Following Game 4's loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals faced a very unfamiliar feeling. For the first time perhaps all season, the Caps now face adversity.
With the loss on Wednesday, Washington lost its third straight for only the second time this season. The Caps have been the best team in the NHL almost from start to finish, but now they sit just one loss away from the end of their season.
"Would have felt nice to tie it up 2-2 instead of 3-1," Nicklas Backstrom said. "It’s tough but at the same time we have to take it one game at a time."
"We’re looking forward," Jay Beagle said. "Our back’s against the wall and the most important game of our lives is coming up.”
That may not be overstating it.
After years of playoff disappointments, this year's Caps' team appears built for playoff success. They have an experienced head coach, a Vezina finalist in net, a dynamic top line, scoring depth, veteran leadership and a strong top four on defense. The team used this formula to cruise through the regular season and earn the second Presidents' Trophy in franchise history.
But if the Caps cannot find a way to beat the Penguins in three-straight games, the results will still be the same: A second-round exit and more questions in the offseason.
The team, however, is not thinking about. Instead, their only focus is on putting up a fight and pushing harder in Game 5.
"It’s not the best place to be but we’re proud of ourselves, we’re proud of our game," John Carlson said. "At some point we’ve got to dig deeper, we’ve got to work harder. We’ve got to find a way, no matter what."
"Obviously resiliency is going to be big," Beagle said. "We’re facing a lot of adversity and we’ve got a strong core group here. There’s no doubts in our minds."
Statistically, however, the Caps are fighting an uphill battle.
Per Elias Sports Bureau, teams hat hold a 3-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Playoffs have an all-time series record of 261-28. In team history, the Caps are 2-6 when trailing 3-1. Pittsburgh's own streak also makes this a daunting task as the Penguins have not lost three consecutive games since December.
Still, it is not impossible. In fact, the last time the Caps trailed a series 3-1, they came back to win, beating the New York Rangers in 2009. The Caps also trailed Philadelphia 3-1 in 2008 and managed to force a Game 7 before falling in overtime.
For their part, the Penguins expect the Capitals to push back in Game 5.
"We put ourselves in position to close it out in Game 5 and everybody knows it's going to be the most difficult one, the most challenging one," Sidney Crosby said.
As the series transitions to back to Washington, this time the crowd will be back with the Caps. That's something Alex Ovechkin hopes will fuel the team to its second win of the series.
"It’s huge," Ovechkin said. "The fans in our building, they’re going to push us forward and we’re going to play our best game."
For many Caps fans, the loss in Game 4 felt like an elimination game. The odds are against the Caps being able to come back and if they should fall, it will mean another offseason of facing the same questions, of reading the same narrative about this franchise and specifically about Oveckin's playoff futility.
But the Caps aren't done yet. That was the message from the players after Wednesday's game.
"We’re not frustrated," Beagle said. "We have to stay level headed. We’re still in it."
"It’s time for everybody to forget those two games," Oveckin said. "You never know what’s going to happen. We have to win the next one and see if there’s going to be a next."