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Capitals must be better in Game 3 against Penguins

Onus on goalie Braden Holtby, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to improve with Washington trailing best-of-7 series 2-0

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- Not good enough.

As well as the Washington Capitals have played in the Eastern Conference Second Round, dominating the Pittsburgh Penguins for stretches and outshooting them 71-45 over two games, they have been outscored 9-4 and trail the best-of-7 series 2-0.

It isn't because of bad luck. It's because they have to be better against the defending Stanley Cup champions, who survive barrages, counterattack quickly and make you pay for mistakes.

Game 3 is at PPG Paints Arena on Monday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). Lose, and the Capitals will be on the brink of being eliminated by the Penguins in the second round after winning the Presidents' Trophy for the second straight season.

Here is a look at who needs to improve the most:


Braden Holtby

Holtby is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and a finalist this year. In the regular season, he led the NHL in wins (42) and ranked second in goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.925) among goaltenders who played more than 40 games. But in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? He's 4-4 with a 2.62 GAA and a .911 save percentage. He was pulled after two periods in Game 2 after allowing three goals on 14 shots.

The Penguins can make good goaltenders look bad. Against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, they did it to Sergei Bobrovsky, who won the Vezina in 2013 and is a finalist this year. In the regular season, Bobrovsky had 41 wins, a 2.06 GAA and .931 save percentage. In five playoff games against Pittsburgh, he was 1-4 with a 3.88 GAA and .882 save percentage. 

That said, like Bobrovsky, Holtby is not playing up to his ability.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Sunday that Holtby was expected to start Game 3. Of course he should start Game 3. He shouldn't have been pulled from Game 2 (more on that in a moment). Trotz praised Holtby's body of work and mental toughness, adding, "He'll be the difference in the series."

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm2: Holtby pushes across to deny Guentzel


Barry Trotz

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan outfoxed Trotz at a critical point in Game 1. After Sidney Crosby scored 12 seconds into the second period, Sullivan put out the Evgeni Malkin line, then went right back to the Crosby line on the fly. Crosby took advantage of a better matchup and scored again at 1:04, giving the Penguins a 2-0 lead.

Trotz should not have pulled Holtby in Game 2. He said he was trying to change the Capitals' mojo after they had fallen behind 3-1. Perhaps he wanted them to play desperately in front of backup Philipp Grubauer and get back to the way they performed in the first period, when they outshot the Penguins 16-5. But it seemed like a panic move, and the last thing the Capitals need is a whiff of panic considering their history of playoff failures, the situation and the opponent. It didn't work, either. Grubauer gave up two goals on nine shots.

It's fair to wonder if the Capitals are being too aggressive at times too. Although they have put pressure on the Penguins, they have left themselves vulnerable to counterattacks, the Penguins' specialty. Sullivan wasn't afraid to say this after Game 2: "When teams want to play an aggressive game against us, there's risk and reward. So when you get high-quality opportunities, that's when we believe our quick-strike capability is at its best."

Trotz isn't going to trap. "I think if you sit back, then the Penguins are all over you all night," he said. But he needs to make some subtle adjustments and find a balance.


Kevin Shattenkirk

Shattenkirk, a pending unrestricted free agent, was considered a prize before the NHL Trade Deadline. The Capitals paid a high price to acquire him from the St. Louis Blues, not only to boost their defense, but to keep him from rivals like the Penguins. They gave up a first-round pick and conditional picks in the package.

But Shattenkirk has struggled on the third pair and the power play in the playoffs. He is minus-7, worst on the Capitals. He has three points, all power-play assists.

In Game 1, he didn't cover Penguins forward Scott Wilson tight enough on a breakout. Wilson caught a stretch pass and centered it to Nick Bonino, who scored the winning goal. In Game 2, he had a shot blocked by Penguins center Matt Cullen on the power play, got outskated by Cullen in the neutral zone and watched Cullen score shorthanded to make it 1-0. He also fired the puck out of play and took a delay-of-game penalty that led to a power-play goal and a 4-1 deficit.

"That's not good enough for what we need in that third pairing," Trotz said. "To be minus-7, it's hard to recover from. Your third pairing, you want them to be even."

Video: WSH@BOS: Shattenkirk buries Backstrom's pinpoint feed



The Penguins have blocked 62 shots over two games. Not only has it helped keep the puck out of Pittsburgh net, it has helped put the puck in the Washington net. Twice in Game 2, a blocked shot led to a rush and a goal. There was Cullen on Shattenkirk. Then there was Crosby on Justin Williams, which ended in a Jake Guentzel goal and a 3-1 deficit.

"Just like any chess match, they make a move, you need to do something different," Williams said.

The Capitals don't need Garry Kasparov. But they do need Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and Co. to shoot quicker before the Penguins fill the lanes, get more pucks and bodies to the net, and then finish.

"They haven't had a lot of chances in this series, but the ones they've had, they've executed," Trotz said. "We've had more chances and we haven't executed on them. We've got to find that balance of limiting their chances even more if we have to and just make sure that we capitalize on ours."

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm2: Fleury closes his pads on Kuznetsov

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