final seconds of their first power play, but Conor Sheary’s shot hit the post and Bryan Rust’s rebound attempt somehow deflected off the shaft of Daniel Winnik’s stick instead of finding the wide-open net.
Worst injury scare: Sidney Crosby, who lost his balance on the play, was cross-checked by Matt Niskanen and remained down on the ice for several minutes before skating off under his own power. Crosby headed to the locker room, while Niskanen was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
“It’s one of those reaction-type plays if you’re Matt Niskanen,” NBC Sports Network’s Eddie Olczyk said of the hit. Olczyk said he though Niskanen deserved a penalty, but he didn’t think it should’ve been a major.
Best break: Less than a minute into Niskanen’s major penalty, Evgeny Malkin was whistled for closing his hand on the puck. The teams would skate four-on-four for two minutes before the Capitals’ resumed their penalty killing.
Worst chant: It didn’t take long for the PPG Paints Arena crowd to try to get in Brady Holtby’s head, serenading the Capitals’ goalie with chants of “Holt-by! Holt-by! Holt-by!” Less than a minute into the game, Holtby made his first save on Trevor Daley. Five minutes later, he made a terrific poke check to deny a Sidney Crosby scoring opportunity in front of the net.
Best rest?: Capitals goalie Braden Holtby allowed three goals on 14 shots and was pulled after two periods of Washington’s 6-2 loss in Game 2 on Saturday. The defending Vezina Trophy winner is back in net for Game 3 and, according to CSN, is 11-2 with a 2.22 goals against average and a .925 save percentage in games after being pulled.
Worst offense: T.J. Oshie, who had three goals and four assists in the first round against the Maple Leafs, has yet register a shot on goal against the Penguins. Now would be a good time for the Capitals forward to get going.
Best hope: The Capitals have lost the first two games of a postseason series six times before this year, and while Washington went on to lose five of those series, they did come back to beat the Rangers in 2009 after dropping Games 1 and 2 at home.
Worst stat: Should Washington lose Monday, hope will be harder to find. NHL teams are 4-184 all-time when trailing a best-of-seven series three games to none.
Best return: After missing the last six games with an undisclosed upper-body injury, Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner returned to the lineup. Pittsburgh’s Carl Hagelin, Brian Dumoulin and Patric Hornqvist, who missed the Penguins’ morning skate and considered game-time decisions, were all on the ice for warm-ups.
Game 3: Washington Capitals (1st place, 55-19-8, 118 points) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd place, 50-21-11, 111 points)
Date and time: Monday, 7:30 p.m.
Channel: NBCSN, CBC
Location: PPG Paints Arena
Regular season series: Capitals 2, Penguins 2
Game 1 at Washington: Penguins 3, Capitals 2
Game 2 at Washington: Penguins 6, Capitals 2
Game 4 at Pittsburgh: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. (NBCSN, CBC)
Game 5 at Washington (if nec.): Saturday, TBD (TBD)
Game 6 at Pittsburgh (if nec.): Monday, May 8, TBD (TBD)
Game 7 at Washington (if nec.): Wednesday, May 10, TBD (TBD)
>> Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner is a game-time decision for Game 3 of this Eastern Conference semifinal between Washington and Pittsburgh. Alzner has missed six games with an undisclosed upper-body injury, though he’s been participating in team skates since before this series against the Penguins started. Alzner will be on the ice for warm-ups Monday night at PPG Paints Arena, “which is exciting,” he said. “I feel like I get to be part of the team and stuff.” That said, the Penguins will have a handful of game-time decisions to make Monday, and they could greatly alter the Game 2 lineup that buried the Capitals in a 6-2 win Saturday.
>> Kevin Shattenkirk has a minus-seven rating in eight playoff games, which is the worst on the team, and Trotz acknowledged the defenseman’s play needs to improve. “I think if you talk to Kevin, he would admit that he can play better,” Trotz said Sunday. “I know he can play better.”
>> You would have to live somewhere between optimism and insanity to predict the Caps will win this series. NHL teams that drop the first two games of a seven-game set at home go on to lose about 80 percent of the time. The Caps have lost six straight games in Pittsburgh. Still, Washington’s only chance, it seems to Dan Steinberg, is to ease back into the team it’s been for the past two years. Don’t try to reinvent yourself in May. Don’t worry about flipping your lines. Don’t bother scratching 15-goal scorer Brett Connolly in favor of Paul Carey, who recorded zero NHL points this season. And there is really no need to bench a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, who boasts some of the best postseason goaltending statistics in the history of the league, even if you’re not thrilled with his play.
