In the days before the start of the Capitals' second-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, more than a couple of Caps mentioned the need to take advantage of having the first two games at home in the series. Facing a Pens team that had been idle for a week, the Caps turned in a terrific performance for most of the night in Thursday's Game 1, playing closer to their ceiling as a team than they had in any of their six first-round games against Toronto.
Unfortunately for Washington, it didn't get started playing that way in earnest until it was down 2-0 on the scoreboard, just as was the case in Game 1 of its first-round series against the Maple Leafs. The Caps ended the night on the short end of a 3-2 final score and are down 1-0 in the best-of-seven series to Pittsburgh.
Video: Caps players talk after 3-2 loss in Game 1
"Obviously, we don't have the start like we want," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. "We came out a little bit slow. In the second period, we make one mistake and they score right away. Then next shift, they score again. We can't turn the puck over in the neutral zone; obviously they have skill up front."
Sidney Crosby staked Pittsburgh to a 2-0 lead with two goals in a span of 1:04 to start the second period. The first goal came a dozen seconds into the middle frame, and the second came just 52 seconds later.
"You can see after that, we played the way we wanted to play," says Ovechkin. "We put the puck deep, we forechecked and we hit. We tied the game, and again we make one mistake and it's back in the net.
"It's one game. We're going to watch the video and we're going to play differently [Saturday] night."
The Penguins' first goal of the game came after Washington held them without a shot on goal for more than 10 minutes, and Nick Bonino's game-winner at 12:34 of the third period came on Pittsburgh's first shot on net in five and a half minutes.
Video: WSH Recap: Caps' comeback falls short in 3-2 loss
"Obviously the first two minutes of the second, that's where it went wrong," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "We gave up two goals. We just mismanaged the puck at that point."
Both teams had stretches of more than 10 minutes without a shot on goal in a scoreless and fairly even first period. The Caps went nearly 12 minutes without a shot on net, and the Pens were held without a shot for the final 10:01 of the first.
Pittsburgh remedied that situation quickly at the start of the second. Just a dozen seconds into the middle frame, Crosby took a cross-ice pass from linemate Jake Guentzel and fired it past Caps goalie Braden Holtby for a 1-0 Pittsburgh lead.
Less than a minute later, Crosby made it 2-0 for the Penguins when he pounced on a loose puck in front of Holtby after the Caps goalie was unable to corral the rebound of an Olli Maatta point shot.
"I thought we just had a tough start in the second period there," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "Other than that, the second half of the first, I thought we were all right. We got our legs going, and we were putting pucks behind their [defense], and we got some more [offensive] zone time."
Video: ALL CAPS | April 27
Washington began to absolutely dominate the game in the latter stages of the second period. The Caps outhit the Pens by a 7-1 margin over the final 5:35 of the frame, and often a team with such a lopsided advantage in hits has that edge because it doesn't have the puck. That wasn't the case here; the Caps out-attempted the Penguins 13-1 and outshot them 6-1 over the same span.
Ovechkin halved the Pittsburgh lead with a short side wrist rocket at the 18:17 mark of the second, but the way the Caps finished the middle frame - aside from winning just three of the period's 19 face-offs, anyway - they probably would have preferred to have kept playing.
The Caps continued to pour it on in the third. Even though the Pens had a power play in the final frame, Washington owned a 31-13 advantage in third period shot attempts for a 44-14 lead in that department over the final 25:35 of playing time. Washington more than doubled up the Pens in shot attempts on the night, but its 83-41 advantage in that department yielded exactly zero Capitals power plays, too.
Video: Coach Trotz talks after 3-2 loss in Game 1 vs. Pens
Matt Niskanen turned in a terrific offensive zone shift to manufacture the tying goal for the Capitals at 8:05 of the third. It was Niskanen who muscled the puck into the Pittsburgh zone at the start of the sequence, and Niskanen who spun around, found a seam and made the cross-ice feed to Evgeny Kuznetsov for an easy back door tap-in on the weak side that tied the game at 2-2.
Four and a half minutes later, the Caps were down again, this time for good. Pens defenseman Ian Cole made a long stretch pass to Scott Wilson at the Washington line, and Wilson pushed the puck to Bonino in the middle of the ice. With a step on Caps defender Brooks Orpik, Bonino - who ended the Caps' season with a Game 6 overtime goal last May - was able to beat Holtby to the stick side for a 3-2 Pens lead at 12:36.
Washington kept pouring it on afterwards, and the Caps had a string of glorious chances from in tight on an epic goalmouth scramble with just under three minutes remaining. But Fleury and his teammates survived the flurry to earn their fifth win in six playoff games this spring.
Video: Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan talks after Game 1
"Marc obviously made a couple of big stops for us there, " says Penguins coach Mike Sullivan.
The Caps were credited with four shots on net in the span of 18 seconds during that lengthy scramble, and they had five shots on goal from inside of 20 feet away after Bonino's goal in the third.
"We had a chance to win it," says Backstrom. "But that's the way it goes sometimes."
When you have the champ on the ropes, it's best to administer the knockout punch. The Caps weren't able to do so in Thursday's series opener, and they've surrendered the home ice advantage in the series as a result.
"I thought we played a pretty strong game," says Holtby. "Obviously [the Pens] got most of their stuff off the rush. I thought we played strong, but I thought the first and third goals were ones that I'm capable of stopping, and that's the difference in the game."