As Varlamov turned away those two high-danger chances, the Capitals’ best shot at winning the game — and their best chance at making this first-round playoff series competitive — came and went. Less than 30 seconds later, the Islanders’ Mathew Barzal recorded an emphatic game-winner after getting behind the Capitals’ defense and beating goaltender Braden Holtby with a backhander.
Barzal’s goal 4:28 into the extra period gave the Islanders a 2-1 win in Game 3 and a 3-0 series lead over a Washington group that continues to struggle. Only four teams in Stanley Cup playoff history have erased a 3-0 series deficit and advanced, most recently the Los Angeles Kings in the first round against the San Jose Sharks in 2014. Those Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup.
“I think we have our chances, but it’s not enough,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Obviously, we’re down 3-0, but you just have to move on. I know it’s a hard situation, but it’s not over yet. … We’re never going to stop believing in it, and we’re going to play. ... We won the Cup [in 2018] when we were down 2-0 [in the first round] against Columbus, coming back, and we’re going to try.”
After dropping the first two games of the series when strong starts were diminished by undisciplined third periods, the Capitals came out flat Sunday and couldn’t generate enough offense again. The anemic effort came without top center Nicklas Backstrom, who missed his second straight game while in the NHL’s concussion protocol after taking a late hit from New York captain Anders Lee early in Game 1.
Washington will face possible elimination in Game 4 on Tuesday night.
“Obviously our backs are against the wall, but it starts with one,” Capitals winger Tom Wilson said of facing a 3-0 series deficit. “I expect guys to step up here and persevere through this. We’ve got a little bit of adversity, and it’s time to pull together or we’ll be out. So it is what it is.”
As it did late in Game 2, the Capitals’ power play failed them in the third period Sunday, when Washington didn’t record a shot on goal after New York’s Matt Martin took an interference penalty 2:34 in. Wilson then took Washington’s fifth minor penalty 6:25 into the third, and while the Capitals went 5 for 5 on the penalty kill, the infraction disrupted any momentum.
“Right now we just have to focus on getting one win,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “One win and staying alive here and keep moving forward. That’s where our focus will be and is right now.”
Washington was in trouble early, falling behind when Lee scored on a deflection 14:50 into the first period. The Capitals generated little offensive pressure to that point and showed no sense of urgency. As the teams went to their dressing rooms for the first intermission, there was a sense the Capitals didn’t have much fight left.
But at 5:50 of the second period, the Capitals were right back in it: Evgeny Kuznetsov struck on the power play with a laser from the right faceoff circle to tie the score at 1. Kuznetsov, whose 26th career playoff goal moved him past Dale Hunter for the fourth most in franchise history, raised his arms and let out a furious yell that echoed up to the 300 section of the mostly empty arena as he did his joyful prancing bird celebration. Finally, there was a glimmer of hope.
But the Capitals couldn’t capitalize on the momentum and again struggled with unforced errors. Defenseman Radko Gudas was called for hooking a few minutes later, and even when Wilson had a shorthanded breakaway on the ensuing penalty kill, the puck rolled on him and his shot went wide.
The frustrating effort came after Reirden made significant changes to the lineup. Most notably, defensemen Michal Kempny and Jonas Siegenthaler and center Travis Boyd were healthy scratches. Inserted in their place were Gudas, Martin Fehervary and Brian Pinho, a 25-year-old who made his NHL debut as the Capitals’ third-line center.
“We inserted some new guys today, got a little bit of energy from them,” Reirden said. “ … We will look at video and continue to review things.”
After Barzal’s winner, which left Vrana slouched over on the bench following his missed opportunity on the other end, there isn’t much time left to adjust.
“I think we play a pretty solid game today,” Ovechkin said. “We just didn’t get a result, but I’m pretty sure the next game is going to be a different game, for sure. Obviously, for us right now it’s nothing to lose, right? So we just have to go out there and play. Don’t think about the score in the series. We’re going to take it game by game. ... We have experience. A couple teams did it, and we believe in ourselves.”
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