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Caps Need a Win as Series Shifts to Ohio for Game 3

Down 0-2 in their playoff series with the Blue Jackets, the Caps hit the road seeking smarter and more disciplined play, and even-strength production

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / WashingtonCaps.com

April 17 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena

Time: 7:30 p.m. 

TV: NBC Sports Washington, NBCSN

Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7 and 99.1 FM

Game 3, Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Jackets lead, 2-0.

As the scene shifts to Columbus on Tuesday for Game 3 of the first round Stanley Cup playoff series between the Caps and the Blue Jackets, Washington finds itself is familiarly desperate straits. The Caps dropped the first two games of the series, losing both at home and both in overtime. 

According to ESPN, the Caps are the sixth team in NHL history to drop the first two games of a playoff series in overtime and on home ice. Not surprisingly, each of the previous five teams to venture down that path lost those series. If the Caps were looking for a challenge, they've found one. They now need to make history merely to advance to the second round. 

"It's hard," said Caps captain Alex Ovechkin in he wake of Sunday's 5-4 overtime loss in Game 2. "Obviously we had opportunities to finish it up but we didn't, two games in a row. But I think we played a solid game. We just didn't win." 

As was the case in Game 1, the Caps scored the first two goals of Game 2. While they lost a two-goal lead in Game 1, they lost a pair of two-goal leads in Game 2. Two overtime goals - from Artemi Panarin in Game 1 and Matt Calvert in Game 2 - from the Jackets are the difference in this special teams-heavy series in which both teams have scored multiple power-play goals in both games.

Philipp Grubauer started each of the first two games of the series in goal for Washington, ending Braden Holtby's streak of 37 consecutive starts for the Caps in the post season. But after allowing four goals on 22 shots in the first 40 minutes of Game 2, Grubauer departed the contest in favor of Holtby.  

Holtby finished up, stopping seven of eight shots in 32:15 of work, surrendering Calvert's rebound tally to pick up the loss.

That leaves some doubt as to who will be in net for Tuesday's Game 3 in Ohio's capital city. Caps coach Barry Trotz knows the identity of his Game 3 starter, and the rest of us are likely to find out at Tuesday's morning skate. Before heading to the airport for a team flight to Columbus on Monday afternoon, Trotz held a conference call with media.

"I have [made my decision]," said Trotz on the conference call, "but out of respect to the goaltenders I want to tell them when I get to the plane. So I have made a decision, but I can't divulge that right now."

Washington winger Andre Burakovsky left Sunday's Game 2 in the first period after skating just over two minutes total spread over five shifts. Burakovsky did not make the trip to Columbus and won't play before Game 5. 

"Andre has an upper body [injury]," says Trotz. "He will not be traveling. He is going to get some tests, and he is going to miss some time here." 

Burakovsky's injury provides an opportunity for Jakub Vrana to return to the lineup. In his first NHL playoff game in Game 1, Vrana set up Devante Smith-Pelly's go-ahead goal in the third period, but he skated less than seven minutes on the night, and he was on the ice for both of the Blue Jackets' five-on-five goals in that game, including Panarin's game-winner in the extra session. 

"Jake, I think it was his first playoff game and there were a lot of jitters in his game," says Trotz. "I know you have to go through that the first game in terms of the game is a little bit overwhelming, and as a staff we looked at that. But Jake is going to be fine. He is going to fill that hole, exactly what Burky has done. He is going to play."

However the Washington lineup shakes out, and whichever players are wearing the sweaters, the Caps have to play a smarter brand of hockey and they have to exercise more discipline. Poor decision-making and ill-timed penalties have made life too easy for Columbus, which is a formidable enough opponent without gift giving. The Jackets are also struggling with discipline issues; Columbus has been shorthanded 13 times in the two games, and the Caps have cashed in for five power-play goals.

"Just play smarter, I think," says Ovechkin. "We make some bad choices on the ice with what we're doing out there. It's frustrating, but again it's not over yet. It's just the beginning of a great series. We're going to continue to play how we play, and we'll see what happens."

Where Washington is falling woefully short right now is at five-on-five. The Caps have scored two five-on-five goals in the series, with bottom six forwards Smith-Pelly and Jay Beagle supplying those goals. Dating back to the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps have scored just those two five-on-five goals in their last 205 minutes and 55 seconds of hockey. 

"I think there has just been so many penalties that it's tough to really get into a groove for a lot of people," says Caps defenseman John Carlson. "We know we need to be better, but it doesn't matter how they go in as long as we can manufacture them. That's what it comes down to. We've got to certainly play better at five-on-five; I don't discount that. But we've got to bear down when we get the chances that make a difference in games like these."

It's not like the Capitals haven't had their chances; they've had many, especially in Game 2 when they outshot the Jackets 58-30 and out-attempted them 105-53. But the Caps' key cogs haven't been able to finish, and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been excellent despite allowing seven goals in two games. His .966 save pct. at even strength in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs ranks third among starting goalies, behind only San Jose's Martin Jones (.974) and Vegas' Marc-Andre Fleury (.974).

"Again, it's hard," says Ovechkin. "You're right now in a hard position, but it's going to be fun when we bounce back and we're going to tie the series and come back here and play Game 5 at home." 

That's the ideal scenario for the Caps, obviously. They'll have to win two games in a hostile barn against a good hockey team in order to pull it off.

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