The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Capitals must lean on experience to dig out of the rubble of Game 5

The Capitals dropped Game 5 of their first-round series. Game 6 is Friday in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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SUNRISE, Fla. — The Washington Capitals have a roster full of veteran leaders with years of postseason experience. They are a team that has continued to preach patience and confidence during an up-and-down first-round series with the Florida Panthers.

At times, Washington has managed to translate that experience and attitude to its play. But at others, it has lost sight of its blueprint, looking lost and disconnected. Wednesday’s Game 5 provided clear examples of both.

After jumping out to a three-goal lead in the second period, the Capitals collapsed, allowing five unanswered goals en route to a 5-3 loss.

The Panthers lead the series 3-2. Game 6 is Friday night at Capital One Arena.

“In the playoffs, it should be easier to keep playing the same way and getting pucks deep and all that,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said Wednesday night. “But, yeah, this swings momentum.”

Capitals go from in command to on the brink after Game 5 collapse

With the Capitals on the brink of elimination, they will have to rely on their experienced leaders to be the best versions of themselves — essentially the opposite of what was on display for the latter half of Wednesday’s game.

Defenseman John Carlson made an error that led to a goal. Center Nicklas Backstrom was beaten on another Florida tally. Captain Alex Ovechkin — who had 50 goals in the regular season before getting injured in the final week — has scored just once in this series.

“There should be a lot of confidence from the things that we have done well in the series, the games that we have won, the times that we played well,” Coach Peter Laviolette said Thursday morning. “But you really have to work for a clean game against a team like Florida, who’s dynamic with what they do. Those will be the points of emphasis moving forward.”

Oshie, despite a turnover before Florida’s first goal Wednesday, is playing at a high level, notching five goals in five games. He had two in Game 5, the first a power-play deflection that put the Caps ahead. The second came on an odd-man rush with center Evgeny Kuznetsov in the second period that gave the Capitals a 3-0 lead.

“We have to shake this one off,” Oshie said. “We’re still showing ourselves how we have to play and creating chances, creating offense, keeping their offense in check. We keep getting away from it. We have to reset here.”

Wednesday’s collapse came two days after a deflating Game 4 overtime loss in which forward Garnet Hathaway barely missed what would have been a clinching empty-net goal. Goaltender Ilya Samsonov was strong in that game, which should have been enough for the Capitals to steal one on a night when they were not at their best. Instead, the Panthers stole the momentum.

“Obviously you don’t want to be down 3-2, especially when we felt like we had a chance to go up 3-1 in the last game,” Oshie said Wednesday. “You just have to regroup. We’ve got a veteran group in there, a bunch of guys with a lot of great character. We’ll be a little pissed off here tonight. Wake up tomorrow, head home and get back to work.”

Washington faces an uphill climb to prevail in the first round for the first time since 2018. The Capitals have not won consecutive postseason games since the first two matchups of their 2019 first-round series against Carolina. They went on to lose that one in seven games.

The Capitals probably will be without injured winger Tom Wilson again Friday. Wilson, who has not skated with the team since he suffered a lower-body injury early in Game 1, remains day-to-day, Laviolette said Thursday.

The Capitals have shown the ability to control the pace and slow Florida’s attack. But as exemplified in Game 5, Washington can’t afford to play one type of game to start, then stumble when the finish line is in sight.

“We have to take care of things against a high-powered team that scored a lot of goals this year,” Laviolette said. “When we’re on it, we do a better job inside the game. When we’re not on it, then that’s when they get their looks and they get their opportunities. ... It’s a constant reminder that we always have to think about the defensive side of things.”