Photo: Drew Hallowell
The Capitals were the league’s best team in the regular season. They ran over their opponents, winning the Presidents’ Trophy by 11 points. Their goal differential was plus-59, powered by deadly power play, a stifling penalty kill, the league’s best goalie, and solid five-on-five play.
In the postseason, however, they’ve often been lucky rather than good, winning their first round series with a major assist from self-inflected wounds by the Philadelphia Flyers. Now the Caps have run into run into the hottest team in the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve been outplayed in the first two games of the second round, but head to Pittsburgh with a split series due to an impressive individual performance by TJ Oshie in Game One.
“We have to show more inspiration, especially against this kind of team,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’ve got play better. We’ve got to be more aggressive. We’ve got the shoot the puck more.”
While the Flyers barely made the playoffs, the Penguins have been a juggernaut since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach, going 33-16-5 to finish the regular season. They won 14 of their last 16 games and eight of their last nine before the playoffs began. Pittsburgh then easily dispatched the Rangers in five games in the first round. The Capitals won Game One against the Pens but were outshot 45-35. In Game Two, Washington managed just 10 shots through two periods. They didn’t get a shot in the second frame until 14 minutes had gone by.
“We just couldn’t get anything going,” Matt Niskanen said. “We never had the puck, never had any pressure. Even if we don’t have the puck much, you’ve got to be able to apply some pressure somewhere on the ice to make them feel uncomfortable. That was too easy of a game through the first 40 for them.”
While the Penguins have scored 18 even-strength goals in the postseason, the Caps have scored just 10. Nine have come on the power play, which finally broke through in the third period after the Penguins killed the first five Washington man-advantage opportunities in the series. One goal, however, wasn’t enough.
“We didn’t play how we want to play,” said Alex Ovechkin. “Obviously you can see the result.”
This article isn’t meant to be fatalistic. The Capitals have a fantastic team. But the Penguins are great at five-on-five play and have shown an ability to stop Washington’s power play, which has accounted for almost half their goals in the postseason. Pittsburgh is fast and skilled, making the Caps pay if they try to go for the big hit and miss. The Capitals know all of this. Washington can win this series, but it will require better games than they’ve put together. If the third period of Game Two is an indication, which the Caps dominated, that may be coming.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best game yet,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said. “They’re a good hockey team and I think we’ve got a good hockey team, but we can be better in a lot of areas right now.”
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