Washington's 2-1 loss to the Hurricanes on Thursday night was a costly one on multiple levels. First, it cost the Caps their lead in the series; Carolina's Game 4 victory evens the first-round Stanley Cup playoff set between the two teams at 2-2, with Game 5 back in D.C. on Saturday night.
But when the Caps take to the home ice for Game 5, they'll do so without heart and soul right wing T.J. Oshie, who left the game with an upper body injury late in the third. Oshie left the game after Carolina's Warren Foegele gave him a shove from behind, sending him careening awkwardly into the boards, and leaving him writhing in pain.
Oshie left and did not return; Foegele was assessed a boarding minor on the play, a sentence the Caps found to be too lenient.
Video: WSH@CAR, Gm4: Oshie exits Game 4 with injury
"I can give you a quick recap of what happened there," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "It was a defenseless player that was quite a distance from the boards, it's an extremely dangerous play, and he will not be with our team for a while."
Pressed to define "a while," Reirden responded, "He won't be playing anytime soon."
Reirden was looking for a strong response from his team after an abysmal performance in a 5-0 Game 3 loss in Raleigh, and for the most part, he got it. But a soft start left the Caps down a goal on the first shift of the game.
Carolina went 200 feet for the opening salvo, exploiting the Caps up the middle of the ice. Canes defenseman Jaccob Slavin barreled up the gut through neutral ice with the puck, working a give-and-go entry with Justin Williams on his right. Slavin kept driving that center lane after gaining the zone, then he dished to Foegele for an easy back door tap-in and a 1-0 Canes lead just 17 seconds after the opening face-off.
Video: Postgame Locker Room | April 18
"We get in their zone and it's a hard rim around," recounts Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. "Then they got a wall play, and got an odd-man break out of it, so not ideal."
Before the game was a minute old, the Caps' woes increased when Jakub Vrana was boxed for charging. Washington killed that minor without incident but was unable to convert on a power play of its own soon after.
In the second, the Caps were able to get into Carolina ice off the rush fairly regularly, but they weren't able to sustain anything in the way of a lasting offensive zone presence. Their trips into the Canes' zone usually resulted in a shot from the perimeter, and then Carolina would collect the puck and come back the other way.
One of those offensive zone forays did pay off in the middle of the period when Oshie drew a hooking call on Teuvo Teravainen, giving the Caps their second power play of the night. Washington's second man advantage started poorly, but the Caps were able to get the game tied up mere seconds before Teravainen's scheduled release.
Video: Todd Reirden Postgame | April 18
From center point, Dmitry Orlov pulled the puck closer to the tops of the circles. He pumped as if to shoot, and instead put it on a tee for Alex Ovechkin, who fired off a one-timer from the office to make it a 1-1 game at 10:36.
Through much of the first 11 periods of the series, the Caps effectively neutralized Carolina's top line, limiting it to one goal in Game 2. But the Caps fell asleep at the worst time, in the final half-minute of the middle period. Washington had three skaters on the right wing boards, one in neutral ice and one coming off the bench as Teravainen hopped over the boards and made a beeline for the middle of the Washington zone. Nino Niederreiter hit him perfectly, and Teravainen beat Braden Holtby to restore the Carolina lead at 2-1 with 27.9 seconds left in the second.
That was all the scoring in the game. Toward the middle of the third, the Caps were able to have a couple of shifts in Carolina ice, but the Canes protected the middle well, and Washington was unable to cobble together an equalizer. They generated a couple of shots on the power play resulting from Foegele's shove, but Canes goalie Petr Mrazek had the answer for both.
There wasn't much available for either team in the middle of the ice on Thursday, but the Canes were able to find enough time and space there to score twice, doing so in the first half minute of the first and the last half minute of the second. The Caps could only manage Ovechkin's power-play goal,
"I thought it was a fast-paced game tonight," says Niskanen, "but both teams protected the guts of the ice pretty well, except for two instances and they scored on it. That's how tight it is in the playoffs; you've got to be on your toes at all times, have good habits, be on your toes and be culturally sound."
Video: WSH Recap: Ovechkin scores PPG in Game 4 loss
While the Caps were closer to playing the way they'd like to play on Thursday, they didn't get the result they wanted, and this series is now essentially a best-of-three set.
"It was a pretty good game, otherwise," says Holtby. "It was pretty even throughout. It's close to the way we need to play. We're still not quite there, but it was a close game."
It was a close game, and now it's an even series, it's a long series, and the Caps know that when they return to Raleigh for Game 6 on Monday, one of these two teams is going to have a chance to shove the other out of the playoffs.
"Credit to them," says Reirden of the Hurricanes. "They played obviously much better than us in Game 3, and today was a closer game. But at the end of the day, they come out with a victory, and we've got to get better. We've got to improve.
"We learned last year that every series takes a little different course. This one right now, we didn't expect it to be easy at all, and they're a good team. So we've got to spend the next day here working on getting better, and when we get back home, take care of home ice."