PITTSBURGH – With less than two minutes left in a crucial Game 4, goaltender Braden Holtby started to skate to the bench to give the Capitals an extra attacker. But with Washington fighting for an equalizer in front of the Penguins’ net, forward T.J. Oshie was called for high-sticking, putting the Capitals on the defensive once again.
That marked a sixth offensive-zone penalty of the game, and it assured Washington’s 3-2 loss that put the Capitals in 3-1 hole to Pittsburgh in this Eastern Conference semifinal series. The Capitals’ season is now one loss from being over.
This defeat feels particularly damning considering who wasn’t on the ice. Pittsburgh’s superstar captain Sidney Crosby was ruled out with a concussion, as was forward Conor Sheary. With No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang and top goaltender Matt Murray already out for the series with injuries, a fully healthy Capitals team was unable to beat a depleted rival.
The wounds were very much self-inflicted.
With Washington down a goal entering the second period, the most frustrating moment of the postseason arrived just 3:51 after intermission. Forward Jake Guentzel’s centering pass went off the right skate of Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov in front of the net, and the puck caromed straight into the Capitals’ net for an own goal.
Washington responded with a strong push, scoring twice in 72 seconds to tie the game. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored his third goal of the series when he beat goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with his quick release from the left faceoff circle. Defenseman Nate Schmidt then tied the game 8:33 into the period with a snap shot.
But the Capitals again shot themselves in the foot when defenseman John Carlson took an offensive zone penalty. He went to the box for roughing, and after Washington’s penalty kill had managed to limit the Penguins’ potent power play to just one goal in its past 12 opportunities in the series, Pittsburgh defenseman Justin Schultz scored a go-ahead goal with a point shot.
The Penguins finished the second period with just four shots on goal, but while Washington was outshooting Pittsburgh, 29-13, the Penguins were once again ahead on the scoreboard. What few chances Pittsburgh had, it capitalized on. Of the many the Capitals had, they couldn’t collect on enough. They finished with 38 shots on goal.
With the Capitals on a power play to start the third period, Alex Ovechkin was called for slashing, wasting the man-advantage opportunity and taking yet another offensive-zone penalty.
A lot of the intrigue entering the game was on how the Penguins would fare without Crosby. Less than six minutes into Game 3 on Monday night, Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen cross-checked Crosby in the head, knocking him out for the rest of that game with a concussion. Niskanen was ejected for the remainder of Game 4, but the NHL decided against additional discipline, so he was back on the ice on Wednesday night, booed every time he touched the puck.
Crosby is the NHL’s best player and scored a league-leading 44 goals. Rather than physically retaliate against the Capitals in defense of Crosby, the Penguins chose to get retribution through their strong play early in the game.
With Niskanen back in the lineup, Washington dressed a lineup of 11 forwards and seven defensemen, meaning the blue line corps rotates partners. Against a speedy Pittsburgh line of center Matt Cullen and wingers Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist, the Capitals had a defense pair of Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner on the ice. Orpik and Alzner are arguably Washington’s slowest skaters, and Hornqvist was able to split the duo before skating past them and beating Holtby on a breakaway just 4:39 into the game.
That was just the first defensive miscue for the Capitals on a night, arguably, when they beat themselves. They have now put themselves in position that their next mistake could end their season.