PITTSBURGH -- There was plenty of blame to go around for the Washington Capitals after their 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday.
But when asked what had to change for the Capitals now that they trail 3-1 in the best-of-7 series and are one loss from elimination again against their biggest rivals, captain Alex Ovechkin started by pointing the finger of blame at himself.
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"Obviously, I didn't play my game at all tonight," Ovechkin said. "So I think me personally I have to play much better, get more involved in the game. It's the time for us."
Game 5 is at Washington on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
In Game 4, Ovechkin was held without a point for the first time in the series when the Capitals needed at least one more goal. Equally as bad were the two offensive-zone penalties Ovechkin took (of six total for the Capitals), including a slash on Bryan Rust 41 seconds into the third period that negated the final 1:19 of a fruitless four-minute power play that came from Matt Cullen's high-sticking double minor.
Ovechkin had two shots on goal, four shot attempts and tied for the game-high with six hits, but he knew it wasn't nearly enough.
"I didn't control the puck well. I made stupid decisions," Ovechkin said. "Unfortunately, it happened. We have to forget it and we have to move forward. Every game right now for us is a seventh game, so we have to win three to move forward, and I'm pretty sure we're ready for that."
The alternative for the Capitals is a harsh reality they've been facing down for two seasons.
Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said before last season that this particular group of players had a two-year window to win the Stanley Cup. Forwards T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik, and defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk each can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. As potential restricted free agents, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Dmitry Orlov each will be due a significant raise that will make it impossible for the Capitals to keep most of their unrestricted free agents and stay under the salary cap.
Plus, with Ovechkin set to turn 32 on Sept. 17 and Nicklas Backstrom 30 on Nov. 23, the clock is ticking for the Capitals to make the most of their top players' dwindling primes.
So though Washington's past failures to get beyond the second round -- something it hasn't done since 1998 -- were always painful, if it happens again this season, it will have even more of a feeling of finality.
The Capitals failed to win the Stanley Cup in the first year of their window last season when they lost to the Penguins in six games in the second round. Now, they trail the Penguins 3-1 -- as they did last season -- and know this is probably it for them if they don't find a way to rewrite the end of the script.
"We'll see what we're made of here," Oshie said. "I think that that's a good question for us. It's been the question everyone's been asking for a couple of years, and we're backed into a corner here. So we'll see what we're made of and I'm excited to see the result."
The Capitals will never get a better opportunity than they had Wednesday to take control of the series.
The Penguins were missing center Sidney Crosby, their best player and arguably the best player in the world, and right wing Conor Sheary after each sustained a concussion in Game 3. They were also missing their top defenseman, Kris Letang, who had season-ending neck surgery, and Matt Murray, who was their No. 1 goaltender before sustaining a lower-body injury during warmups before Game 1 of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Fortunately for the Penguins, they had veteran Marc-Andre Fleury waiting to take over in net, and he frustrated the Capitals again in Game 4 by making 36 saves to negate Washington's 38-18 advantage in shots on goal.
"We had some good chances we didn't bury, and we're sitting here now down 3-1," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "Now our backs are against the wall and the next game is the most important game of the year, and if we don't have the urgency that we need in that game, then we don't earn the right to keep playing. So we have to wrap our arms around the reality of that."
Trotz declined to blame the Capitals' struggles on a mental block against Fleury or against the Penguins in general.
"Right now, we've got to find an extra way to get an extra goal, we've got to get an extra save, and our top guys tonight weren't as good as they needed to be," he said. "You get an opportunity to play well, [and] I didn't think our top guys really stepped up tonight, which was very unfortunate for us."
Trotz wouldn't single out Ovechkin when asked specifically about him, instead grouping him with the rest of the Capitals' top players.
"They need to be top players and step up right now," Trotz said.
If they don't, then their season will be over.
"The mindset is win or have the same result as last year," Williams said.