WASHINGTON—First impressions are supposed to mean a lot. Many people believe in love at first sight, and the early bird is supposed to get the worm.
Don’t try to convince the Washington Capitals of that.
It took just 17 seconds for Evgeny Kuznetsov to score in Thursday night’s series opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins, his team’s longtime nemesis. And when Alex Ovechkin lasered a slap shot past Penguins goalie Matt Murray 28 seconds into the third period for a 2–0 lead, Washington seemed to be in control.
But the Capitals (and their long-suffering fans) should know better. A three-goal barrage from Sidney Crosby’s line in less than five minutes of the third period gave the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions a 3–2 victory—and another psychological advantage in what can’t honestly be described as a rivalry.
If there’s any consistency when it comes to the Capitals and the playoffs, it’s that early results guarantee nothing—neither in a game nor a series. Washington initially looked lost against Columbus in this year’s first round, losing the first two games at home, then gathered itself to win four straight and advance.
And Thursday night marked the fourth time in seven playoff games this spring that the Capitals have squandered a two-goal lead. They had plenty of chances in the first period to put more distance between themselves and the Penguins, but never delivered.
“If we could have extended [the lead] a little more, it might have been better for us,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said.
But that’s not what these Capitals do. Not in April.
In 10 previous playoff series against the Penguins, Washington won the opener eight times. Only once—in 1994, the year current Capitals Tom Wilson and Chandler Stevenson were born—did they win the series. That suggests Pittsburgh has been better not only on the ice, but at making the adjustments necessary to win a series in which there are few secrets.
“We didn’t get off to the start we wanted, giving up a goal after 17 seconds,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “But I just love our resiliency, our stick-to-it-iveness. We just stuck with it and found a way to win.”
The first goal, and the first game, of the series seemed far more important to the Capitals than to the Penguins. After all, Pittsburgh has raised the past two Stanley Cups; Washington is 1–9 in all-time playoff series against the Penguins—and has advanced past the conference semifinals exactly once (20 years ago, before Ovechkin arrived).
Still, the Capitals seemed energized by their rally from a 2–0 deficit to oust Columbus after losing the first two games of their first-round series at home. And restoring Braden Holtby to his starting role as goaltender helped make the difference. Holtby was sharp through two periods.
But when it mattered, in the third period, the Penguins solved him. The confidence Holtby and the team exuded through the first 40 minutes disappeared—as did the noise level inside Capital One Arena. The Capitals outshot Pittsburgh 18–8 in the final period, but couldn’t solve Matt Murray, who had gotten no help from his defense on either of Washington’s breakaway goals.
“We’re confident,” Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “If we’re in the game, we can come back from any deficit. We didn’t get deterred, and we found a away to score a couple of goals.”
The somber mood inside the home locker room was familiar, as players solemnly answered the same questions they’ve faced so often against the Penguins. No one had any real solutions.
“It’s Game 1. We’ve got to rebound as quick as we can,” Holtby said.
Maybe digging themselves a hole isn’t the worst idea. In the first round, the Capitals showed the same sort of resolve that Pittsburgh demonstrated Thursday night.
But Washington has taken a huge step up in competition, from a playoff neophyte to a confident champion. It’s going to take everything the Capitals have to claw back.
“It’s a long series,” Trotz said.
Not if the Capitals don’t raise their game in a hurry.