Alex Ovechkin and goalie Braden Holtby sit on the bench in the third period after Holtby was pulled from the game in the Capitals’ 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
After a strong first period and a tight start to the second, the Penguins chased the Caps right out of their own rink and won going away. It’ll be desperate times on Monday night in Pittsburgh for Game 3.
Here are the best and worst moments from Saturday’s 6-2 loss to the Penguins at Verizon Center:
Best series-changing team meeting?: The Capitals took their time in the locker room after the loss. Surely once they win the series, writers can all look back on this moment as the start of the improbable comeback, right? RIGHT?
Worst deja-vu: This scoreline.
Worst stat: The Capitals have dug themselves a hole.
Worst puck to the side of the head: Pittsburgh’s Ron Hainsey. Ouch.
Best scapegoat: Holtby or Shattenkirk? The former looks like a shadow of his regular-season self. The latter was supposed to be the final piece in the playoff-success puzzle. Both were at fault on opposing goals tonight. Some Caps fans were a bit displeased.
Best reason to leave early: This sequence with just under 10 minutes to play: Tom Wilson laid a thunderous but clean hit on Tom Kuhnhackl, and the Capitals picked up the loose puck and broke up the ice. Then Wilson changed course, deciding to punch Caps killer Nick Bonino and draw a penalty.
Best challenge: It’s all coming up Pittsburgh. Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan challenged a call of goalie interference with 14:20 to play and the control room in Toronto ruled that Evgeni Malkin scored a clean goal to give Pittsburgh a 5-2 lead. After a slow start, the Penguins stars are shining.
Best series of events: Just seconds after Pittsburgh hit the crossbar to come within inches of taking a 5-1 lead, Nick Backstrom rebounded an Ovechkin shot to score and give Washington life. Game on.
Wost, worst, worst, worst penalty: Kevin Shattenkirk what were you thinking? 92 seconds into the third period, the defenseman flipped the puck over the boards to earn a delay of game penalty. 47 seconds later, Phil Kessel scored through the five hole to give Pittsburgh a 4-1 lead.
Best opportunity for immortality: Holtby out, Philipp Grubauer in. If ever there was an opportunity to become a D.C. sports hero, the 25-year-old German has one here. All he has to do is keep the Penguins at bay so that the Capitals can even the series with a third-period comeback. Grubauer was 19-3-6 with a 2.04 goals against average and a .926 save percentage in the regular season.
Worst reminder: The Penguins are ruthlessly efficient and can make a great goaltender look porous. The Capitals have dominated the shot count this series but have never led. Braden Holtby has allowed three goals on 12 shots and the fans are starting to turn against him.
Worst all too familiar sight: The upper deck at one of D.C.’s professional sports stadiums is full of loud visiting fans thus far with plenty to celebrate.
Worst side: Braden Holtby’s glove side. Just over three minutes after Kessel’s goal, Jake Guentzel kept the puck on a 2-on-1 and placed his shot under Holtby’s glove. 3-1, Penguins. Is it time for the Capitals to get desperate?
Best skills: Sid the Kid. Crosby handled the puck between his legs, deked between three Capitals and fed Phil Kessel. The winger blasted a wrist shot past Holtby’s left shoulder and into the back of the net for his third goal of the playoffs. 2-1 Penguins with just under seven minutes left in the second period.
Best power play: Three Penguins chased the puck into the corner to leave space for Matt Niskanen right in front, who equalized 54 seconds after Pittsburgh took the lead.
Worst power play: 45 seconds into the Capitals third power play, Matt Cullen fought off T.J. Oshie to slap the opening goal between Holtby’s legs on a short-handed break away.
Best refs: These ones. 29 seconds into the second period, the Penguins were whistled for their third penalty of the game. The Capitals have two shots on target in the first ten seconds of this power play, but still nothing. . .
Worst conjurer of ghost of playoffs past: Marc-Andre Fleury. The 32-year-old netminder, who went 18-10-7 and posted a 3.02 goals against average during the regular season, is so hot right now. After 16 saves in the first period, Caps fans are starting to worry that they’ve seen this script before as Fleury has stopped 98 of the last 102 shots he has faced.
