After losing a 3-2 decision to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on the first Wednesday in May, the Capitals returned home for Saturday night's Game 5 in a 3-1 hole in their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Pens.
"Stick To The Script" was the Caps' mantra a season or two ago, but they seem to have reverted to it in the wake of the aforementioned 3-2 loss to the Pens in Pittsburgh in Wednesday's Game 4.a
The Capitals came home from Pittsburgh after a 3-2 loss in Game 4 put them down 3-1 in their second-round series to the Pens on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. And they've come home from Pittsburgh after a 3-2 loss in Game 4 put them down 3-1 in their second-round series to the Pens on Wednesday, May 3, 2017.
The only real difference between the two situations is that last year's Game 4 loss occurred in overtime.
Video: WSH Recap: Season on the brink after loss in Game 4
"You've just got to mentally fight through it," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "That's the part that we have to wrap our minds around right now. One of the things [about] playoff hockey is that you have to earn the right to play. The Pittsburgh Penguins have played without a number of players all year, and you were going to get their best game. And we needed our best game to beat them. We know that. They stepped up."
The Penguins stepped up, indeed. They're the defending Cup champions, and that's what champions do. And the Pens did so with a patchwork lineup in light of a Game 3 concussion to center Sidney Crosby, who joined Pittsburgh's No. 1 netminder Matt Murray and No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang on the sidelines. The Pens are now 7-2 in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, despite playing without Murray and Letang throughout.
In all three of their losses in this series, the Caps have spotted the Pens a lead. Twice, including Wednesday, it's been a two-goal lead. In all three losses, the Caps have rallied to tie the game. And all three times, that's as far as the Caps' comeback has gotten.
"We had a lot of zone time; we had a lot of chances," says Trotz. "[Pens goalie Marc-Andre] Fleury was a big player today. I'll look at the five-on-five chances and [the Penguins] didn't have much. They really didn't have a heck of a lot."
Video: Coach Trotz talks after a 3-2 loss in Game 4
Unlike the Caps, the Penguins haven't needed a heck of a lot of chances, either.
Trotz's refrain has been a similar after the three losses in this series, and those words are not unlike those spoken by Columbus coach John Tortorella and his players as the Pens dismissed the Blue Jackets in five games in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.
"We're going to have to find a way to get in on the inside and bang away and create more offense," said Tortorella after a 3-1 loss in Game 1 in which his team owned a 60-47 advantage in shot attempts. The Pens blocked 22 of those tries.
"We played the game we wanted to, we just weren't able to bury our chances and they did," Blue Jackets forward Brandon Dubinsky said following a 4-1 loss in Game 2. The Pens blocked 23 shots in that one, and the Jackets owned a 79-55 advantage in shot attempts.
Fleury made 49 saves to oust the Jackets in Game 5, a 5-2 Pittsburgh victory.
"We had a lot of chances," said Tortorella after the finale. "I think we had over 30 chances, which is just insane. We just needed to capitalize. We didn't. They did.
"I'm proud of our club. As I said, that's not a 4-1 series. I'm not going to piss and moan about it; they win."
Pittsburgh seems to be slow-playing its foes in the 2017 playoffs. It took until Game 4 for the Pens to score first-period goal in this series, and Pittsburgh has been outscored 6-4 in the first period of its nine postseason games to date. But the Pens own a decided 17-8 advantage in the second period and 13-7 in the third in the 2017 playoffs.
Washington has not owned the lead at any point in its three losses, and, despite a 306-179 advantage in shot attempts and a 142-93 lead in shots on goal, the Caps haven't been able to score more than two goals in 60 minutes in any of the four games of this series. The Caps' only win was a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 3, achieved only after Washington coughed up a 2-0 lead in the final two minutes of regulation.
The Caps haven't gotten enough goals, and they haven't gotten enough saves. They've seemingly had to work harder to achieve less in the series; only 2.9 percent of their total shot attempts (and 6.3 percent of their shots on net) have resulted in goals while 7.8 percent of Pittsburgh's shot bids (and 15 percent of its shots on goal) have found their way into the Washington nets.
"Obviously there is frustration, but we still have games left," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, who played poorly in Game 4, by his own admission. "The character on this team has been outstanding, and I'm pretty sure we understand that right now every game is Game 7 for us. We will be ready for that. It's hard, but looking forward we have to forget this result and try to win next game."
Video: Caps players talk after a 3-2 loss in Game 4
"All the clichés you want," says Caps winger Tom Wilson, "backs against the wall, blah, blah, blah. It's do or die now, so we take it game-by-game. You get the first game, then you get the second one, and you move from there. But we have to focus on our game right now, and taking it to them in Game 5."
The best team in the NHL during each of the last two regular seasons, the Caps are just 11-11 in the playoffs following those two seasons. In the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps have just one regulation win in 10 games. The night-to-night dominance and intensity they showed in the middle of the season is hardly in evidence, at least, not until they're down by a goal or two on the scoreboard.
"It's a tough spot to be in obviously," says Washington blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk. "I think our mindset has to be not worrying about winning three straight. Just win one. We can't look too far ahead, that's extremely important. They came out and they played a pretty sound game. We threw a lot at them tonight, and we're going to have to throw more at them on Saturday."
Ah, Saturday. Kentucky Derby Day. The Caps extended their season with a Game 5 win at Verizon Center on Derby Day last year, and they'll try to do so again this year. Game 5 is on Saturday night at Verizon Center, just after the conclusion of this year's Derby.
Last year's Caps season ended in Pittsburgh with a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 6 on Nick Bonino's game-winner. Once again, the Caps find themselves in need of three straight wins over the defending Stanley Cup champions to keep their season alive, starting with Saturday's Game 5. In their long and almost entirely ignominious playoff history against the Penguins, the Caps have never won three straight playoff games against Pittsburgh.
It's entirely up to the Capitals to change the script now. In the words of Bob Dylan, "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."
By The Numbers - Nate Schmidt netted his first career Stanley Cup playoff goal in the second period, tying the game at 2-2 … Matt Niskanen led the Caps with 24:53 in ice time … Evgeny Kuznetsov led the Capitals with six shots on net and eight shot attempts … Ovechkin and Wilson had six hits each to pace Washington … Niskanen and Brooks Orpik each blocked two shots to lead the Caps.