If this Washington Capitals season comes to a close in the coming days — and, man, doesn’t it feel like it will end the first chance it gets? — the image that sums it up won’t be Matt Calvert celebrating his overtime goal in Game 2 or Artemi Panarin celebrating his overtime goal in Game 1. Those are pertinent, and in Ohio, Calvert and Panarin are springtime heroes. But they are merely byproducts of the Capitals’ own ineptness, Columbus opportunity born of Washington stupidity.
Around here, the image we need to remember is the door to the penalty box swinging open, and some Capital — Tom Wilson springs to mind — skating sheepishly, all alone, back to his own bench, perhaps in search of a dunce cap. The Columbus Blue Jackets are down the ice, celebrating. And the Capitals are wondering how and when and why they became so daft.
The key to this first-round Stanley Cup playoff series, which now looks as if it could be over before it really gets started, isn’t some nuance about disrupting play in the neutral zone or generating more quality chances. It has to do with the vast expanse of darkness between the Caps’ collective ears. Yell in there, and hear the echoes.
Nicklas Backstrom, your assessment?
“We need to be a little smarter,” the veteran center said without hesitation after Sunday night’s 5-4 overtime loss at Capital One Arena.
Replace “a little” with “a lot &%$#@*!,” and Backstrom’s dead on. To review . . .
In Game 1, the Capitals led 2-0 in the first period and 3-2 with five minutes left — and lost. In Game 2, the Capitals led 2-0 and 3-1 — and lost.
Put away all the playoff tripe you hear this time of year, the stuff about how “we have to play our game” and “we have to bury our chances,” etc. Throw out the ridiculous shots-on-goal numbers from Sunday (Washington 58, Columbus 30). It’s all some version of garbage.
The Capitals could be — and probably should be — leading this series two games to none. Instead, they are down by that margin — perhaps an insurmountable margin — not because they have been unlucky or even outworked. They trail because they have played dunderheaded hockey.
“We need to play with better discipline,” Backstrom said, “especially when we have the lead — twice,” and he put some punch on that final word to drive it home a bit.
In all the Capitals’ before-they-were-ready exits from the postseason in years past, there have been all sorts of discussions about what they lacked. For years, it was the absence of a legitimate No. 2 center behind Backstrom. Or it was Washington’s inability to land or develop honest, stay-at-home defensemen. Two years ago, Pittsburgh exposed them as a tad too slow in a league that is increasingly reliant on youth and speed. The breakdown of what was missing would carry into the offseason as someone else carried the Stanley Cup.
But in discussing the current Columbus debacle, shove all that stuff into a cabinet, grab a padlock and lose the combination. This isn’t the best version of the Capitals, not in depth or momentum or explosiveness. But after two overtime losses, none of that matters. The Capitals are losing this eminently winnable series not because of some sort of — pick a buzzword — “resilience” or “grit” inherent deep in the bellies of the Blue Jackets. They are losing this series because of their athletic IQ, which at times seems unable to be measured using standard tests.
(There is the matter, too, that Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been waaaaaaay better than Washington’s Philipp Grubauer, who was yanked after two periods Sunday in favor of Braden Holtby, who would figure to start Game 3 on Tuesday night in Columbus. But Bobrovsky hasn’t been impenetrable, and the Caps have scored seven goals against him in regulation, and anyhow neither Grubauer nor Holtby can stop his teammates from taking ridiculous penalties.
(Oh, yeah. Back to that . . .)
Wilson is a prime culprit. His job is to be an agitator and an enforcer, an occupation that requires living on — and thriving on — a hard-to-define edge. Finish your checks but don’t get called for boarding. Cause a scrum but don’t grab someone’s stick. Annoy within parameters.
In this series, all of two games, Wilson can’t find that edge. In Game 1, with the Capitals holding a 2-1 lead just more than a minute into the third period, Wilson was called for charging. Thirteen seconds later, with Columbus just cranking up the resulting power play, Thomas Vanek tied the score. And Wilson’s gaffe wasn’t the most egregious of that night, because even after the Caps regained the lead, Andre Burakovsky managed to trip Columbus defenseman Seth Jones — 200 feet from the Capitals’ goal. Jones scored on that power play, which forced overtime, which ended with Panarin’s goal.
The Caps had two off days to clean it up. And in some ways, it got dirtier.
“Penalties, obviously, have really cost us the past two games,” defenseman John Carlson said.
We’ll get to the rest of those, sure. But there were other small things, too. With the Caps up 2-0 in the first Sunday, they couldn’t — or wouldn’t — go for the kill. Instead, they got sloppy on a line change, and defenseman Dmitry Orlov couldn’t get his stick on a vertical pass or his body on a free-skating Cam Atkinson, who skated in alone on Grubauer. He barely beat him, with the puck sliding between Grubauer’s left skate and the post. But it counted, the momentum was gone, and the Caps again had picked up their own Voodoo doll, grabbed a pin from the cushion and stuck it in an eye.
“We’ve got to learn from some of those mistakes,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “Obviously, a couple guys haven’t learned that lesson yet.”
Are they waiting for offseason study sessions? Go down the list. There was Wilson, again, in the second period. By that point, there had been some chippiness after the whistle blew. To Wilson, that must look like red meat to a rabid pit bull. He can’t help himself. So he tussled a bit with Jones — and drew a roughing penalty. After the play was long over.
You already know what happened next. The specifics: Atkinson scored on the power play. Columbus tied it at 3. Maybe six minutes later, Washington’s Devante Smith-Pelly held a stick. The whistle blew again. Smith-Pelly was sent off. Zach Werenski buried one from just inside the blue line. Even in overtime, veteran Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen so blatantly tripped Columbus’s Josh Anderson that the Caps had to kill off a penalty when the equation read: Goal = Loss.
In light of all this abhorrent, irresponsible behavior, I asked Backstrom, the levelest of Washington heads, whether he found it surprising that a team with this much experience would commit these kinds of errors at these important moments.
“Uh, yeah, maybe,” Backstrom said in a manner that indicated he found it not surprising at all. So he clarified: “I mean, we’re actually an emotional team, and I feel like we like to get involved in stuff. But I don’t know. Maybe we should just focus on the game.”
That, folks, amounts to Nicklas Backstrom dropping the hammer.
In the time before the puck drops Tuesday in Columbus, we will hear about how the Caps trailed Pittsburgh in last year’s second round — dropping Games 1 and 2 at home — before pushing the series to seven games. We will consider what a potential switch to Holtby in net might mean.
But even with all that, we are left only with the evidence that this series has provided thus far. That is: Unless and until the Capitals grow a collective brain, they can plan for an early offseason rather than a second-round matchup with anybody.