SUNRISE, Fla. — The final few minute at FLA Live Arena was befitting of the 30 or so that preceded it.
The Capitals had chance after chance to score with their net empty, only to be turned away by a stellar Sergei Bobrovsky save in goal or a bounce that went just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The reason it felt so apt, though, was because Washington was already down and out, and the outcome had already been decided.
In a 5-3 loss Wednesday to the Florida Panthers, the Capitals blew a three-goal lead in the second period, allowed the winning goal early in the third and brought themselves 60 minutes away from playoff elimination just when it seemed they’d taken back control of the series.
“There were two games that were played,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “There was the game to push it to 3-0 where I liked everything we did, including the power play and the penalty kill and the 5-on-5 play. And then there was the game that took place after that, where if you play against a team like Florida that is a high-octane team, we are just feeding them and we can’t.”
Washington appeared to have dodged the deadliest bullet of the night when it escaped the first period with a 1-0 lead, and followed it up with what looked to be the story of the night.
The Capitals hung on for dear life as the Panthers pressed hard, but came up empty-handed after a strong push late. Justin Schultz and T.J. Oshie scored 86 seconds apart to push the Capitals’ lead to three, where it appeared they’d be in cruise control for the remainder of the night.
Then the Panthers erased it all in 11 minutes in the second period and pushed the Capitals back on their heels headed into the third. Carter Verhaeghe, who had a five-point night, scored early in the third period to give Florida a lead it wouldn’t give up.
“I mean, even if we let them back in the game, I mean, we were still in good position going into the third on the road here,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “So we had a chance but didn’t take advantage of it.”
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It was a role reversal the Capitals had seen up-close in the series before, but one that felt all the more critical considering the stakes they faced, and now will face, in the final two games.
Still, even with the knowledge that the Panthers led the NHL in comeback victories this season, Washington felt this loss was largely self-inflicted — and even more painful considering the lead they’d established.
“They’re a great team,” T.J. Oshie said. “Can’t give them offense. They’re going to find a way to create something on their own. For a lot of the game, I like the way we played. It’s unfortunate we didn’t show up on the scoreboard and they took advantage of their chances. There was a lot of the game where I thought we did a good job.”
Florida’s first goal, from Verhaeghe, was scored off a lucky bounce off the back-wall and got the Panthers rolling. Their second came from Patric Hornqvist, who buried a breakaway goal after a Washington offensive zone turnover. The tying goal came from Sam Reinhart, who buried a loose puck that five Capitals couldn’t clear from the crease.
Then Verhaeghe’s leading goal in the third period came on a two-on-one where he beat Backstrom backdoor to bury one high-blocker on goalie Ilya Samsonov. Claude Giroux put the nail in the coffin with the fifth unanswered goal for Florida.
“We gave up the lead, you know?” Laviolette said. “You’re in that position again, there is a way you need to play against them in order to be successful and so when we did that in the third period, we were successful. When we didn’t, we weren’t.”
Now, the Capitals trail the series 3-2 and will head home for an elimination game Friday night. They’ll do so with the understanding that one more loss will end their season, and another chance at a Stanley Cup will tick past for an aging team.
But worse than that, they’ll head back to Washington with a vision of what the series could have been -- certainly something everyone considered with the game 3-0 -- and what the series is in reality.
“We got caught on a couple mistakes of us not making the right play,” Oshie said. “Kind of making either a hope-for [pass], or leaving the position that I know we’re not supposed to leave. In a couple instances there was a goal five or 10 seconds later, and then a couple there wasn’t a goal but they had the puck in our end, felt like for four or five minutes. Kind of shot ourselves in the foot here tonight.”
All first-round games of Capitals vs. Panthers will be available regionally on NBC Sports Washington and streamed live on the MyTeams app.