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Capitals-Penguins Game 4 best and worst: Washington lets the series slip away

(John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

The  best and worst moments from the Capitals’ 3-2 loss to the Penguins in Game 4 of their second-round series. Pittsburgh leads 3-1 as the series shifts to Verizon Center.

Worst hole: The latest spin in the “cycle of absolute insanity” that is watching D.C. sports teams in the playoffs resulted in a 3-2 loss that puts Washington in a three games to one hole against the rival Penguins. Game 5 is Saturday at Verizon Center, and while this thing isn’t over yet, the Capitals are staring at a difficult climb to the Eastern Conference finals.

Worst you’ve got to be kidding me: Seconds after Braden Holtby skated to the bench to give the desperate Capitals an extra attacker with two minutes to play in regulation, T.J. Oshie committed Washington’s sixth offensive zone penalty of the game … or did he? Oshie’s stick whacked Nick Bonino in the shoulder, but the Penguins center threw his head back as if he’d been hit in the face and the referee’s hand went up.

Svrluga: For Caps, just another ‘bad bounce’ for a pantheon filling up fast with them

Best puck luck: Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel, who scored a goal on a deflection off of Dmitry Orlov’s skate in the second period, was denied by the post on a shot late in the third. The Hockey Gods keep tabs on such things.

Worst elevation: Midway through the third period, Marc-Andre Fleury made a brilliant save on a shot by Lars Eller, who was bothered just enough on the rebound that he couldn’t loft the puck into an open net.

Worst penalty: The Capitals’ power play to start the third period was cut short after 41 seconds, when Alex Ovechkin committed a questionable slashing penalty on Bryan Rust. Ovechkin caught Rust in the midsection while attempting to keep the puck in the offensive zone.

Best pep talk: Like Bonnie Tyler, the Capitals needed a hero in the third period, and they had no shortage of candidates. “Ovechkin, Williams, Backstrom, I don’t care who it is,” NBC Sports Network’s Mike Milbury said during the second intermission. “This is the season of seasons, the game of games for the Washington Capitals. They’ve gotta find a hero.”

Worst does not compute: Washington out-shot Pittsburgh 38-18 in the game and 17-4 in the second period. Each team scored two goals in the middle frame.

In Game 4, the Capitals run into a more deadly opponent than Sidney Crosby: Themselves

Best opportunity: With two minutes to play in the second period, Matt Cullen’s high-stick bopped Justin Williams in the face and drew blood, resulting in a double-minor. The Capitals had some chances during the first half of their ensuing power play, and Matt Niskanen rang a shot off the post, but Pittsburgh took its one-goal lead into the third period.

Best splits: A Dmitry Orlov turnover in the defensive zone left Phil Kessel one-on-one against Braden Holtby with a chance to regain the best, worst lead in hockey. Kessel deked and went to his backhand, while Holtby went to the splits to make one of his best saves of the night.

Worst letdown: Just when you thought the Capitals had seized momentum and were poised to take their first lead of the game, the Penguins went up 3-2 on a goal by Justin Schultz. It came on Pittsburgh’s second shot of the period, 11:24 into the frame, and it was on the power play after John Carlson took Washington’s third penalty of the night in the offensive zone.

Best equalizer: Seventy-two seconds after Evgeny Kuznetsov got the Capitals on the board, Nate Schmidt tied the game with his first career playoff goal.

Best snipe: Kuznetsov’s fourth goal of the playoffs was a wicked wrist shot over Marc-Andre Fleury’s right shoulder and it cut the Capitals’ deficit to 2-1 at 7:21 of the second period.

Worst puck luck: Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel was the last person in these playoffs in need of a fortunate bounce, but he got one 3:51 into the second period, when his centering pass deflected off Dmitry Orlov’s skate and into the back of the net. Guentzel’s eighth goal in his first nine postseason games gave Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead.

Best saves: Holtby was no slouch in the first period, turning away eight of nine Pittsburgh shots, but Marc-Andre Fleury made the more difficult stops, including this pad save on Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Worst grade: NBC Sports Network’s Mike Milbury wasn’t impressed (surprise, surprise) with Alex Ovechkin’s first period. “It’s a tough game to score in the playoffs,” Milbury said during intermission. “But I expect to see more from Ovechkin. I expect him to be visible. I didn’t see anything but a C-minus player in that period. There was no big hit, there was no great chance, there was nothing. I need more from that guy in this game.” Ovechkin didn’t have a shot on goal in the first 20 minutes.

Worst insult: The back plate of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s mask includes the names of his favorite teammates through the years. At some point, Fleury added Matt Niskanen’s name in gold Sharpie to his mask, but he recently taped over it, which is a savage move for a Canadian.

