Yes, the team played better than it did in Games 1 and 2, and the players still said all the right things, propelling the narrative that their fight had yet to be extinguished despite facing a 3-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference’s first round. But, entering Tuesday night’s Game 4, the Capitals are in trouble.
“After the game, obviously everybody is down,” center Lars Eller said Monday. “It’s a tough loss to swallow. I think we played our best game of the series so far, but I still feel like we have more to give. But I think we have the ability to overcome it quickly. We had a good night last night being together, the whole team — spent time together, had some good times, had some laughs, and already starting rebounding for the next game.”
While the team remains outwardly optimistic, the reality is the Capitals, the Metropolitan Division champions who got off to a blazing start this season and have Alex Ovechkin and Norris Trophy finalist John Carlson spearheading the team, are one loss from seeing their season end in a first-round sweep.
“Obviously, for us right now it’s nothing to lose, right?” Ovechkin said. “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 believe in ourselves.”
The Capitals face more than an uphill climb to win this series — they have to accomplish the nearly impossible, which is win four straight games in six days. Only four teams in Stanley Cup playoff history have erased a 3-0 series deficit and advanced. The Capitals are 0-5 in playoff series in which they have trailed 3-0, getting swept three times. The Islanders are 10-0 in playoff series in which they held a 3-0 lead, posting seven sweeps.
“That’s the challenge: to boil it down to what’s right in front of you and only think about that, because you can get tired just thinking about the other stuff,” Eller said. “I have a very good feeling about our group and going in [Tuesday] with the team we have. I’m looking forward to that challenge.”
The last time the Capitals lost a series in fewer than six games was in 2011, when they were swept in four games by Tampa Bay in the second round. It is the only time Washington has been swept out of the postseason in the Ovechkin era. Since 2008, the Capitals have failed to advance past the first round in back-to-back seasons only once, in 2013 and 2014, when the team failed to make the playoffs.
So, where do the Capitals go from here?
Reirden put their next steps very bluntly Sunday afternoon: “Right now we just have to focus on getting one win. One win and staying alive here and keep moving forward. That’s where our focus will be and is right now.”
Securing one win sounds easy enough for a veteran group that had 1,229 games of playoff experience heading into Game 3, making it the second-most experienced group among the remaining playoff teams. (Boston tops the list with 1,324.)
However, the Capitals have multiple problems. Center Nicklas Backstrom missed the past two games while in the NHL’s concussion protocol, and there was no update on his status for Game 4. He did skate with the extras Monday, but the team did not hold a full practice. Carlson has played all three first-round games but missed the three round-robin contests after he was injured in the Capitals’ exhibition game late last month.
After two games of dismal play, Rierden threw 25-year-old Brian Pinho into the lineup to make his NHL debut in Game 3. He also scratched two defensemen — Michal Kempny and Jonas Siegenthaler — who had been mainstays on the blue line. They were replaced by Martin Fehervary and Radko Gudas, and while neither made any glaring errors, they didn’t make much of an impact, either.
Additionally, the Capitals’ offense has yet to show up. The team has scored five goals, including only one — an Evgeny Kuznetsov power-play snipe from the right faceoff circle — in what Reirden deemed “the most important game of the year” Sunday. Ovechkin recorded his first shot on goal 15 seconds into overtime, a sharp contrast to when he scored the first goal of Game 2 on Friday less than a minute into the game. Ovechkin remains the only player on the team to tally a five-on-five goal this series.
“I think our line today had pretty good chances,” Ovechkin said Sunday. “It doesn’t matter if I shoot it or Kuzy shoot. We try to, if they’re going to play like, just open up spaces for [Tom Wilson] or Kuzy. So whatever it takes. We just have to win next games and we have to play better. Obviously, they play tight on me, and we have to use it as an advantage.”
Defenseman Nick Jensen, who had one of the better performances in a desperate third period Sunday, recorded three times as many shots on goal as Ovechkin — three — and got in front of a couple of key shots in the third that helped keep the score tied.
Jakub Vrana, who has no postseason points for the second season in a row, led the team with four shots on goal Sunday, including two on his breakaway in overtime when he failed to beat Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
“The frustration is more, at least we are getting those opportunities now where we weren’t in the first game or two of the series and started to get more as the game went on,” Reirden said of taking advantage of offensive chances. “You know, if you get enough of those and you believe in yourself and you believe in your team and the skill level that we have, we are going to convert those.”
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