With all their wiggle room now gone, the Caps head into a must-win Game 5 on Saturday night at Verizon Center in their second-round playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite being down 3-1 in the best-of-seven set and needing three straight wins against the defending Cup champs, the Caps still have confidence in their ability to rally and turn the series around.
"We're still a confident group and I think we realize we're gripping our sticks a bit too tight and need to loosen up a bit and just play hockey," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "That's when we're playing our best is when we're not worrying about anything; we're not thinking, we're just playing. We're playing for each other, and that's what it's going to have to take to get this done."
"We should be confident in our group," says defenseman Matt Niskanen. "We've had several long stretches in each game of the series where we've been really, really good. So we just need more of it. We need a lot more. We're going to need guys to play a little bit better in just about every area. We're going to try to go as hard as we can here, and leave it all on the table."
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Three one-game winning streaks, three Game Sevens, however you choose to look at it, it's a daunting task to have to win three straight against the defending champs. The Caps won three straight to finish off their first-round series with Toronto, the main difference being they had wiggle room in that series and made sure they didn't need to use it.
Stepping Up - If the Caps are to overcome this not-at-all-insignificant hurdle, they'll need everyone pulling on the rope together. Washington's top players have scuffled in this series, and that was particularly true in Wednesday's Game 4 loss.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin was hard on himself in the wake of Wednesday's 3-2 loss, but he wasn't the only key Washington player who struggled. To a man, Ovechkin and his teammates all need to be better in Game 5 if the Caps have any hope of making another trip to Pittsburgh for Game 6.
Video: Trotz meets the media before #CapsPens Game 5
"I heard some of his comments after the game," says Caps coach Barry Trotz, "and he was disappointed in his game. That's good for him to man up there, but the bottom line is we're going to need him to be really good [Saturday]. So he's got to respond this next game and be a difference maker for us."
Trotz has juggled his forward lines a bit, switching out Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky on the left sides of their respective units.
"We need contributions from everybody in our lineup," says Trotz. "[We need] our top players to be our best players and that goes for everybody from our goaltender right through our lineup, forwards and defense. Those guys are the leaders that everybody follows and they're the guys who have to lead the way.
"We obviously don't have any wiggle room and it's a big, important game [Saturday]. We're very capable of winning three [straight] games; we've done that many times in the last three years. But it's a challenge. That challenge is a big one, but at the same time it's not impossible."
The extra day off between Games 4 and 5 gave the Caps coaching staff time to regroup and come up with a viable way to proceed forward.
"We met as a staff on Thursday," says Trotz. "We know somehow we've got to come up with an extra goal or an extra save. We're winning a lot of the analytic wars, but we need to win the scoreboard war. So we thought about different things, we put a plan in place, and we're going to go forward with it.
"We're going to need our extended lineup to produce a little bit more, getting past the top six. And we need our top players to be at the top of their game. So you're going to see a lot of different combinations today, but our top players are going to play a big role in that. One thing you find with top players, they make other people better. And that's what we're going to try to do today."
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The 3-1 Hole - Historically, NHL teams down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have rallied to win just under 10 percent of the time. The Caps have done so twice in their history, most recently against the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. Washington also turned the trick against Philadelphia in the first round of the 1988 tournament.
Most of the coaches and players have been with a team that has pulled off the 3-1 comeback or has been victimized by the same at some point during his career.
"I was on the Pittsburgh team that was up 3-1 a few years ago on the Rangers, and we ended up losing in Game 7," says Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik. "I was hurt, so I had a good view of watching that one. Just watching how the momentum built up against them was something I took away from it.
"But I think normally when you look at a team that's down 3-0 or 3-1, normally there is a pretty big gap between the two teams just in terms of how good they are. I think when that's the case, usually the chances of a team coming back aren't very great, and those teams aren't very confident they can come back.
"I think we've had the feeling that for a large part of the series, we've carried the play. We just haven't found a way to win the games and they have, so you've got to give them credit there. I think the teams are so evenly matched and I know a lot of guys in here feel that we're probably the better team. I think that probably explains why guys are as confident as they are, even being down 3-1 here."
In Trotz's first season with Washington, the Caps let a 3-1 series lead slip away in a second-round series loss to the New York Rangers.