Worst amazing start: Washington out-shot Pittsburgh 35-21 in Game 1, and leads in that category 16-5 after the first period. Statistically, the Capitals are dominating. Still, Sidney Crosby created a pair of dangerous chances on Braden Holtby’s doorstep. No matter, though: the only stat that matters is goals
Best early whistle: Pittsburgh spent just two minutes in the penalty box in Game 1, but the referees saw Trevor Daley hook Andre Burakovsky four minutes into this contest. Alex Ovechkin had a clean look on a one-timer from the left circle that was eaten up by Fleury. Nothing to show on the scoreboard for a positive start, but the Capitals outshot the Penguins 8-1 in the game’s first nine-plus minutes.
Worst advertised start time: 8 p.m. That’s when we were told the game would start, but the draft lottery delayed the puck-drop. Allegedly, things will get underway at 8:23 p.m. Not even expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee felt the need to attend that event.
Worst pregame news: Pittsburgh forward Carl Hagelin is on the ice for pregame warm ups and appears to be ready to play for the first time since March 10. The Swedish speedster is a match up nightmare for Washington’s defense corps. The Penguins will be happy to dump the puck deep and let their fast forwards pressure the Capitals into dangerous turnovers.
Game 2: Washington Capitals (1st place, 55-19-8, 118 points) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd place, 50-21-11, 111 points)
Date and time: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Location: Verizon Center
Regular season series: Capitals 2, Penguins 2
Game 1 at Washington: Penguins 3, Capitals 2
Game 2 at Washington: Penguins 6, Capitals 2
Game 3 at Pittsburgh: Monday, May 1, 7:30 p.m. (NBCSN, CBC)
Game 4 at Pittsburgh: Wednesday, May 3, 7:30 p.m. (NBCSN, CBC)
Game 5 at Washington (if nec.): Saturday, May 6, TBD (TBD)
Game 6 at Pittsburgh (if nec.): Monday, May 8, TBD (TBD)
Game 7 at Washington (if nec.): Wednesday, May 10, TBD (TBD)
>>“So here we are again, in late April, absolutely panicking,” writes Barry Svrluga. And it’s tough to argue with him. For the Capitals, it’s starting to look like the same old story.
>> The Capitals got off to such a hot start, dominating play throughout the first period, that it seemed this series would be even by the end of the evening. But shots on goal and time on the offensive zone don’t count, goals do, and Washington’s failure to cash in on any of its opportunities left the door wide open for the Penguins to take off come the second period. Now, because of the Caps’ failure to finish early, Pittsburgh is one step closer to finishing them.
>> Speaking of the Penguins, they clearly can subsist on getting out shot, losing more faceoffs than they win and having to kill off more penalties in the first period than they did in all of Game 1. Pittsburgh’s ability to overcome a slow start and still take care of business was on full display Saturday night, and now they head home with a 2-0 lead in this series.
>>This is going to be a long, wonderful seesaw series, writes Post columnist Thomas Boswell. That is, if the Caps win Game 2. In the 87 times that an NHL team has squandered the first two games at home, just 18 of them have won the series. Now, for the good Caps news. Most of the time, when a trend shows up in Game 1, it tends to loom over the series. And the Capitals almost won Game 1 and dominated the hitting. They have every reason to feel confident heading into Game 2.
>> Marc-Andre Fleury helped the Penguins win a Stanley Cup in 2009 and has been a franchise cornerstone for more than a decade, but was replaced by rookie Matt Murray because of injuries last postseason. He nearly rode the bench for another playoff run, but when Murray was injured in warmups of Game 1 during the Penguins’ first-round series, Fleury stepped into a net that is, at least for the moment, his again. Fleury’s steady play is making the Penguins’ Cup pursuit much simpler.
>> Forward Paul Carey will make his playoff debut this season, drawing into Washington’s lineup for Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal against Pittsburgh on Sunday. “What we’re trying to do, he’ll be a real good fit,” Trotz said of Carey. Brett Connolly was scratched to make room for Carey after struggling to make an impact in Washington’s first-round series.
>> The Penguins’ Carl Hagelin is one of the league’s fastest skaters, and when he’s on the ice, Pittsburgh has a noted advantage over sometimes slow-footed Capitals defenders. But for now, he remains a game-time decision.
