By Chris Gordon
When the buzzer sounded at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals made their way back to the locker room. The Pittsburgh Penguins had beaten them 3-2, putting them on the brink of elimination in the second round.
Inside the locker room, the Capitals gave trite answers to reporters about never giving up on a series and how the team could play better. There was one issue with this company line: the Capitals had played well enough to win. They’ve done it in all four games that have been played against Pittsburgh yet trail in the best-of-seven series 3-1. On Wednesday, Washington outshot Pittsburgh a remarkable 38-18.
The Capitals are now going to be staring the end of their season in the face on Saturday night at Verizon Center. After dropping Game Four by a close margin, the Caps began searching for something to blame. Like every other game in this series, their criticisms were self-directed.
“I would say I didn’t play my game at all tonight,” Alex Ovechkin told reporters. “I think me personally have to play much better.”
“I think I didn’t control the puck well and make stupid decisions,” he added.
Ovechkin, who is tied for the league lead in shots on goal in the postseason, finished with just two, with another set of pucks blocked by Pittsburgh. While Ovi was clearly off his game, he was not credited with any giveaways on the scoresheet, though some of his passes were intercepted.
“We have to be aware when he’s on the ice,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “We try to make our players aware of that. We prepare them for the different situations that might occur on the ice so we have a gameplay to defend against it. Certainly he’s a very good player. He’s an elite player in the league.”
Ovechkin did not figure much in the offense, a fact compounded by his two minor penalties. The Capitals were called for seven penalties in total, including one by Ovechkin’s top line buddy TJ Oshie that effectively killed any chance of a Washington comeback.
“It’s kind of an amateur play by me there,” Oshie said of his high-sticking penalty, an extremely suspect call. “It’s just unfortunate.”
Top blueliner John Carlson was also called for a phantom rouging call.
Hahah just saw the roughing call on Carlson NBCSN never showed, via CSN pic.twitter.com/bD2ywdRYsF
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) May 4, 2017
Filling out the rest of the first line, Nicklas Backstrom failed to register a shot on goal despite playing over 20 minutes. He was on the ice for Pittsburgh’s game-winning goal.
Braden Holtby, meanwhile, allowed three goals on 18 shots, which will do nothing to help his poor save percentage in these playoffs
After the game, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz put the hammer down.
“I would say our top players didn’t play as well as they need to be,” Trotz said. “They need to be top players and step up right now.”
He repeated some variation of that answer multiple times during his press conference just in case you missed the subtlety.
“[W]e have to find an extra way to get an extra goal,” said Trotz. “We got to get an extra save.” The Caps bench boss then went on to say his top guys “weren’t as good as they needed to be.”
However, the Capitals’ secondary scorers made up for any deficiencies by the top line and top defense pair.
Evengy Kuznetsov led the game with six shots on net, including a beautiful snipe that got the Capitals on the board. On the third line, Lars Eller and Tom Wilson combined for nine shots on goal.
While a few of his players had subpar games, Trotz doesn’t need to go searching for more offense from a team that is outshooting their opponent 142-94 through four games. The Capitals have also attempted 306 shots compared to the 180 pucks the Penguins have fired towards the net.
Washington is dominating play. But against the Penguins, that’s not enough. In fact, it can work against you. In Game Four, Penguins got in front of 24 Capitals shots. Washington blocked just 11 of Pittsburgh’s attempts.
The Pens feast on the careening pucks that their sacrifices create. The Capitals may be firing off a lot of shots — but to Pittsburgh’s advantage.
“I give our players a lot of credit,” Sullivan said. “Certainly Washington is a real good team that has a dynamic offense. It’s a been a big challenge for our group in this series. We’ve got to continue make that commitment, to play away from the puck to defend our scoring areas as well as we can.”
The Penguins are masters of the counterattack, creating odd-man rushes and breakaways with their tremendous speed, skillful cross-ice passes, and some deadly finishes. All this creates havoc for Holtby and led the the Penguins to a 3-2 win on Wednesday. On the other end of the rink, Marc-Andre Fleury remains a puck collecting octopus in the Pittsburgh crease.
“He’s been playing great,” Pens defenseman Ron Hainsey said of Fleury Wednesday night. “I could talk for a while. He’s made so many key saves at key times.”
Simply put, the Penguins can do serious damage with just a few opportunities. The Capitals are unable to rack up goals despite the mounds of pucks they fire towards the net.
Down 3-1, the Caps know they are in an almost impossible bind. It seems they cannot figure out how they got there.
“Right now it’s Game Sevens, every game for us,” Ovechkin said. “It’s tough.”
Headline photo: Matt Kincaid
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