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playoffs

Toughest test of season for Capitals

Regular-season champions face win-or-go-home scenario after Game 4 loss to Penguins

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH - Over and over, the Washington Capitals kept talking about how resilient they've been in battling through adversity this season.

Whatever this group overcame during a regular season in which they ran away with the Presidents' Trophy and never lost two consecutive games in regulation was nothing compared to the situation they're in now. This is the real thing, and they're in it deep.

A 3-2 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday at Consol Energy Center was their third in a row in this Eastern Conference Second Round series and put them in a 3-1 hole in the best-of-7 series. A loss in Game 5 at Verizon Center on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports) and their season will end well short of expectations. Again.

"It's a totally different year," captain Alex Ovechkin insisted.

This is the Capitals' chance to prove that, or again fail to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs. They last did that in 1998, when they made their only trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Hornqvist wins Game 4 for Pens in OT

While the Capitals were setting a franchise record with 56 wins during the regular season, they looked like a team capable of finally getting that far again and winning it all this time, but they haven't looked like that team enough in the playoffs.

Despite a decided advantage in depth and talent, they struggled to put away the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round before finally finishing them off with a 1-0 victory in Game 6. In this series, they've allowed the Penguins to dictate the style of play far too often to take advantage of their advantage in size and strength.

The only game in which the Capitals have done that for extended stretches was in a 3-2 loss in Game 3 on Monday. They were convinced that would carry over to Game 4 and they'd be rewarded with a win that would even the series.

It appeared set up for them to do it Wednesday with the Penguins missing their top defenseman, Kris Letang, who was suspended for his late, high hit on Marcus Johansson in Game 3. Olli Maatta another regular on defense, is still out with an upper-body injury. But the Capitals didn't do nearly enough to pressure Pittsburgh's depleted defense, and they could not take advantage of a lead provided by Jay Beagle's goal 2:58 into the game.

That's a giant red flag for any team with aspirations of winning a championship.

"We didn't take advantage of it," Capitals coach Barry Trotz acknowledged. "One thing I said to the guys coming into this, I think we talked about it [Tuesday] when Kris got the suspension, is that they were going to rally, their whole team."

The Penguins rallied and demonstrated their resilience in taking a 2-1 lead. The Capitals were able to tie it on defenseman John Carlson's goal with 3:41 left in the second period.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Carlson roofs goal to even game at 2

They pressured the Penguins more after that, but were unable to break through against rookie goaltender Matt Murray for the go-ahead goal in the third period. In overtime, a giveaway by defenseman Mike Weber led to Patric Hornqvist's winner at 2:34 and sent the Capitals to their locker room dejected.

"That's why it's [called] sudden death. That's what it feels like," Trotz said. "We'll have to deal with it. This group's dealt with a lot of things. I think they've handled adversity pretty well all year, so they'll have to do it again. We've dug ourselves a hole and we'll see if we can dig ourselves out a little bit."

Other than injuries, which all teams have to play through, the biggest adversity the Capitals had to deal with during the second half of the regular season was fighting through the complacency that comes from being so comfortably ahead in the standings. They tried to manufacture some urgency during the final few weeks, but never faced a real must-win situation.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Beagle lifts his backhand shot into net

Now, they do.

"You can't quite mimic, like we talked about during the regular season, that feeling of killer instinct quite like when your backs against the wall," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It needs to be 100 percent for that one."

For inspiration, Ovechkin looked back to last year's playoffs, when the Capitals held a 3-1 lead in the second round against the New York Rangers and allowed them to come back to win the series in seven games.

"We lost the series, so we have to take that experience and turn it around our way," Ovechkin said.

An organization known for blowing playoff series leads now has to pull off one of those comebacks. The last time the Capitals faced a 3-1 series deficit was in the first round of the 2009 playoffs against the Rangers. They came back to win that series before losing to the Penguins in seven games in the second round.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Holtby stones Cullen, Dumoulin

In the first round of the 2008 playoffs, the first postseason of the Ovechkin era, they fell behind the Flyers 3-1 before fighting back to force a Game 7, which they lost 3-2 in overtime.

"The team [general manager Brian MacLellan] put together is for the playoffs and we've faced a lot of adversity and that adversity makes you stronger throughout the years," Beagle said. "Throughout this year too we faced a bunch, and we're going to rely on that. We've got a strong core group of guys and no quit in here."

The Capitals will have two days off to recover from Wednesday's loss and get ready for Game 5. If they can win at home Saturday, Game 6 is back here on Tuesday.

"Hopefully we'll regroup and I know we will and we'll just see if we can bring it back to Pittsburgh," Trotz said. "That's our goal. We've just got to win the next game. That will be our total focus. It shouldn't be anything else than that. Just a total focus on winning a game."

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