The Pittsburgh Penguins are playing without Sidney Crosby, the league’s leading scorer and finalist for the most valuable player award, Kris Letang, their best defenseman, and Matt Murray, their No. 1 goalie. And the Washington’ Capitals still find themselves staring down a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series.
True, Washington is outshooting the Penguins in the series and did so in lopsided fashion in the Game 4 loss. But perhaps the most surprising aspect about this year’s playoff debacle is the different ways the Capitals are beating themselves. After all, the Penguins scored a league-leading 282 goals during the regular season, so the last thing Washington needs is for its own defenseman, Dmitry Orlov, to kick the puck into its own net.
If that was the only way the Capitals were sabotaging themselves perhaps their playoff hopes would be brighter, but it isn’t. Here are three other ways the Capitals are perpetuating the narrative they are choking dogs in the postseason.
They’re giving up breakaways and other glorious scoring chances
The Capitals saw significant upgrades to their blue line over the past few seasons, adding Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik during the summer of 2014 and trading for Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline in 2017. Yet they are allowing more shots on the rush — defined here as any shot taken within four seconds of uninterrupted game time of any event occurring in the defensive zone or within four seconds of uninterrupted game time of any giveaway or takeaway — than they have in any other playoff run over the past 10 years.
During the regular season, Washington allowed 3.5 rush shots per 60 minutes at even strength, which has ballooned to a whopping 5.8 per 60 in the playoffs, with 11 of the 45 rush shots Holtby has faced coming in the last four games against Pittsburgh, resulting in five goals against. For context, the Montreal Canadiens were the worst team in the league in rush shots allowed per 60 during the regular season with 3.9. So the Caps have been nearly two rush shots worse than the worst team in the NHL in this category. Remember that the next time you see Nick Bonino or Patric Hornqvist streaking by the Caps’ defenders.
Braden Holtby is playing fast and loose with the puck
Washington needed Holtby to steal a game or two in this series (and still does), but he really hasn’t been up to the task. His overall save percentage in the playoffs is at a career low (.909) despite entering the postseason with the best playoff save percentage of any active goalie. That .909 mark is significantly lower than his regular-season performance (.925), which led to a Vezina nomination as one of the three best goaltenders during the 2016-17 season.
It’s gotten even worse against high-danger chances, those originating in the slot or crease. Against those even-strength shots in the playoffs, Holtby has posted a .773 save percentage, compared to .822 during the regular season.
He’s also allowing a career-high 3.5 rebound chances per 60 minutes, almost twice as much as we have ever seen from him in the playoffs in recent years. The rebound chances are another fundamental problem the Caps need to erase to get back into this series.
Too many offensive zone penalties
It was bad enough the Capitals took seven offensive zone penalties in the Game 4 loss alone, two by captain Alex Ovechkin, but that gives them 11 for the series. Not only does Washington lose any momentum following those calls, but it gives Pittsburgh, owners of the third-best power play during the regular season, an opportunity to score with the man advantage.
The Penguins, meanwhile, have committed two infractions in the offensive zone.
So, yes, the Capitals are badly outshooting the Penguins, dominating possession and largely limiting Pittsburgh’s shot attempts. But the shots the Caps do yield are some of the most dangerous in the game — breakaways, rebounds and power plays. That can’t happen against any team, more or less the reigning Stanley Cup champs.
There is no way to sugar coat this: The Capitals are in trouble. Teams with home-ice advantage that find themselves trailing any playoff series 3-1 have only gone on to win 13 times in the NHL playoffs. They are just 3-28 when the face those circumstances in the second round. If Washington is to have any hope of a comeback, it must play smarter, more disciplined and stop shooting itself in the foot.