By Barry Svrluga,
The difficult part is supposed to be how to handle adversity, right? We know something of that about these Washington Capitals because it was just last week they were down by two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets — and ran off four straight. Push them to the wall, and they at least will manage something of a shove back.
But what if the Capitals are doing the shoving? Say they have the opponent pinned, both shoulders to the mat. It’s odd, in that moment, how they respond. They’re less likely to strangle than tickle — and then they just flat let the dude back up. Dust off, friend. Let’s keep playing. They don’t unleash the fury. They bottle it up and save it for another day.
Adversity is not the problem. We are left to wonder, as what’s sure to be another nausea-inducing second-round series against Pittsburgh begins: How do these Capitals handle prosperity?
Here’s the early answer, with the Penguins in town, essentially skating around wearing their championship rings over their gloves: like a toddler handles a toaster in the bathtub. On Thursday night, the Capitals led 2-0 in the third period. They lost 3-2 in regulation. They took a gift and asked, politely, if there was a receipt enclosed. They would like to return it, thanks very much.
[Penguins’ quick strikes in third earn them a 3-2 win over Caps, 1-0 series lead]
Through what prism should we view this? So many from which to choose. Start with these playoffs, which are only seven games old. The Capitals had a two-goal lead in the first game of the series against Columbus that opened this postseason. They lost. They had a two-goal lead in the second game of that same series. They lost.
And it happened again, against the hated Penguins? There must be commonality.
“I’ll have to really look at that,” Coach Barry Trotz said afterward. “They all have their own unique identities.”
Like children. Except, in this case, Trotz can despise them all equally.
But what about the other form of prosperity the Capitals were granted Thursday night? Evgeni Malkin led the Penguins in both goals (42) and points (98) during the regular season — yes, more than ballyhooed pal Sidney Crosby. Yet Malkin spent Game 1 in a suit in the press box, not on the power play on the ice, the victim of a leg injury. Throw in speedy forward Carl Hagelin, a classic Capitals thorn, who isn’t even in the District because he’s healing up a face injury.
And then think about the ways the Penguins have beaten the Capitals in years past when, personnel-wise, they shouldn’t have.
●Game 4, 2016: Kris Letang, an important part of the Penguins’ glue, was suspended for a hit on Washington forward Marcus Johansson. Final: Penguins 3, Capitals 2 in overtime.
●Game 4, 2017: Crosby, who is so much more than just the Pittsburgh captain, sat out after suffering a head injury. Final: Penguins 3, Capitals 2.
Hey, Mike Sullivan. You’ve coached this team to the past two Stanley Cup titles. What gives?
“I just think our guys, they never look for excuses,” Sullivan said. “. . . To win championships, it takes more than 12 forwards and six defensemen.”
[Capitals braced for Sidney Crosby, but were beaten by Penguins’ Jake Guentzel]
It takes, at some point, the ability to take a two-goal lead and make it a four-goal lead. Or, shoot, forget even that. It takes the ability to take a two-goal lead and have it be a one-goal lead when the third period ends. We’re really not asking too much.
“We let an opportunity slide,” defenseman John Carlson said.
Truth. It’s going to be a long wait for Sunday’s Game 2, which now feels pretty darned important. But to be clear, there are no must-win Game 1s, even those in which Malkin watches from afar. The Caps themselves have shown that over the years. In Washington’s 16 previous playoff series since Alex Ovechkin first appeared in the postseason, they have won eight openers and dropped the other eight. Their record in series is actually better (4-4) when they lose the opener than when they win (3-5).
Try to extract meaning or find a pattern. You can’t. In 2009, the Capitals took the first two games against the Penguins at what was then known as Verizon Center — and then lost three straight before falling in the series in seven. In 2016, they beat the Penguins in the opener here. Last year, they lost to the Penguins in the opener here. What difference did it make? In each case, they fell behind in the series three games to one — and lost.
So whatever happened Thursday night — heartbreak or blowout — exactly nothing about the entirety of the matchup was determined.
“It’s going to be a long series,” Trotz claimed.
It’s the right thing to say. He might even be correct.
[Barry Trotz doesn’t clear up scrutinized conversation with John Tortorella]
But why — why — does it have to be that way? Why not put yourself in position to say — or at least think: “We beat them in Game 1, and we’re going to beat them in Game 2, and every time we have a chance to step on their throats, we’re also going to kick them in the groin”? What would be wrong with, when up a pair, turning savage instead of soft?
The lasting image of this one will be the pass Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel sent from the left side, cross-ice toward Crosby in the Washington zone. The Capitals led at the time 2-1, and it was less than three minutes after the Penguins had broken through. To reach Crosby, Guentzel’s pass had to get through Ovechkin, who had scored the goal in the opening minute of the third period that put Washington up by two.
All Ovechkin had to do was poke the puck away.
“It hit my stick,” Ovechkin said, “and goes right to Crosby’s stick.”
Crosby, of course, buried it. A shift later, Crosby fired one toward the net, and Guentzel tipped that in, too.
For Washington, a borderline comfortable lead — and a brain freeze. For Pittsburgh, no Malkin? No problem.
“We weren’t too worried about his status,” Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly said. “We were worried about ourselves.”
That’s a good way to put it: Worry about yourself. That’s what a team that takes two-goal leads at home and proceeds to stamp “Return to Sender” on the package needs to do. Worry. Fix. Now.
This series may well go seven games. But if it does, we have to be long past the point of congratulating the Capitals for pushing it that far. We have to look back and say, “What if you had taken a two-goal lead against a diminished Pittsburgh lineup and done what championship teams do, which is finish them off?” That was the situation that presented itself Thursday night, and it proved to be too much prosperity for these Capitals to handle.