TORONTO — There’s an emblem the Washington Capitals have stuck onto a door in their locker room. It’s a smiling skull with “Own the big moments” written around the edge of it. The phrase was taken from forward Justin Williams, who repeatedly said Washington didn’t do just that in its disappointing postseason run a year ago. They had it printed on the back of their team shirts before the season.
The logo traveled with the Capitals to Air Canada Centre, staring back at them in the visiting locker room as a third straight game in this first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs went to overtime. Less than two minutes into the extra period, it was Toronto who owned the moment after Tyler Bozak’s power-play goal lifted the Maple Leafs to a 4-3 win and a 2-1 series lead.
With 16 seconds left in regulation, Capitals center Lars Eller was called for high-sticking. The Maple Leafs’ power play carried over into overtime, and with seven seconds left in it, Bozak capitalized, redirecting Nazem Kadri’s shot from the top of the left faceoff circle. Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby has now allowed four goals in back-to-back games.
For a Washington team that has been defined by its early postseason exits, how does it defend against that doubt creeping in now, a top seed trailing the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card team with the next game on the road?
“Until we change the narrative, that’s going to be the question,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It’s up to us to change it. You can’t talk about it. You just have to go and do it.”
The game turned when Washington failed to take advantage of a big moment. After the Capitals had played with the lead for less than four minutes total in the first two games of the series, they scored twice in the first 4:49 Monday. They opened another two-goal cushion 5:39 into the second period when center Evgeny Kuznetsov punched in the rebound from a Marcus Johansson shot.
Washington then had an opportunity to put the game out of reach when Toronto’s Matt Martin got a double-minor for roughing. That gave the Capitals a five-on-three for a full two minutes, but a power play that had scored three goals in the first two games seemed to suddenly have a lack of urgency. Washington recorded just two shots on goal. The team got another break when a bench minor was called on the Maple Leafs for having too many men on the ice less than a minute after the five-on-three expired. The Capitals again got two shots on goal but failed to extend their lead.
Did things change in the game when the five-on-three didn’t click?
“Yes,” Niskanen said flatly.
“We should have scored there, absolutely,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.
“The game’s over if they score,” Toronto Coach Mike Babcock said.
Toronto gained momentum off that sequence. Less than four minutes after the Maple Leafs killed off the second power play, Washington’s top line was unable to clear the puck out of the zone, and with traffic moving in front of Holtby, Kadri was able to get a shot past him from the point. Then in the last minute of the second period, William Nylander tied the game when Capitals defensemen Brooks Orpik and Kevin Shattenkirk both went to check Zach Hyman behind the net, leaving Nylander alone in front of Holtby.
“I think we had three guys beyond the goal line, so that’s not a very good way to defend, especially the last minute of the period,” Orpik said.
Holtby robbed Nylander on his first shot, but Nylander was patient and scored on the rebound to make it a 3-3 game at the second intermission. Washington then went more than 13 minutes without a shot on goal to start the third period as the Maple Leafs tilted the ice in their favor.
“We were just on our heels, not being assertive, not being confident,” Niskanen said. “They took it to us. They outplayed us in the third period.”
After the game, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz took a seat behind a microphone and rattled off all of the chances his players had in the game that they didn’t convert.
“They’re capitalizing on their moments, and we’re not,” Trotz said. “In the series, they’ve had opportunities and they’ve cashed in. We’ve had opportunities and we haven’t cashed in to this point. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen next game.”
Note: Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner missed Game 3 with an upper-body injury, snapping a streak of 599 consecutive regular season and playoff games played that dated from 2010.
Trotz said after the game that Alzner is day-to-day and wouldn’t say whether he will be available to play Wednesday in Game 4.