>> After a shaky outing, Capitals’ Braden Holtby will start in goal in Game 3. “Why would you think otherwise?” Coach Barry Trotz said.
>> The doors to the Capitals’ locker room stayed shut for more than 10 minutes following Saturday night’s 6-2 loss that landed the team in a two-games-to-none hole. The dire situation, a season full of expectation suddenly on the brink, prompted a players-only meeting after the game. “I think what was said in this room are things that our leaders needed to say, and are things that people needed to hear,” T.J. Oshie told reporters.
>> After giving up four goals in two periods, Barry Trotz pulled Braden Holtby from the game. It was a sign of panic, and that’s the last thing the Capitals need right now as they head into a crucial Game 3 on the road. Was it worth pulling one of the best goaltenders in the world in hopes of sparking the team, asks Post columnist Dan Steinberg? Probably not.
>> The Penguins have a propensity for stepping in front of shots. And so far, it’s keeping the Capitals out of the net, but it also puts players in danger. “It was the same last year,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “They were blocking a lot of shots. Somehow you’ve got to go through them. You have to crowd the net and get some second chances.”
>>“So here we are again, in late April, absolutely panicking,” writes Barry Svrluga. And it’s tough to argue with him. For the Capitals, it’s starting to look like the same old story.
>> The Capitals got off to such a hot start, dominating play throughout the first period, that it seemed this series would be even by the end of the evening. But shots on goal and time on the offensive zone don’t count, goals do, and Washington’s failure to cash in on any of its opportunities left the door wide open for the Penguins to take off come the second period. Now, because of the Caps’ failure to finish early, Pittsburgh is one step closer to finishing them.
>> Speaking of the Penguins, they clearly can subsist on getting out shot, losing more faceoffs than they win and having to kill off more penalties in the first period than they did in all of Game 1. Pittsburgh’s ability to overcome a slow start and still take care of business was on full display Saturday night, and now they head home with a 2-0 lead in this series.
>> Marc-Andre Fleury helped the Penguins win a Stanley Cup in 2009 and has been a franchise cornerstone for more than a decade, but was replaced by rookie Matt Murray because of injuries last postseason. He nearly rode the bench for another playoff run, but when Murray was injured in warm-ups of Game 1 during the Penguins’ first-round series, Fleury stepped into a net that is, at least for the moment, his again. Fleury’s steady play is making the Penguins’ Cup pursuit much simpler.
>> D.C. sporting events aren’t known for their celebrity power, but this week seems different. Twenty-four hours after Joe Biden brought down the house during a Wizards-Hawks playoff game, the Caps hosted a veteran A-lister of their own: David Letterman his truly spectacular beard.
Dan Steinberg talked with the TV legend about why he was at the game and whom he was rooting for.
>> The Penguins’ secondary scoring helped set them apart from the Capitals in the second round of last year’s playoffs, and the Capitals’ bottom-six forwards didn’t counter with much. Now Andre Burakovsky is looking to change that playing alongside Lars Eller and Tom Wilson, who was swapped onto the third line for Brett Connolly during the first-round series against the Maple Leafs. Doing so could make all the difference against the Penguins. “Last year the Penguins’ third and fourth lines really picked it up and we didn’t match that,” Burakovsky said. “We know it’s a huge series for us.”
>> There are few people more intimately involved with the Caps than David Abrutyn, who pops up Zelig-like throughout the history of this franchise. He has represented Washington’s best player, Alex Ovechkin, since late 2009, a few months after Ovechkin’s Caps met Sidney Crosby’s Penguins in the postseason for the first time. But that hardly begins to tell the story of his connections to the Capitals.
>> Karl Alzner, whose contract expires after this season, knows nothing will be resolved until Washington’s playoff run ends, but it’s been hard to avoid thoughts about the future. Understanding the salary cap constraints coming this summer when several young players will need new contracts, he has occasionally scanned the Capitals’ roster, trying to determine which players the team will want to keep at the cost of a raise and which will have to move on.
>> While Barry Trotz said last year’s second-round meeting was a snapshot of this upcoming one, the same could be said of the Maple Leafs series the Capitals just won. The Capitals had to endure relentless pressure from the Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs also capitalized on broken plays, used their young, speedy legs on the forecheck and did everything to limit the Capitals’ time in the offensive zone and disrupt breakouts. This was all similar to how the Penguins beat the Capitals, 4-2, at this exact time of last year’s playoffs. Now the Capitals feel a bit more prepared to face a Penguins team that, while banged up, didn’t alter its style after winning the Stanley Cup.
