The Caps are down 3-1 now, and there are certain things that happen that can indicate it’s not really going to be your game/series/decade. Things like Dmitry Orlov scoring an own goal in what would be a one-goal game:
Or things like this “roughing” call on John Carlson, which came after the Capitals had muscled back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game, and were firmly controlling play:
That one led to a power-play goal for the Pens, the eventual game-winner. This one merely put the Caps a man down for the game’s final 1:52.
When you’re losing games, things go against you. (When enough things go against you, you lose games.) Bad bounces, bad calls, bad results in games you dominate—Washington outshot Pittsburgh 38-18. Bad vibes? Coach Barry Trotz was asked if the Caps “have something mental against the Penguins,” to which he replied, “not really,” which is “not really” a convincing answer.
We don’t really need to invoke any of this stuff, though. The Caps’ best players aren’t playing their best. (Alex Ovechkin, who was held pointless on only two shots on goal, and took two bad offensive-zone penalties, assumed blame and said he has to play better.) I feel like I have yet to see Braden Holtby make a save he shouldn’t have, and that’s just not going to cut it against a reinvigorated Marc-Andre Fleury and Pittsburgh’s shot-blocking-heavy defensive strategy.
You can place onto the scale all the ways the Penguins are playing and finishing better than the Capitals in this series, and then you can pile on all the nebulous baggage of the Caps’ recent and not-so-recent past (and for all the Capitals players say they’re not thinking about the team’s track record of playoff exits, if they get asked about it every damn night they’re going to start thinking about it whether they want to or not), and suddenly a huge thing like the absence of Sidney Crosby doesn’t seem so weighty.
“We knew we had the guys in this room to get the job done,” said Justin Schultz. Obviously Sid is a big part of this team. We miss him out there. But we have the guys in here who can step up, and we showed it.”
The losses of Crosby and Conor Sheary to concussions in Game 3 meant a pretty significant shakeup in the lines, with former topliners Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist dropping down to the second and third lines, respectively, and an entirely new trio of Kunitz, Malkin, and Kessel taking the plurality of ice time. It’s nice to have options, obviously, but the way this team has rolled through significant injury after significant injury feels like it makes the case for Mike Sullivan as one of the league’s best coaches.
Ultimately, if the Penguins can close this out on Saturday, or on Monday, or on Wednesday, it’ll be because they’re the better team. Sometimes that happens, even to Presidents’ Trophy winners like the Capitals—they just run into a buzzsaw. Small solace, of course. Especially when they probably figured they’d be the better team without Crosby in the equation. Especially when this seems to happen every year.