For the third time in four games in this best-of-seven, second-round playoff series, the Capitals spotted the Penguins an early lead of a goal or two in Wednesday night's Game 4 in Pittsburgh. This time, it was a 2-0 hole for the Caps early in the second period. And for the third time in four games, Washington rallied back to tie the game.
But for the third time in four games, that's as far as the Washington comeback got. The Caps have been chasing games and chasing this series since it started last Thursday, and now they've chased their way right back to where they were at this stage last spring, in a 3-1 ditch in the series after Wednesday's 3-2 loss in Game 4.
"You can't get down against a good team like that," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson, who was one of Washington's best players on this night. "We had good looks early and they didn't go in. [The Penguins] came out and they played hard. We were expecting that. We didn't get the job done."
Video: Caps players talk after a 3-2 loss in Game 4
The Capitals will now need three straight victories over the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins to avoid another second-round exit from the playoffs. The next time the Capitals win three straight playoff games against the Penguins will be the first time.
Game 5 is on Saturday night back in Washington.
A team that takes a slew of offensive-zone penalties and gets subpar performances from its best players has little chance of winning a playoff game. Against the defending Stanley Cup champs, depleted though they might be in terms of personnel, there is even less chance of coming out on top.
"Our top guys weren't as good as they needed to be tonight," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "We had an opportunity to play well, and I didn't think our top guys really stepped today, which was very unfortunate for us."
Video: Coach Trotz talks after a 3-2 loss in Game 4
"Obviously I didn't play my game at all tonight," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, who was guilty of two of those seven minor penalties whistled against Washington, all of them in the offensive zone. "I think me personally, I have to play much better, get more involved in the game.
"I didn't control the puck well, and made stupid decisions. Unfortunately it happened, and we have to forget it and we have to move forward. Every right now for us is [Game 7]."
For the first time in the series, the Penguins scored a first-period goal, taking a 1-0 lead for the third time in four games. A pair of quick and sharp passes from Matt Cullen and Olli Maatta, respectively - combined with some porous defensive play on the part of veteran Caps blueliners Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner - produced a Patric Hornqvist breakaway, and he made no mistake, roofing a shot into the top shelf on the short side at 4:39 of the first.
Marcus Johansson likely had the Caps' best two chances in the first, but he missed the net on one and his stick self-destructed on the other, a weak-side one-timer from the right dot.
Washington took a pair of those offensive-zone penalties in the first frame, an interference call on Ovechkin and a holding the stick minor on Lars Eller, killing them both without incident.
Early in the second, the Pens doubled their lead on a fortuitous bounce. Jake Guentzel's centering feed clanked off the skate blade of Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov and right into the Washington net, making it a 2-0 game at 3:51 of the middle stanza. Guentzel's goal came on the Pens' first "shot" on goal of the period.
"It just was a bad bounce," says Orlov. "It just bounced so hard and went into the net. It was a bad bounce for us."
The misfortune had an awakening effect of the Capitals, who once again showed more urgency once they were down on the scoreboard. Less than four minutes after Guentzel's goal, the Caps scored twice in a span of 72 seconds to tie the contest at 2-2.
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Kuznetsov beats Fleury short side
First, Johansson and Justin Williams did some strong wall work to win a loose puck and the latter dished it to Evgeny Kuznetsov in the left circle. Kuznetsov beat Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with a wrist shot over Pens blueliner Ian Cole, who went down in an attempt to block the shot. The goal came at 7:21, halving the Pittsburgh lead to 2-1.
A Brian Dumoulin turnover in neutral ice allowed the Caps back into the Penguins' zone, and Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt blasted a one-timer from virtually the same spot from which Kuznetsov scored, tying the game at 2-2 at 8:33.
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Schmidt chips one-timer top shelf
The Caps were even in the game and they had all the momentum as well. And then, they took another offensive-zone penalty, one that Trotz thought was a weak call.
"The one I thought was really light was we had all the momentum in the second period," recounts the Caps coach, "and we had a defenseman [John Carlson] go down the wall on a little bit of a cycle; he runs into one of their guys. We get a penalty and that sort of killed some momentum."
That's not all it killed.
Carlson was sent off for roughing Pens winger Scott Wilson at 10:45 of the second, and less than a minute later, the Penguins had their lead back for good.
The Caps appeared to have executed a clear on the ensuing penalty kill, but the whistle blew and the face-off came right back into the Washington zone, as officials ruled the puck had entered the bench area. Trotz and Wilson both thought differently and said so after the game.
Hornqvist bested Nicklas Backstrom on the draw, and nine seconds later Justin Schultz's drive from the point beat Holtby high to the blocker side, giving Pittsburgh a 3-2 lead at 11:24.
Schultz's shot was just the third the Pens had managed all period to that point, and that's counting the Guentzel goal that wasn't technically even a shot on net.
"Our power play gets a key goal for us at a key time tonight," observes Pens coach Mike Sullivan. "And it ends up being the difference in the hockey game."
Video: ALL CAPS | May 3
With exactly two minutes left in the third, Williams drew a double minor for hi-sticking on Cullen. Washington's best chances to tie the game came on the front end of that double minor, but Carlson's shot missed the net and Andre Burakovsky's deflection of a Niskanen point shot deflected off the crossbar.
Ovechkin took another offensive-zone penalty 41 seconds into the back half of the penalty, and that was that. There were no more power plays to be had for the Capitals.
Eller had the Caps' best chance to pull even midway through the third. He found some space and made a power move to the net, but Fleury hung with him all the way, kicking out his right pad to deny the shot.
A couple ticks of the clock after Holtby left the net for an extra skater in the penultimate minute of regulation, T.J. Oshie was sent off for a phantom hi-sticking call, the seventh offensive-zone penalty on Washington in the game, though two of those were coincidental minors in which a Penguins player went to the box as well.
Video: WSH Recap: Season on the brink after loss in Game 4
"That's sort of the deal that you're dealt," shrugs Trotz. "During the playoffs, you're going to have a lot of things happen to you. I could look back at a number of things; you need a save or that goal goes in off of a guy into the net.
"We had some good chances; we didn't bury them. And we're sitting here now down 3-1. And our backs are against the wall and the next game is the most important game of the year. If we don't have the urgency that we need in that game, then we won't earn the right to keep playing, plain and simple. We're going to have to wrap our arms around the reality of that. And then we have to take it one game at a time."