May 6 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center
Time: 7:15 p.m.
Radio: 104.7 FM, 1500 AM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Game 5, Stanley Cup Playoffs Second Round, Penguins lead 3-1
Ten games and 24 days into their 2017 Stanley Cup playoff voyage, the Capitals are facing elimination from the tournament for the first time. Saturday's Game 5 of their second-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins will be the end of the road for the Capitals if they don't win. Just as they did in the second round of the playoffs a year ago, the Caps have dropped three of the first four games of their second-round series with the Pens, and they must now win three straight games to keep their season alive.
"It feels a little similar," says Caps right wing T.J. Oshie. "I feel like last year we didn't give [the Penguins] our best and this year we're not giving them our best yet again. So it's going to be exciting to see what we're made of here, and see if we can come into Game 5 and play our game for a full 60."
Video: Oshie talks before Game 5 against the Penguins
Winning three straight games against the defending Cup champs will always be a tall task, and the Caps are in this position after losing Game 4 by a 3-2 score on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh hadn't scored a first-period goal at any point in the series, but that changed less than five minutes into the first period of Wednesday's game when Pittsburgh's Patric Hornqvist exploited a gaping chasm between defenders Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner at the Washington line. Hornqvist easily split that tandem then rolled in and backed Caps goalie Braden Holtby into his net before chipping a shot to the top shelf on the short side to put the Caps in an early 1-0 hole.
A fortunate bounce off Dmitry Orlov's skate upped the Pens' lead to 2-0 early in the second period, and it was at this point that the Caps began to play the way they're capable of playing.
Video: Rinkside Update: Nate Schmidt | May 5
By the time Jake Guentzel's centering pass clanked off Orlov's skate and went into the Washington net, each side had attempted 23 shots on net in the nearly 24 minutes of hockey played. From that point onward, Washington owned a lopsided 49-15 advantage in shot attempts, showing the urgency they seemed to be lacking early on.
Washington's best players weren't its best players in Game 4, and that has to change in Game 5 if the Caps are to extend their season even through the weekend.
"Last game wasn't our best, so we've obviously got to be better," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "We're down 3-1 [in the series], so it starts with us. That's no secret."
Video: Nicklas Backstrom talks to media about Game 5
While averaging 20-plus minutes per night in this series, Backstrom and linemates Oshie and Alex Ovechkin have produced 26 shots on goal and 59 shot attempts in the four games against the Pens. For comparison's sake, Washington's third line of Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller and Tom Wilson has managed 31 shots and 61 shot attempts. Among that trio, only Eller (14:10) has averaged more than 14 minutes a night in this series.
After taking Thursday off, the Capitals reconvened for a Friday practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Caps coach Barry Trotz tweaked his lineup, sliding Burakovsky onto the left side of a line with Backstrom and Oshie and putting Ovechkin on the portside of a unit with Eller and Wilson.
Video: Caps players meet the media ahead of Game 5
"We're just looking at different things," says Trotz. "We talked about getting a little more production through the length of our lineup. We've been using 11 forwards the last couple of games, and we don't have a lot of practice days. When you do use 11 forwards, you end up with [players] playing sometimes with other people. It's an opportunity for us to put [Ovechkin] there and get him some reps with Lars and Tom.
"It's an opportunity for us to do that, and it's an opportunity for us to look at maybe getting a little more production out of that third group, because that third group has been really good for us. They just haven't hit the back of the net a whole lot."
Video: Trotz on adjustments moving to Game 5 on Saturday
Eller's group and Evgeny Kuznetsov's line have been strong in terms of puck possession and time in the offensive zone for Washington in this series, but the Caps' dominance in that area has produced a mere trickle of goals.
Kuznetsov himself is responsible for half of Washington's six goals at five-on-five in this series. Ovechkin, Backstrom and Nate Schmidt account for the other three.
"I think I've been creating a lot of chances and I've been playing well," says Burakovsky. "I'm skating good and all that, and the only thing that's missing is the goals. As long as I'm creating, I'm not concerned. I'm just having a little bit of bad luck. I hit the goalie's knob once and I hit the crossbar. But now I'm playing with two really, really good and skilled forwards who can give me the puck and really good opportunities. This time I'm not hitting any posts or knobs."
Ten games into the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps own an extremely pedestrian 5-5 record. They're 2-3 on home ice, this after losing just three of their final 23 home games (20-2-1) during the regular season. Of their five wins thus far in the 2017 playoffs, exactly one has been achieved in regulation. Four have come in overtime.
Most significantly, they've run out of slack in the rope - for the series and the season.
Video: ALL CAPS | May 5
"We all know we're not doing as good as we want," says Oshie, "so we kind of expected some changes to be made. We didn't know what they were going to be. As far as having Burky up there, he's fast, he's got those young legs, and he is going to be buzzing around. And he can create space for himself and his teammates with his ability. I played with him maybe three games in the regular season there, and we had a lot of zone time and a lot of puck possession. So I'm interested to see how things go."
"At this point, I don't think it really matters who is playing with who," says Backstrom. "It's just about [being] hard working and making sure we execute our plays. It doesn't really matter who is playing with who here. We've just got to take it one game at a time, work hard and execute our plays."
Execute, or be executed. And the Caps have met the latter fate every spring for the last decade, faring poorly as the calendar turns from April to May.
The Caps are 12-22 in May playoff games in Ovechkin/Backstrom era, a period that began with the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs. Washington owns an 8-15 mark in one-goal playoff games in May during that span, and it is 4-7 in May overtime games. The Capitals have scored as many as three goals in just 15 of those 34 May games, and they've done so in just eight of the 24 May games they've played with Braden Holtby in goal.
Video: Caps captain Alex Ovechkin talks line changes, Game 5
Two weeks ago, Trotz talked about the need for his team to give the Toronto Maple Leafs a shove off of the cliff that is the Stanley Cup playoffs in Washington's first opportunity to do so, Game 6 of that first-round series. Now, the Capitals are the team teetering on the precipice, looking to avoid the Penguins' best shove.
"We've got to establish a tone back in our building," says Trotz. "I think we're 2-3 at home here, and that's not Verizon Center-like for us. We need to come out with a lot of purpose, a lot of focus, a lot of emotion and a lot of detail in our game so that we can establish the tone we want to set, where we want to play the game and how we want to play it."