WASHINGTON—Maybe they should try something radical in Game 3, like pulling the goalie in the first period or playing without helmets. By this point, it’s clear that whatever the Washington Capitals are doing isn’t working.
Sunday night’s 5–4 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets marked the second straight time the Capitals squandered a two-goal lead on their home ice. Now, thanks to Matt Calvert’s extra-period goal, they’ll head to Columbus facing a 2–0 deficit, which they’ve never overcome to win a series.
Even when things go right for this star-crossed franchise, it doesn’t guarantee victory. Alex Ovechkin was, by his own admission, not much of a factor in Thursday’s opening 4–3 overtime loss. On Sunday, he scored a pair of power-play goals—and was nearly handed a hat trick on a turnover in front of Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky early in the third period with his team trailing by a goal.
Ovechkin will never get an easier shot. But he couldn’t control the puck, and the scoring chance went awry. So did Alex Chiasson’s deflection later in the period, which struck the post, then Bobrovsky’s skate, and trickled tantalizingly toward the goal line before the Jackets’ goalie smothered it.
It would be hard to blame the Capitals if they feel they’re the victims of some sort of cruel annual April Fool’s joke. They’ve lost so many playoff games in so many heartbreaking ways that it’s hard to imagine finding a new one.
But they did. Two of the Blue Jackets’ three second-period goals came on power plays; the other resulted after Washington’s Brett Connolly simply fell down in the offensive zone, giving the Jackets a 4-on-1 break that Josh Anderson easily converted.
Connolly’s unforced trip was hardly surprising for a team that seems to be cursed in the playoffs. Neither was the spill that one of the game linesmen, Steve Barton, took after inadvertently tangling skates with a Blue Jacket. Barton went down with an apparent knee injury, and his fellow officials stopped a Washington rush up ice.
To their credit, the Capitals began and ended regulation with exactly the sort of urgency you’d expect from a higher-seeded team that lost the series opener at home. They scored quickly, and T.J. Oshie’s power play goal with 3:35 left in the third period forced overtime.
The problem was, the Capitals didn’t (or couldn’t) sustain it, even against an equally flawed team that didn’t exactly show a killer instinct, either.
Jay Beagle, who didn’t even suit up for Game 1, deflected Brooks Orpik’s shot past Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky just 2:12 into the contest. Ovechkin added his first extra-man goal 11 minutes later, and Washington was dominating. The Capitals had outshot the Blue Jackets 17–7 and won 22 of 37 faceoffs.
The Jackets, meanwhile, had the demeanor of a team that already had the road split it wanted. But they gladly accepted the chances the Capitals donated.
Late in a first period they’d completely controlled, the Capitals ignored Columbus’ Cam Atkinson, who slipped behind their defense and slipped the puck past Philip Grubauer. Suddenly, the Jackets had unearned life, and the Capitals had to spend the period break wondering how they’d squandered such a golden opportunity.
And after Ovechkin’s second power-play goal of the night gave the Capitals a 3–1 lead early in the second period, they completely imploded.
The Jackets figured out that the way to beat Grubauer is to shoot high. Washington coach Barry Trotz then decided that the only way his team can win this series is with Braden Holtby in goal—the same Holtby who endured a self-described late-season “funk” that cost him his job. Holtby replaced Grubauer to start the third period and kept the Jackets scoreless over the final 20 minutes, although he was rarely challenged.
Expect Holtby to start the rest of the series. To win it—let alone advance deep into these playoffs—the Capitals can’t afford the trademark lapses that kept them from winning Sunday’s game in regulation.
They already seem to have fate working against them.