WASHINGTON - The Washington Capitals rested and regrouped Friday after letting two leads slip away in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round on Thursday.
Artemi Panarin's quick hands provided the final dagger, snapping the puck over goaltender Philipp Grubauer's left shoulder 6:02 into sudden death and sending the Capitals and their fans home from Capital One Arena with a familiar disappointment.
[RELATED: Complete Capitals vs. Blue Jackets series coverage]
It was one game, one loss in a best-of-7 series with an opportunity at redemption awaiting in Game 2 on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, TVAS2, NBCSWA, FS-O). Yet, because of the Capitals' history of missed opportunities in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they seem to have already reached a crossroads where they need a win Sunday or the series could quickly get away from them with Games 3 and 4 in Columbus on Tuesday and Thursday.
"Nobody wants to lose, but we have a lot of hockey left in the series," Grubauer said. "We had the chance to win this game for sure, but we've got to stay out of the box and play 60 minutes."
The Capitals grabbed a 2-0 lead on a pair of power-play goals from Evgeny Kuznetsov in first period, but their undisciplined play in the third period allowed the Blue Jackets to twice tie the game with power-play goals.
First, an offensive-zone charging penalty by Tom Wilson, 1:18 into the third period, led to Thomas Vanek's tying goal at 1:31.
Video: CBJ@WSH, Gm1: Barry Trotz on Kempny, goalie situation
Then, after the Capitals retook the lead on Devante Smith-Pelly's goal, Andre Burakovsky tripped Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones when he was circling behind the Columbus net with 5:05 remaining. Jones tied the game 39 seconds later.
"We get up 2-0, we've got to make sure that we put the foot down and play smart hockey," Wilson said. "Maybe a bit of a learning experience."
Some teams would be able to chalk up the loss to a learning experience and move on quickly. Maybe the Capitals, the Metropolitan Division champion, can do it as well.
But, their postseason track record means there will be questions until proven otherwise.
The Capitals have not advanced past the second round since 1998, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final for the only time in their history. The past two seasons, they entered the playoffs as Stanley Cup favorites after winning the Presidents' Trophy and were eliminated in the second round, each time by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Last season, they lost 2-0 in Game 7 at home, a disheartening performance that some remaining players admit remains.
"It's there, I think; it's lingering there," defenseman Matt Niskanen said before the playoffs began. "We've got to fight through and find a way to win."
After a summer of roster changes, the Capitals exceeded expectations by finishing first place in the division for the third consecutive season. They've suggested that there's less pressure on them in the playoffs this season because they are not the favorites, and maybe that will help them finally go on a long postseason run.
Video: Discussing the Blue Jackets win over the Capitals
That said, the Capitals did not expect this first series to be easy. The teams are pretty evenly matched. The Capitals went 49-26-7 with 105 points. The Blue Jackets were 45-30-7 with 97 points.
The Capitals went 12-3-0 in their final 15 regular season games. The Blue Jackets went 13-2-2 in their last 17 regular-season games to clinch the first wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
But, of course, there is pressure on the Capitals to defeat the Blue Jackets, who have not won a playoff series in their 17-season history. That pressure increased after Game 1.
The Capitals have enjoyed the narrative this season of proving those who doubt them wrong, so this will be another opportunity for them to do that. Their failure to close out Game 1 will only fuel the doubters.
In addition, the Capitals might have to play Game 2 without defenseman Michal Kempny, who sustained an upper-body injury on a hit from Josh Anderson, who received a boarding major and a game misconduct, in the first period on Thursday. Kempny was list as day to day by the Capitals on Friday.
Coach Barry Trotz made the difficult decision to start Grubauer, the Capitals backup the past three seasons, instead of Braden Holtby in Game 1. After Grubauer allowed four goals on 27 shots in Game 1, Trotz didn't commit Thursday to sticking with Grubauer in Game 2, setting up another potentially pivotal decision for Trotz and the Capitals.
Must-win is too strong of a term for a Game 2, but the Capitals know the difficult path they'd face if they were to lose again on Sunday. They lost the first two games at home to the Penguins last season and played catch-up the rest of that series.
"We're got to make sure we get the next one," Grubauer said.