>> This year should be different for the Capitals, Fancy Stats’ Neil Greenberg writes. Pittsburgh overwhelmed Washington with its depth last season, but Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan addressed that issue during the offseason. The team signed Boston Bruins winger Brett Connolly, traded for center Lars Eller and moved Jay Beagle down the lineup to a role on the fourth line that better suited his defensive style of play. And the Capitals bring other advantages, as well.
>> Pittsburgh’s strength is the depth of its forward corps. The Penguins have the best one-two punch in the league with its top two centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. On Crosby’s wing is speedy young forward Jake Guentzel, who played just 40 games in the regular season as a rookie bouncing between the American Hockey League and the NHL. He’s been an impressive linemate for Crosby, scoring five goals in five playoff games against Columbus, which included a hat trick. Here are all the players Caps fans will be cursing in Round 2.
>> Bless the photographers who captured the sequence of Nazem Kadri riding Alex Ovechkin in the corner like a bull and the Russian eventually bucking the Canadian off his back as fans pointed, with mouths agape, at a scene more befitting the National Finals Rodeo than a hockey game.
>> Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby will get the lion’s share of the attention, but the eventual winner of this series will be the team that gets the most production from players other than its stars, writes Fancy Stats’ Neil Greenberg.
>> Let’s acknowledge the obvious: There shouldn’t be an upcoming Penguins series. Not yet, anyhow. We’ve all been complaining about this for three months, once it became clear that the Capitals, Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets were three of the five best teams in the NHL, and that two of them would be forced to meet in the first round, with the winner likely to immediately face the league’s top team. Requiring your strongest performers to scratch each other’s eyes out a month shy of the championship round sounds like a great tactic for a high school football coach. But it’s a curious way to organize a sports league, writes Dan Steinberg.
>> Ever since the teams’ hard-fought, six-game series a year ago, the Capitals and Penguins have seemed to be on a collision course to do it all over again. The Penguins won their series in five games over the Columbus Blue Jackets, and on Sunday night, Washington beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in overtime, 2-1, to move on after six games. “We’re ready,” forward Marcus Johansson said. “We’re excited. We can’t wait to get going. We’ve worked hard for it. We’ve worked all year and all summer to get back into this position, and now we’re here.”
>> It’s supposed to be fun, right? But every single Capitals playoff game merely seems to be a reminder of the difficulty of what they’re trying to pull off, writes Barry Svrluga. There will be time to think about what’s next, which is a juicy matchup with the Penguins in the second round. But for a franchise and a fan base that have spent so much time and energy stewing about what they haven’t accomplished, take time — right now, wherever you are — to appreciate what they just did.
>> Playoff hockey is a rush and a thrill and a jolt of adrenaline and a three-hour sugar high. But it’s also often stupid, writes Dan Steinberg. The games are tight. The margins are tiny. Luck lurks everywhere. Happenstance tugs at every collar. And too often, the team that gets the better of the play still loses the game.
>> Braden Holtby has a chance to repeat as the Vezina Trophy winner, given to the NHL’s top goaltender in the regular season. The NHL announced Holtby, Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and the Montreal’s Carey Price as the three finalists Saturday. Holtby won the award at the end of last season, Price won it in 2015 and Bobrovsky took it home in 2013. This year’s winner will be announced at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on June 21.
>> The Post’s Dan Steinberg argues that the Capitals actually deserve to win the Stanley Cup this year: “There’s not much more you can say about the most complete Capitals team we’ve ever seen. They had the most points in the NHL this season, the best goal differential, the fewest goals allowed, the most wins at home. They had the best goal differential in the first period, and the best goal differential in the third period. They had 59 points in their first 41 games, and 59 points in their last 41 games. They were the best hockey team out there, and it wasn’t that close.”
>> We all know the decade-long narrative for the Capitals: They’re a talented team that can’t get past the second round. Why is this year different? Here are five reasons to be optimistic about the team’s Stanley Cup chances, and because this is the Capitals, the five reasons to be pessimistic.
>> Meanwhile, Fancy Stats’ Neil Greenberg makes the case that, despite their reputation, the Capitals aren’t chokers in the playoffs: “The tendency is to set postseason expectations based on regular season performance, but history shows this to be a bit unfair. For example, only eight of the last 31 Presidents’ Trophy winners — awarded to the team with the best overall record during the regular season — have won the Stanley Cup. Just three others made the Stanley Cup Finals. In the NBA, by comparison, the team with the most wins has gone on to win a title 14 times in that same span, with two others making the NBA Finals.”