PITTSBURGH — Washington Capitals goaltender Darcy Kuemper crouched in something between anger and disbelief late in the third period against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night. A shot from Penguins star Evgeni Malkin had just rippled the net behind Kuemper, and as PPG Paints Arena erupted, the goalie and his teammates looked in shock.
The Capitals had scored three goals in the final 15 minutes to keep their faint playoff hopes alive, but one last defensive gaffe led to a 4-3 loss to put those hopes on life support.
Washington trailed 3-0 early in the third period but found a way back on goals from Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin and Dylan Strome, who tied it with a no-look backhander with just under three minutes remaining. But that comeback was erased on a night when Washington allowed a series of odd-man breaks that led to goals — the most crushing coming after a turnover from Anthony Mantha sent Malkin in on Kuemper with just 80 seconds left.
“Guys are probably all frustrated,” Washington Coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought the guys played hard.”
The loss delivered a devastating swing for the Capitals, who instead of climbing within two points of their rivals now sit six points back with eight games to play.
This result would be made even more difficult to swallow considering the chances the Capitals had — and whom they had allowed to score in a second period that broke the game open. Kuemper had already made 20 saves by the time Penguins forward Ryan Poehling — who had not scored since January — parlayed a turnover into a breakaway goal to make it 1-0 at 10:10 of the second period. Just over two minutes later, defenseman Chad Ruhwedel scored his first goal of the season, beating Kuemper with a wrister after a teammate had poked the puck to him to create a rush. Kuemper shook his head and flung the puck out of the net, as if he was trying to get rid of the evidence.
“They were able to capitalize, we weren’t able to capitalize, and we found ourselves down 3-0,” Laviolette said.
Washington looked like a team facing elimination early Saturday. Even after the Penguins had scored, the Capitals kept pressing against Pittsburgh netminder Casey DeSmith, who kicked away a one-timer by defenseman John Carlson off an Alex Ovechkin feed on a two-on-one. Ovechkin had a breakaway late in the second period but couldn’t get a backhander past DeSmith. That earned the goalie an ovation from the home crowd, which chanted his name throughout the night.
“It’s a tough one. I don’t think that last play was the only thing that lost the game for us,” forward T.J. Oshie said.
It was just the second game this season that Washington’s veteran core of Ovechkin, Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom, Oshie, Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov had played together — and while that group had enjoyed their reunion in a 6-1 win over the listless Chicago Blackhawks two nights earlier, they faced a higher-quality opponent Saturday night in a matchup of two of the league’s oldest rosters.
Some of those Capitals were on the ice to begin the third period, when another Penguin sprang another breakaway — this time Jake Guentzel, who skated in alone on the right side and beat Kuemper’s glove with a snipe. Wilson skated back to the bench and slammed the door, and his frustration spilled onto the ice later in the period when Malkin hacked away at Kuemper’s pads after a whistle. Wilson stepped in and took a few swings at Malkin.
“Tough result,” Wilson said. “Through tough times you figure it out and come together. We just have to move past it and keep building as a team here and play for our lives.”
Wilson finally got Washington on the board with a goal off a wraparound pass from Kuznetsov with 14:41 remaining — and Ovechkin pulled his team within a goal after rocketing a slap shot past DeSmith on a power play with just over six minutes remaining before Strome tied it with a goal with 2:44 to go.
Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ loss:
Ovechkin’s third-period goal moved him to 822 for his career and 72 away from Wayne Gretzky’s record. It was Ovechkin’s 42nd goal of the season and marked the 299th time he has scored on the power play.
Milano stays home
Forward Sonny Milano did not make the trip because of an upper-body injury that will keep him out for at least a week. Milano had posted nine points (three goals, six assists) in his previous 11 games. His absence made room for the return of Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who had been a healthy scratch in the previous two games.
With Milano out, Washington shuffled its lineup, which included moving Aliaksei Protas into the top six on the second line with Backstrom and Oshie. The Capitals also brought Aube-Kubel back into the fold; he played on the fourth line with Conor Sheary and Nic Dowd.