Worst equipment failure: Phil Kessel lost a skate blade in the first period and was just a little bit frustrated while waiting for a replacement after he managed to get off the ice.

Worst stat: The Penguins are undefeated in these playoffs when scoring first.

Best game: “Hey, what do you say we play Mario Kart instead?”

Best penalty kill: The Capitals continued their dominant PK’ing ways on Pittsburgh’s first opportunity of the night, when Alex Ovechkin was sent to the box for interference at the 8:11 mark of the first period. Washington had the only shot over the next two minutes, as the Penguins failed to score for the 10th time in 11 power-play opportunities this series.

Worst reception: Matt Niskanen was booed the first time he touched the puck and can expect to hear it from Pittsburgh fans throughout the night. Will the Penguins retaliate for the Capitals defenseman’s Game 3 cross-check? Probably not with a one-goal lead.

Worst start: No Sidney Crosby? No problem. Less than five minutes into the game, Patric Hornqvist gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead with a breakaway goal set up by tape-to-tape passes from Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta. “Holt-by! Holt-by!” chants from the PPG Paints Arena crowd soon followed.

Worst absence: Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is out for Game 4, and possibly longer, after suffering a concussion when he was cross-checked in the head by Matt Niskanen during the first period of Game 3. Pittsburgh is 4-4 all-time in the postseason without Crosby, while the Capitals are 5-0-2 all-time against the Crosby-less Penguins during the regular season.

Best idea: Phil Kessel called Capitals forward Jay Beagle “an idiot” for his comment that playoff hockey “should be nasty,” perhaps thinking that Beagle’s comment was in reference to Niskanen’s hit. (It wasn’t.) Beagle joked that he was “hurt deeply” by Kessel’s comment and suggested the perfect way to settle their beef: “We could always play some Mario Kart.”

Worst graphic: Uh, NBC Sports Network? Couldn’t you have swapped out Crosby for another Penguin? In Crosby’s absence, the pressure will be on Evgeni Malkin to continue his solid play. Malkin leads all players this postseason with 15 points.

Worst hit: After Wednesday’s loss, Capitals fans are all Justin Williams, who was leveled by Ian Cole late in the third period.

Game information

Game 4: Washington Capitals (1st place, 55-19-8, 118 points) at Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd place, 50-21-11, 111 points)
Date and time: Wednesday, 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 3 at Pittsburgh: Capitals 3, Penguins 2 (OT)

Remaining schedule

Game 5 at Washington: Saturday, 7:15 p.m. (NBC)
Game 6 at Pittsburgh (if necessary): Monday, TBD (TBD)
Game 7 at Washington (if necessary): Wednesday, May 10, TBD (TBD)

Latest headlines

>> The most significant outcome of Matt Niskanen’s cross-check of Sidney Crosby is that Crosby will miss Game 4, and potentially more time after it. But it also gives more layers to a series between two rivals, manifesting in odd, passed-along quotes and, quite possibly, ramped-up physicality once the puck drops for Game 4. Most recent: Phil Kessel called Jay Beagle an idiot for something the Capitals’ fourth-line center didn’t even say. “It hurts. I’m hurt deeply,” Beagle said in jest. “I don’t know, if he wants to settle it, we could always play some Mario Kart. He knows where to find me. We’ll take it from there.”

>> Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby have often been pitted against each other as the NHL’s two brightest stars for the past decade. But even on opposite teams in this Eastern Conference semifinal series, Ovechkin took no joy in hearing Crosby suffered a concussion on Monday night and is out for at least Game 4. “It’s hard to see a player go down, and it’s hard to see he get hurt,” Ovechkin said. “He’s a player you don’t want that stuff to happen, so it’s sad. I hope he’s going to be fine and come back in the series.”

>> If this past week has felt particularly exhausting and exhilarating, abusive and absurd, there’s a rational explanation, writes Dan Steinberg. We’re currently in the middle of a nine-day stretch in which either the Wizards or Capitals will play a postseason game every day. That has never before happened this late in the season, not in this town. It’s a foolish marathon none of us has ever attempted, and we’re running it without knowing whether finishers will receive laurel wreaths or whoopee cushions.

>> Canadian Broadcasting Corp. hockey commentator Don Cherry weighed in on the cross-check from Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen that left Penguins captain Sidney Crosby with a concussion. Cherry said he was “really upset” over the incident in Monday’s second-round playoff game, which Capitals Coach Barry Trotz described as a hockey play and will cause Crosby to miss at least Wednesday’s Game 4. Cherry also said Niskanen, who will not face supplemental discipline from the league, should have been suspended.

