WASHINGTON (AP) A five-minute implosion made the Capitals look like the same old team in the playoffs.
They blew a two-goal lead for the fourth time in seven games to ruin an otherwise solid performance in a Game 1 loss to the back-to-back Stanley Cup-champion Penguins. That Pittsburgh stormed back to win 3-2 seemed to suggest this would be yet another chapter in the long, miserable history for the Capitals against their nemesis; the Penguins have won nine of 10 postseason meetings between the two teams.
But with fresh memories of digging out of a 2-0 series hole against Columbus in the first round, Washington doesn’t sound like a team thinking, ”Here we go again.”
Players were quick to say they played a well and almost glossed over that ugly span of 4:49.
”We played a pretty good game,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”They scored on (Sidney) Crosby’s three shifts in a row in the third period to win the game. Otherwise we played pretty good, so I don’t think you need to overanalyze that.”
Overanalyzing is exactly what will happen given the Capitals’ recent and franchise-long playoff history. But maybe the Capitals are better off focusing on the positives, and coach Barry Trotz expects things to click back into place for Game 2 on Sunday.
”It was a little bit of a kick in the stomach,” Trotz said Friday. ”We had a couple kicks in the stomach in the first round with Columbus and you saw the response that we had. I know our group, I know the strength of our group, I know the resiliency. This group will battle back.”
It’s not so easy to guarantee the Capitals will go shift-for-shift with the Penguins like they did most of Game 1, especially with the potential return of Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin. Washington did get as many quality scoring chances, if not more, than Pittsburgh, but those third-period goals by the top line of Patric Hornqvist , Crosby and Jake Guentzel tipped the balance.
Ideally, Trotz wants the Capitals to play with the lead the same way they do to get it: Move the puck quickly, make good decisions, defend hard and maintain solid positioning. Those things didn’t happen on the three shifts against Crosby and Co., including mistakes like Dmitry Orlov not tying up Hornqvist’s stick, Alex Ovechkin tipping the puck right to Crosby, and Braden Holtby giving the puck away behind his own net.
”One mistake, one bad bounce and they’re back in the game,” Ovechkin said. ”It hit my stick and goes right to Crosby’s stick. Move forward.”
Moving forward for the Capitals means cleaning up the little plays that can make a big difference this time of year. Trotz acknowledged the Penguins’ comeback ”happened very quickly,” and it was enough to overshadow two competitive periods where his team arguably out-chanced and out-played its opponent.
”That’s the tough part of this game is that those inches and those swings of momentum are so huge and you try to get them back,” Trotz said. ”You have some control of it, and you just want to make sure that you execute at the highest level.”
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey