PITTSBURGH — Three times the Washington Capitals held a one-goal lead over their rivals Wednesday night. Three times they gave themselves reason to believe they could engineer a statement game against the Metropolitan Division leaders.
Ultimately, the only statement to be made for the Capitals was a recurring one for their season of inconsistency. Their own mistakes in the final 11 minutes 25 seconds erased their strong play and left them with a gut punch in the form of a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center.
“We played a pretty good game, but we figured out a way to lose it tonight,” Coach Adam Oates said. “We did a lot of good things in the game, and obviously you get tired of saying that, too, especially when we blow it. Tonight we play a good game, and we figure out a way to get a lead in the third against a fresher team, and we didn’t sustain it. You have to be able to.”
This meeting between Washington and Pittsburgh was stacked heavily in favor of the rested home team that had four days off since its last outing and has suffered only three home losses in 23 games. The Capitals, who have lost 10 of their past 14, were wrapping up a stretch of five games in seven nights.
But the Capitals didn’t look the part of a tired team and in the third had every opportunity to secure a victory against Pittsburgh, which now holds an 18-point lead in the division.
After an evenly matched first 40 minutes, the teams entered the third tied at 2 on goals by Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera for Washington and Kris Letang and Taylor Pyatt for the Penguins. Hostilities ramped up, and both Pittsburgh star center Evgeni Malkin and Capitals defenseman John Erskine were sent off with matching roughing minor penalties. On the ensuing four-on-four, Alex Ovechkin recorded his 34th goal on a wicked one-timer to put Washington ahead for the third time in the contest with 8:35 gone.
“I don’t feel like that was the case where we didn’t do a good job protecting,” Laich said. “Certainly on the bench it didn’t feel like after we got the lead that we changed anything. There was no talk of okay, let’s sit back and try and prevent.”
Washington may have tried to stick with the aggressive forechecking game and simple play in its own zone that had gotten it that far, but against the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference, any error can turn costly.
In another four-on-four situation, Eric Fehr overcommitted to Brandon Sutter along the left side boards and Nicklas Backstrom drifted away from the front of the net when Jussi Jokinen popped out from behind the goal line. Both forwards had been on the ice for 56 seconds when Sutter sent a pass in front that then found Jokinen, who knocked the puck off the stick of Dmitry Orlov and past Michal Neuvirth to make it 3-3 at 11:35 of the third. In just his second start in nearly eight weeks, Neuvirth finished with 33 saves. His counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury, recorded 25 saves.
“They’re probably the best puck moving team in the league,” Fehr said. “They’re really tough to predict coming out of their end where they’re going to go. They use everybody, and it’s tough to get a read on them. They were getting pretty good exits coming out of their zone all night and coming up with a lot of speed and a lot of skill, so it’s really tough to defend.”
As time waned in regulation, the third line of Chimera, Marcus Johansson and Joel Ward was on the ice for a 65-second shift — Oates said he wanted a line change before that play unfolded — in which the Capitals made an ill-fated attempt to chase Malkin around the offensive zone. Malkin carried the puck down into the zone and behind the net drawing the attention of all five Washington skaters on the ice, worked around to the other side and then sent the puck to Olli Maatta at the blue line. Having collapsed down low to follow Malkin, the Capitals were in a race to find their positioning again.
Ward went out to challenge the shot from the point, but Maatta faked the slapper, pulled up and around the veteran winger and then sent a snap shot from the top of the left circle that found its way through traffic and past a screened Neuvirth to give the Penguins the most important lead of the game with 1:54 left.
“Tough loss obviously. Kind of disappointing moment, but we have to handle it and just forget this one,” Ovechkin said. “We play good solid hockey, but their team has experience and they score two goals. . . . It’s kind of hard.”