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Ilya Samsonov’s short Caps career has seen highs and lows. His Game 3 packed in both.

Boston’s Craig Smith celebrates his winning goal after a misplay by Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov and defenseman Justin Schultz. Samsonov made 40 saves in Washington’s 3-2 loss in double overtime. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Ilya Samsonov could have chipped the puck to the corner. He could have sent it around the boards. He could have left the puck behind the net and reentered the crease the way he came out. Then he would have seen that Craig Smith had a step on Justin Schultz, and he would have adjusted.

But instead Samsonov left the puck behind the net and turned his back to Smith and Schultz in the 86th minute of Boston’s 3-2 double-overtime victory Wednesday in Game 3 of the Washington Capitals’ first-round playoff series. He gift-wrapped the game-winning goal for Smith, who blew past Schultz and scored on a wraparound shot.

“[It was] a bad situation behind the net,” Samsonov said Thursday. “But we fix it — this one — and will be better next time, more communication with more talking. We’ll be better.”

The sequence was a deflating ending for a Capitals team that is now in a 2-1 hole in its best-of-seven series against the Bruins.

Game 4 is scheduled for Friday night in Boston.

All the blame for the loss cannot be placed on Samsonov — his 40-save performance kept the Capitals in the game. But the gaffe was the latest blow in Samsonov’s turbulent postseason and young career.

“To me, that is all about fatigue,” said former NHL goaltender Brian Boucher, an NBC Sports analyst. “He is in the fifth period of his first game in almost three weeks. There is no way that kid was not gassed. He had to be gassed, and . . . when you are tired you make mental mistakes, and maybe Schultz was tired or didn’t talk to him in time or didn’t hear him, and that is the end result.”

Wednesday was Samsonov’s NHL postseason debut — and his first game since May 1. Samsonov and teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov landed on the NHL’s covid-19 protocols list May 4. The goaltender was considered a close contact to Kuznetsov, who tested positive for the coronavirus for the second time this season. Before their names hit the list, the pair missed a game against the New York Rangers for disciplinary reasons.

Wednesday also marked Kuznetsov’s return for Washington. He recorded 26:41 of ice time and said this recent bout with the virus was “much better” than his first experience in January, when Samsonov also tested positive and was symptomatic.

“It's funny, they said not a lot of people get it twice, so it wasn't easy to be in hockey shape right away after you sit in a house,” Kuznetsov said Thursday.

The Capitals have yet to name their starter in net for Game 4, and Samsonov’s glaring communication error only raises more questions. Craig Anderson, who started Game 2 and played most of Game 1, was out for Game 3 because of “body maintenance.” He participated in the team’s optional skate Thursday. Vitek Vanecek suffered a lower-body injury in Game 1 and is still out.

Samsonov, 24, is in an intriguing position with the organization. A first-round pick in the 2015 draft, he is a bigger presence in net at 6-foot-3. His subtle yet calculated movements allow him to make big-time saves.

“He looked sharp in the net,” Boucher said. “Sharper than I would have anticipated. He looked calm in the net as far as a guy playing his first playoff game. You would think you would see a lot of nervousness and extra movement, and I didn’t see any of that in the game.”

Capitals management was confident in Samsonov’s abilities entering the season. In 2019, he backed up Braden Holtby and often looked like he was challenging the incumbent for the starting position in net.

But after hockey shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, Samsonov suffered an off-ice injury while in Russia. When play restarted in the NHL, he was unavailable for the postseason.

This year, he appeared to be the team’s No. 1 goalie until his first stint on the NHL’s covid-19 list in January. Samsonov and three other players — Alex Ovechkin, Dmitry Orlov and Kuznetsov — violated virus protocols, gathering maskless during the team’s first road trip.

Samsonov spent about three weeks on the covid-19 list and didn’t make another start for the Capitals until late February.

When Samsonov finally returned to NHL action, Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette split starts between Samsonov and Vanecek. When Samsonov went on the covid-19 list for the second time, Vanecek was the obvious choice for Game 1.

The Capitals could still turn to Anderson, who turns 40 on Friday and was solid for Washington in Games 1 and 2. Even after Wednesday’s loss, though, players expressed support for Samsonov.

“When we heard that Sammy was going, we were excited. . . . We’ve got a lot of good talent in this room, and Sammy played an amazing game, stepping into a tough situation,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “He was one of our best players. We were happy with that.”

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