"I've been on both sides in the past, at different levels," says Trotz. "But at the same time, things change in a moment. And the best person to talk to about that is probably Justin Williams, because he has been on some teams that looked like they were basically done and gone. And then something happens, and all of a sudden it just changes.
"Maybe we get a goal like [the Penguins'] second goal the other night and it changes everything. You saw a change in the game [Friday] night, the late game in Anaheim. So it can change in a split second."
Leading Men - During the 2016-17 regular season, the Capitals scored the game's first goal in 58 of 82 games (70.7%), tops among all teams in the NHL. The Caps posted a 46-7-5 record in such situations, also the best in the league.
But the Caps have scored the game's first goal in just four of 10 playoff games (40%), tied with Ottawa for the fewest among the eight remaining teams in the postseason. Three times in this series with the Penguins, the Caps have yielded the game's first goal, and they've surrendered the game's first two goals in two of those three contests. Washington has rallied to tie the game in all three instances, but the Caps have never been able to take the lead in any of those three games, either.
As a result, the Caps have found themselves chasing individual games against the Cup champs, and they've ultimately ended up chasing the series as well.
"You see a lot of comebacks in the playoffs," says Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik, "but I think over the course of a series or over the course of a longer span of games, playing catch-up hockey is definitely not a good recipe for winning. You are forced out of your structure to take more opportunities, more chances, and in return you wind up giving up a lot more chances than you usually do. You also use up a lot more energy than you do when you have the lead. That's definitely something that has bitten us a little bit, is getting behind in these games."
During the 2016-17 regular season, the Caps found themselves trailing after 40 minutes of play just 22 times in 82 games (26.9%), the fewest of any team in the NHL. Thus far in the postseason, the Capitals have been down after 40 minutes four times in 10 games (40%), tied for the most among all teams in the postseason.
"When you're chasing the series," says Trotz, "you end up playing your top guys a little bit more. During the season, we didn't chase very much. If you remember, we were probably the best team in the first period, so we could afford to spread the wealth out a little bit more. When you're chasing a lot of the games here, you're looking to get your offensive guys out a little bit more so that you can maybe get the game back in hand or get it tied up or whatever. By not getting the first goal a lot of the time in the playoffs here, we haven't been able to stretch it out as much as we'd like to."
Pittsburgh has owned the lead for 115:37 of the 243:13 of hockey played in this series. The Caps have led for a total of 45:50, all of it in Game 3. The two sides have been even for 81:46 of the time they've played.
Playing with a lead - especially an early lead - would likely be beneficial for the Caps as they try to climb their way back into this series.
Video: Caps players talk before #CapsPens Game 5
In The Nets - After allowing three goals on 18 shots in Game 4, Holtby gets the net again for Washington on Saturday. When we talk about the Caps' best players needing to step up their game, Holtby is one of those who must do so for the Caps to dig out of this ditch.
Holtby has now permitted three goals in three of the four games in this series, all losses. He is 3-7 with a 2.73 GAA and a .908 GAA lifetime against the Penguins in the playoffs, and all three of those victories came in the only three of those games in which he permitted two or fewer goals against. Holtby is 9-15 with a 2.11 and a .928 save pct. in the month of May in Stanley Cup play.
After posting a .909 save pct. and a 3.02 GAA in the 2016-17 regular season, Fleury is 7-2 with a .935 save pct. and a 2.40 GAA in the playoffs this spring. Lifetime, he is 22-22 with a 2.54 and a .908 in 45 career May appearances in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals to look for Saturday's Game 5. As for the Penguins, it sounds as though there is a good chance that Sidney Crosby and/or Conor Sheary will be back in the Pittsburgh lineup for Game 5. Both players suffered concussions in Game 3 and both missed Game 4. As has been customary for the Penguins in this series, Pittsburgh's lineup will be a game-time decision. The Penguins defense pairs below should be accurate, but the forwards listed are merely how the Pens lined up for the last game.
65-Burakovsky, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
8-Ovechkin, 20-Eller, 43-Wilson
14-Kunitz, 71-Malkin, 81-Kessel
59-Guentzel, 13-Bonino, 17-Rust
62-Hagelin, 7-Cullen, 72-Hornqvist
23-Wilson, 37-Rowney, 34-Kuhnhackl
2-Ruhwedel (upper body)
30-Murray (lower body)
58-Letang (neck surgery)