>> Human decency should mean it doesn’t make a difference whether it was Sidney Crosby or Matt Cullen or Tom Kuhnhackl barely able to move, unsteady on his feet, needing help just to get up. But in the way we judge news, and the way we weigh importance, and in the level of attention paid to hockey, it does matter, writes Barry Svrluga. It mattered for the immediacy of Game 3, in which the Capitals beat the Crosby-less Penguins in overtime. It matters for Game 4, because now the Penguins are not just undermanned, but they will be without the player who had been — comfortably — the best player in the series, which makes sense given he’s the best player on the planet.

>> The Capitals and Sidney Crosby’s scary history of head injuries were linked long before the Penguins’ captain lay on the ice late in the first period on Monday after taking a cross-check to the face from Matt Niskanen. Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan confirmed everyone’s worst fears and added a new chapter to that history when he announced Tuesday that Crosby suffered a concussion on the play and will miss at least Game 4 of the second-round playoff series.

>> There is no one way to replace the superstar presence and skill of Sidney Crosby. There probably aren’t two ways, or even three. But if the Penguins are to smoothly transition from a Crosby-led lineup to a Crosby-less one, Evgeni Malkin will need to be at the center of that effort.

>> Sidney Crosby, a transcendent star with a history of head injuries, leaving the game was a gruesome scene, and anyone with a drop of humanity felt terribly: for Crosby, for his team and for the sport. But was the contact dirty and premeditated? Or was it an unfortunate hockey play deserving nothing more than a minor penalty? You can guess how that debate went. The stakes aren’t high in sports, and the consequences of tribal behavior during a second-round series probably aren’t significant. But this isn’t just about sports, writes Dan Steinberg.

>> Losing one of the game’s best players in Sidney Crosby is a huge loss for Pittsburgh, but this would not be the first time the Penguins have had to deal with his absence. The problem? They haven’t coped that well without Crosby. The star center and member of the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players missed the start of the season with a concussion and has a history of them throughout his career, losing 68 games to head and neck injuries during 2011 and 2012. And since 2011, the Penguins have scored 4.6 goals per 60 minutes overall when Crosby is in the lineup, including the playoffs, more than double their production when Crosby has been unavailable (2.2).

>> Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen won’t face any supplemental discipline from the NHL for his high cross-check on Sidney Crosby. The Penguins captain had to be helped off the ice, and he didn’t return to the game.

>> The biggest topic after Washington’s madcap, 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins in Game 3 Monday night had less to do with any goals or saves than with a first-period hit: the high cross-check that knocked Penguins star Sidney Crosby out of the game. And it led to a contentious exchange between Caps Coach Barry Trotz and Rob Rossi, a Pittsburgh reporter. The writer later went on to suggest the Capitals discussed attempting to injure Crosby during their Saturday night closed-door meeting.

>> Rob Rossi wasn’t the only Pittsburgh reporter who suggested that Matt Niskanen’s cross-check was malicious. “That’s how you want to win, Washington? Really?” was the headline Tuesday morning on former Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic’s subscription-based site, Meanwhile, Kevin Gorman, a current Tribune-Review columnist, wrote that the Capitals “resorted to one of hockey’s cheapest tricks: take out the opponent’s best player.”

>> NBC’s Mike Milbury, for his part, said “it looked to be a reactionary play” by Matt Niskanen. Meanwhile, Niskanen insisted the play wasn’t intentional, but the Penguins are understandably not happy. Penguins center Nick Bonino said, “Just what we saw, he hits him straight in the head with his fist or stick.” Crosby’s injury could very well shift the entire tide of this series.

>> Look back on this wildest playoff game — a three-hour action flick consisting of nothing but explosions and car crashes — and what you see is some bizarro anti-Caps universe, writes Dan Steinberg. This must be how the other side lives. It was, in the end, first the embodiment and then the opposite of those previous Capitals catastrophes. With this pivotal season on life support, Washington watched an opponent ask itself a familiar question: How did we lose that game, when we had a chance to finish this team? And how do we now bounce back?

>> We”ll let this quote speak for itself: “I said a lot of bad words, and I apologize for them,” CSN play-by-play man Joe Beninati said. “I said a lot of bad words in the last three minutes of regulation, I really did, but this [win] shows that this team is a little bit different this year. There’s resiliency here. There’s a strong-willed approach.”

>> In other Game 3 cleanup, defenseman Karl Alzner returned after missing the past six playoff games. Here are the best and worst moments of the night.

>> Before Game 3, Kevin Shattenkirk had 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 and 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.”