Many of the Washington Capitals can still clearly recall how their season ended a year ago. There was Nick Bonino in his black and gold No. 13 jersey in front of the net. He threw his arms up in the air as the Pittsburgh Penguins advanced, and the Capitals spent the next year stewing.
On Thursday night, there was Bonino again in front of the net, again celebrating as he pushed the Penguins past Washington in a playoff game. His goal in the third period lifted Pittsburgh to a 3-2 win in Game 1 of the second-round series.
The good news for the Capitals going forward is that they climbed out of a two-goal hole by outplaying Pittsburgh with a 35-21 edge in shots on goal, controlling possession in the second half of the game despite not getting a single power play all night. The bad news is that despite being the better team for the majority of the game, their costly errors have them in an early series deficit.
“We did a lot of good things, but we didn’t obviously do enough,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “I just thought all three goals [by Pittsburgh] were very preventable on our side today.”
Washington was able to tie the game in the third period with a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Capitals fans are often pleading for him to shoot, and he picked the perfect moment to do just that, with Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury turned toward Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen on the left side as Niskanen sent the perfect pass to Kuznetsov waiting on the right side.
Kuznetsov tapped the puck into an open back door, tying the game 8:05 into the third period after the Penguins had taken a 2-0 lead early in the second.
Kuznetsov was criticized for his play in Washington’s second-round series against Pittsburgh a year ago. In 12 playoff games, he contributed just one goal and one assist, disappointing production for a player who had led the team in scoring during the regular season. This year has gone differently for him. He centered the most effective line in the Capitals’ first-round series against Toronto, and he has already doubled his postseason production from a year ago with two goals and two assists in seven games.
He produced the equalizer, but he was also on the ice for Bonino’s decider with 7:24 left. On a quick breakout that seemed to catch the Capitals off guard, Bonino got behind Washington defensemen Brooks Orpik and Kevin Shattenkirk as he drove the net and tucked a shot under goaltender Braden Holtby’s armpit to give the Penguins the lead for good. After the game, Holtby said that goal was one he could have stopped.
“It’s a little bit our mistake, my line,” Kuznetsov said. “They played okay. And we played okay today. Overall, it was a good game.”
This series has often been billed as pitting the NHL’s two longtime superstars in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Both players have groused at that because they don’t play the same position — Crosby is a center, Ovechkin a winger — and they have talented players surrounding them. But the first two periods of the game seemed to follow that narrative.
Eight years after Crosby and Ovechkin had dueling hat tricks in a second-round playoff game against each other, both got the scoring started for their respective teams. A scoreless first period was followed by Crosby scoring twice in the first 64 seconds of the second period. A neutral-zone turnover by Niskanen off the opening draw led to a two-on-one with Jake Guentzel and Crosby, which Crosby finished. Holtby wanted that goal back, too.
Pittsburgh’s top line scored on its next shift, too. Crosby punched in a rebound off a shot from Patric Hornqvist. Suddenly, it was 2-0. It was nearly 3-0 just a few moments later, but Holtby stepped up to stop one of Phil Kessel’s signature wrist shots on a partial breakaway.
“The first two minutes of the second, that’s where it went wrong,” Trotz said. “We give up two goals. We just mismanaged the puck at that point.”
As Washington tried to rally, fans in Verizon Center started to show frustration. The Capitals had opened the game with just one shot on goal in the first 14:43. Down 2-0 in the second period, Washington initially struggled to generate quality scoring chances. In the last five minutes of the period, fans started chanting “shoot the puck,” even as the Capitals were even in shots with the Penguins at the time. Ovechkin happily obliged.
After a powerful open-ice hit by defenseman John Carlson on Evgeni Malkin, Carlson separated the big Pittsburgh center from the puck to regain possession. T.J. Oshie moved the puck up the ice before Lars Eller passed it to Ovechkin just above the left faceoff circle, Ovechkin’s sweet spot. Ovechkin’s wrist shot was perfectly placed, soaring past Fleury and into the top of the net. That halved the deficit before the third period, where Bonino once again provided the dagger.
“[Bonino] is a guy who’s a high-stakes player,” Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan said. “He brings his best game when the games are most important.”
The Capitals admitted they have been looking forward to this rematch for a year. The Penguins ousted them in the second round last season en route to winning the Stanley Cup. Neither team was guaranteed to get back to this point, but it seemed inevitable that Washington, in perhaps its best chance to contend for a championship, would have to get past Pittsburgh.
The teams both made offseason tweaks, but even with those, the rosters were largely the same as they were in the teams’ last postseason meeting a year ago, and Washington and Pittsburgh were the NHL’s two best teams in the regular season.
The Capitals’ slight personnel adjustments this summer were made to be better prepared for this matchup should it occur again. The team felt it was the Penguins’ secondary scoring, particularly a third line with Bonino, that beat them a year ago rather than superstar centers Crosby and Malkin. Washington responded by trading for Eller during the summer to center the third line and then signing free agent winger Brett Connolly, who scored a career-high 15 goals this season.
But with the game tied in the third period and the Capitals having an opportunity to start the series on a positive note, they once again had no answer for Bonino.