>> It doesn’t take long at all to lose a playoff hockey game, which is obvious and perplexing at the same time. It takes 60 minutes to win one — at least — and we can all agree on that. But somehow, they can be lost in a single shift or a matter of seconds, in the amount of time it takes to read this paragraph.
Barry Svrluga writes that, while the decisive goal against the Capitals came late, the path to the loss started with early Washington miscues.
>> D.C. sporting events aren’t known for their celebrity power, but this week seems different. Twenty-four hours after Joe Biden brought down the house during a Wizards-Hawks playoff game, the Caps hosted a veteran A-lister of their own: David Letterman his truly spectacular beard.
Dan Steinberg talked with the TV legend about why he was at the game and whom he was rooting for.
>> The Penguins’ first two goals came in the first 64 seconds of the second period, and both were scored by Sidney Crosby. Then the gut punch was delivered by Capitals killer Nick Bonino, which unearthed the secondary scoring disparity that buried the Capitals a year ago.
Secondary scoring was what ultimately set the Penguins apart in last year’s second-round series. Their third line, centered by Bonino (with wingers Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel), scored five goals in six games, and the fourth line centered by Matt Cullen contributed two more. The Capitals got one even-strength score from a bottom-six forward when Jay Beagle netted their only goal of Game 4.
>> Braden Holtby said he should’ve stopped Sidney Crosby’s first goal, and he “will next time.”
“I thought I got there in plenty of time,” Holtby said. “Sid does that slap shot that kind of flicks his toe at the end and it goes the opposite way. I just didn’t keep my glove in the right position. It’s just you leave that one little space and it goes right there. It’s one that I’m capable of stopping.”
>> The Penguins’ secondary scoring helped set them apart from the Capitals in the second round of last year’s playoffs, and the Capitals’ bottom-six forwards didn’t counter with much. Now Andre Burakovsky is looking to change that playing alongside Lars Eller and Tom Wilson, who was swapped onto the third line for Brett Connolly during the first-round series against the Maple Leafs. Doing so could make all the difference against the Penguins. “Last year the Penguins’ third and fourth lines really picked it up and we didn’t match that,” Burakovsky said. “We know it’s a huge series for us.”
>> There are few people more intimately involved with the Caps than David Abrutyn, who pops up Zelig-like throughout the history of this franchise. He has represented Washington’s best player, Alex Ovechkin, since late 2009, a few months after Ovechkin’s Caps met Sidney Crosby’s Penguins in the postseason for the first time. But that hardly begins to tell the story of his connections to the Capitals.
>> Karl Alzner, whose contract expires after this season, knows nothing will be resolved until Washington’s playoff run ends, but it’s been hard to avoid thoughts about the future. Understanding the salary cap constraints coming this summer when several young players will need new contracts, he has occasionally scanned the Capitals’ roster, trying to determine which players the team will want to keep at the cost of a raise and which will have to move on.
>> While Barry Trotz said last year’s second-round meeting was a snapshot of this upcoming one, the same could be said of the Maple Leafs series the Capitals just won. The Capitals had to endure relentless pressure from the Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs also capitalized on broken plays, used their young, speedy legs on the forecheck and did everything to limit the Capitals’ time in the offensive zone and disrupt breakouts. This was all similar to how the Penguins beat the Capitals, 4-2, at this exact time of last year’s playoffs. Now the Capitals feel a bit more prepared to face a Penguins team that, while banged up, didn’t alter its style after winning the Stanley Cup.
>> The ratings are in: According to Nielsen overnight numbers, Sunday’s broadcast earned an average household rating in the Washington market of 4.89 on CSN and 1.35 on NBC Sports Network. The combined rating of 6.24 was the third-highest on record for a Capitals first-round playoff game on cable, behind only the Capitals’ Game 7 loss to the Canadiens in 2010 (8.10) and Washington’s Game 7 overtime win against the Bruins in 2012 (8.01), both of which were played on Wednesdays. Including games broadcast nationally on NBC, Sunday’s game was the sixth-highest rated first-round Capitals game in the Washington market on record. CSN Mid-Atlantic also recorded its highest-ever streaming numbers during Sunday’s game.
>> This year should be different for the Capitals, Fancy Stats’ Neil Greenberg writes. Pittsburgh overwhelmed Washington with its depth last season, but Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan addressed that issue during the offseason. The team signed Boston Bruins winger Brett Connolly, traded for center Lars Eller and moved Jay Beagle down the lineup to a role on the fourth line that better suited his defensive style of play. And the Capitals bring other advantages, as well.
