The play in question, the one the Pittsburgh Penguins will carry back up through Breezewood and west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, began with an egregious turnover by the Washington Capitals, one that put the puck precisely where they don’t want it: on Sidney Crosby’s stick. There was Crosby, wrapping around the back of the net. There was Patric Hornqvist , first whacking at the puck, then raising his arms. And there was Braden Holtby’s left pad, fully extended.

Get out your microscopes and let’s zero in on that puck because, even if the Capitals held a two-goal lead at that point in the third period Sunday, it sure felt as if the game hung right there on the goal line, which the puck either did or did not cross.

Your view on that depends on your Zip code. Any thoughts, Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan?

AD
AD

“My view was that it’s 100 percent a goal,” Sullivan said Sunday evening.

Because 100 percent is all the percent available, Sullivan shared those thoughts with the officiating crew, perhaps a bit indelicately. But the officials at the NHL offices in Toronto had decided that they couldn’t, without a doubt, say the puck sneaked under Holtby and across the line. And so the Capitals’ two-goal lead remained a two-goal lead, and they secured a crucial 4-1 victory in Game 2 to even the series as it heads north.

Even with what ended up being a comfortable-looking score — aided by Nicklas Backstrom’s late empty-netter — two things happened on that one play that matter for the Capitals, and it’s hard to determine which is more important. First, Holtby sold out to make what was another in a series of spectacular saves — even if this one was controversial.

AD
AD

“He had some really unbelievable saves that I thought was going in the net,” Backstrom said, and these came even before Hornqvist’s third-period poke. But Backstrom also quickly and correctly identified a more important element.

“We got lucky there,” Backstrom said. “We got a break.”

We can reproduce and parse the long list of calamities that have gone against the Capitals during their forays into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. A chapter — maybe a whole book — could be written on how those have gone in Washington’s games against the Penguins over the years. Why, just look back to Thursday night, when in a five-minute span the puck seemed to bounce away from the Capitals and right into that dreaded spot: Crosby’s stick. A 2-0 lead went poof, and the Penguins skated off with an unlikely 3-2 victory despite, essentially, 55 excellent minutes from Washington. Put your head in your hands again, because the movie actually gets more painful with each viewing.

AD
AD

So here, on Sunday, were the Capitals finally taking a 2-0 lead and pushing it to 3-0 on Brett Connolly’s goal — that’s right, Brett Connolly’s goal! — just more than two minutes into the second. And yet when Kris Letang shot one past Holtby with less than seven minutes remaining in the period, Capital One Arena fell into its customary stance in such instances, and that’s decidedly on edge.

The comforting element, at this point, is Holtby. It seems a hockey lifetime ago that Capitals Coach Barry Trotz named Philipp Grubauer the starter for the playoffs, and it’s because Holtby has won five of his six starts since he took over. The sellout crowd chanted his name throughout Sunday afternoon, perhaps never louder than when his right pad met a Jake Guentzel shot with roughly nine minutes left in the second. Pittsburgh was pushing to get the Capitals to crater. Holtby became their spine.

“He responded the way he always has,” Trotz said.

AD
AD

Still, if the Capitals were going to get back in this series, they needed a break. That it happened on a call involving Crosby is significant because it can seem, if you wear a red jersey to Capital One Arena over and over and over — somehow keeping hope alive all these years — that Crosby gets all the calls.

On Sunday, the Capitals needed a ruling. This one involved some waiting. Though Hornqvist and Crosby put their hands in the air, indicating they thought the puck squeezed through, there wasn’t a satisfactory angle. So the Caps shuffled their feet. They craned their necks, nervously, at the video board. They fidgeted.

“It sucks,” Backstrom said.

AD

“It’s stressful,” Connolly said, “because there’s just so many different ways the calls can go.”

The best angle available showed, when blown up, what appeared to be a sliver of white between the red of the goal line and the puck. But I would emphasize appeared because that white could have been skate shavings, and Holtby’s pad covered the puck for most of its stay in the crease, and the overhead view seemed to show the puck hung on the line, and how the heck can you tell anyway?

AD

This is not a conversation I’m anxious to have with Sullivan.

“When you blow it up,” Sullivan said, “you can see the white. It’s behind the post. Whether you use deductive reasoning or you can see the white, whatever it may be, that’s how we saw it. So we respectfully disagree with the league and their ruling.”

AD

Sid, you saw . . . what?

“You can clearly see that the puck is on its edge behind the post,” Crosby said. “It’s not possible for it to touch the line.”

Now, though, that’s all noise. The call stood. The Caps had their break. They finished off a game they had to finish off. And the series heads to Pittsburgh tied.

“We earned our breaks tonight,” Connolly said. “I think we deserved them.”

Such an odd conversation to have about the Capitals, in a series against the Penguins. Earning breaks. Good fortune. All of it.

AD

Whether those elements can be carried to Pittsburgh, where Games 3 and 4 are Tuesday and Thursday nights, is difficult to say. There’s no real historical precedent for that where the Capitals are concerned.

AD

What they have, though, is Holtby, calm and confident. On Sunday, he made 32 saves on 33 shots, many of Grade A quality. He now has a .934 save percentage in his six games as a starter. And he has put the Capitals in a position that, should they get a bounce or a call or an unlikely bit of luck, they can win against any team in any building.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.

More on the Capitals:

AD
AD