The Capitals played a solid defensive game in Pittsburgh on Tuesday reminiscent of last spring’s Stanley Cup playoff series against the Penguins.
That effort led to a series win and eventually a Stanley Cup. In the end on Tuesday night, they didn't play that way long enough to extend a seven-game win streak. The Penguins scored three times in 1 minute, 48 seconds to erase a 2-0 Washington lead. That was the difference in a frustrating loss and there have been a few of those this season.
In large part, those frustrations are because the Metropolitan Division is so tight. The Capitals (41-22-7, 89 points) haven’t won anything yet. Pittsburgh pulled to within four points (85) of first place. The New York Islanders (87) are one game behind. Even the fourth-place Carolina Hurricanes are just six points back (83).
With a tough schedule to finish the year, every game matters for Washington, which plays the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday before the first of three games this month against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A giveaway by Evgeny Kuznetsov started the collapse on Tuesday. He had his wingers headed up ice after stepping in front of a Penguins pass in the defensive zone. Nice play. Promising push up ice. Except it never happened. Kuznetsov took too long to make a move and Jared McCann swiped the puck from behind.
It led to a Jake Guentzel goal and cut the lead to 2-1. At the time, the Penguins had only 12 shots on goal and the Capitals were getting the majority of the high-danger chances. They eventually hit the crossbar twice and the post once.
“That was on us. We gave them everything they got there,” forward Carl Hagelin said. “They worked hard for their chances, but if we can limit that we’ll be better off. Give them credit. They’re an opportunistic group and when they get good looks they’re gonna score.”
Hagelin would know. He played for the Penguins three seasons and was on the other side of it last spring. We’ve seen this before from Pittsburgh. Remember last year in Game 1 of the playoff series. Washington led 2-0 in the third period. The Penguins scored three times in 4:49 to take the lead and the game. Up 4-3 in the last game they played in Pittsburgh way back on Oct. 4, the Capitals gave up two goals in 1:49 to fall behind. They rallied for a point in an overtime loss, but that one hurt, too. Washington was up 1-0 in the second period on Dec. 19 at home against the Penguins and lost 2-1.
“We wanted to get off to a good start and we did a great job with that,” defenseman John Carlson said. “But got to be better righting the ship when things don’t go your way…I don’t like saying gave away because there was a lot of game left to make a change and put something together. But certainly we let it slide too far, too fast.”
There are other examples of that this season. Even last week Washington was up 5-0 on Philadelphia at home and suddenly found itself in a game thanks to a late goal conceded in the final minute of the second period and first minute of the third period. They won 5-3, but it wasn’t too comfortable late.
Earlier in the year, the Capitals blew a 5-1 lead to the Anaheim Ducks in a 6-5 loss and a two-goal lead evaporated in the third period against San Jose in a last-second game-tying goal before losing in overtime. Those points would be nice to have right now given how tight the division is.
“Obviously, you want to win every game, but we’ve got to be realistic too,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We just came off a seven-game winning streak. Not going to win all of them. But it’s all about how you bounce back, how you respond. And we’re going to do that Thursday [in Philadelphia].”
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