>> Pittsburgh’s strength is the depth of its forward corps. The Penguins have the best one-two punch in the league with its top two centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. On Crosby’s wing is speedy young forward Jake Guentzel, who played just 40 games in the regular season as a rookie bouncing between the American Hockey League and the NHL. He’s been an impressive linemate for Crosby, scoring five goals in five playoff games against Columbus, which included a hat trick. Here are all the players Caps fans will be cursing in Round 2.
>> Bless the photographers who captured the sequence of Nazem Kadri riding Alex Ovechkin in the corner like a bull and the Russian eventually bucking the Canadian off his back as fans pointed, with mouths agape, at a scene more befitting the National Finals Rodeo than a hockey game.
>> Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby will get the lion’s share of the attention, but the eventual winner of this series will be the team that gets the most production from players other than its stars, writes Fancy Stats’ Neil Greenberg.
>> Let’s acknowledge the obvious: There shouldn’t be an upcoming Penguins series. Not yet, anyhow. We’ve all been complaining about this for three months, once it became clear that the Capitals, Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets were three of the five best teams in the NHL, and that two of them would be forced to meet in the first round, with the winner likely to immediately face the league’s top team. Requiring your strongest performers to scratch each other’s eyes out a month shy of the championship round sounds like a great tactic for a high school football coach. But it’s a curious way to organize a sports league, writes Dan Steinberg.
>> Ever since the teams’ hard-fought, six-game series a year ago, the Capitals and Penguins have seemed to be on a collision course to do it all over again. The Penguins won their series in five games over the Columbus Blue Jackets, and on Sunday night, Washington beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in overtime, 2-1, to move on after six games. “We’re ready,” forward Marcus Johansson said. “We’re excited. We can’t wait to get going. We’ve worked hard for it. We’ve worked all year and all summer to get back into this position, and now we’re here.”
>> It’s supposed to be fun, right? But every single Capitals playoff game merely seems to be a reminder of the difficulty of what they’re trying to pull off, writes Barry Svrluga. There will be time to think about what’s next, which is a juicy matchup with the Penguins in the second round. But for a franchise and a fan base that have spent so much time and energy stewing about what they haven’t accomplished, take time — right now, wherever you are — to appreciate what they just did.
>> Playoff hockey is a rush and a thrill and a jolt of adrenaline and a three-hour sugar high. But it’s also often stupid, writes Dan Steinberg. The games are tight. The margins are tiny. Luck lurks everywhere. Happenstance tugs at every collar. And too often, the team that gets the better of the play still loses the game.
>> Braden Holtby has a chance to repeat as the Vezina Trophy winner, given to the NHL’s top goaltender in the regular season. The NHL announced Holtby, Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and the Montreal’s Carey Price as the three finalists Saturday. Holtby won the award at the end of last season, Price won it in 2015 and Bobrovsky took it home in 2013. This year’s winner will be announced at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on June 21.
>> The Post’s Dan Steinberg argues that the Capitals actually deserve to win the Stanley Cup this year: “There’s not much more you can say about the most complete Capitals team we’ve ever seen. They had the most points in the NHL this season, the best goal differential, the fewest goals allowed, the most wins at home. They had the best goal differential in the first period, and the best goal differential in the third period. They had 59 points in their first 41 games, and 59 points in their last 41 games. They were the best hockey team out there, and it wasn’t that close.”
>> We all know the decade-long narrative for the Capitals: They’re a talented team that can’t get past the second round. Why is this year different? Here are five reasons to be optimistic about the team’s Stanley Cup chances, and because this is the Capitals, the five reasons to be pessimistic.
>> Meanwhile, Fancy Stats’ Neil Greenberg makes the case that, despite their reputation, the Capitals aren’t chokers in the playoffs: “The tendency is to set postseason expectations based on regular season performance, but history shows this to be a bit unfair. For example, only eight of the last 31 Presidents’ Trophy winners — awarded to the team with the best overall record during the regular season — have won the Stanley Cup. Just three others made the Stanley Cup Finals. In the NBA, by comparison, the team with the most wins has gone on to win a title 14 times in that same span, with two others making the NBA Finals.”