WASHINGTON—They know full well the glass isn’t half full; in fact, it’s bone-dry empty at the moment. Still, the Washington Capitals clenched their teeth late Sunday night and said all the right things, unable to quench their thirst for playoff success.
“I trust this group.” coach Barry Trotz said after a second straight home overtime loss (this one 5–4) put the Capitals in an 0-2 hole against the Columbus Blue Jackets. “Obviously, things didn’t go the way we wanted them to go, but I’ve got a lot of belief in this group, that we can go to Columbus and take it one at a time. This group has learned a lot of hard lessons, and I think you’ll see us at our best [in Game 3 Tuesday night].”
Even if they do max out, it could be another short postseason for the Capitals. But Sunday’s uneven effort makes you wonder if they actually are any wiser for their playoff pain.
For most of Game 2, Washington played harder than it had in the opener, barraging the the Jackets with 58 shots and winning 52 of 97 faceoffs. If not for a yeoman 54-save effort from Columbus goalie Boris Bobrovsky—plus a little bad luck, like a shot that hit the post late in regulation--the Capitals might be headed to Columbus even in the series and rising in confidence.
Instead, they’re searching for answers—including whether Philipp Grubauer or Braden Holtby will start in goal Tuesday—and facing a Game 3 without injured second-line center Andre Burakovsky.
Give the resourceful Blue Jackets plenty of credit. But the Capitals were, as they are so often in April, their own worst enemies. They squandered two-goal leads in each home game and spent too much time in the penalty box.
“We need to defend better,” said John Carlson, whose job description is to do just that. “And penalties obviously cost us the past two games.”
Indeed, Columbus has scored twice on the power play in each game. Tom Wilson was whistled late in regulation in each game, and Columbus scored a critical goal on each power play. And in giving their foes a frequent man advantage on the ice, the Capitals have ceded a significant psychological edge to a young team that had to win 14 of its final 17 regular-season games just to get into the playoffs.
“I don’t think anybody’s gotten faster [over the past month],” Columbus coach John Tortorella said. “I just think there’s a mindset bridge we have crossed, and I hope we stay on the right side of it. We go out there thinking we’re going to win, not hoping. There’s a bit of a swagger that we truly have.”
The Capitals would pay almost anything to get that attitude, but it can’t be bought. Oh, they’ve expended plenty of cash, along with blood, sweat and millions of tears in their quest to build a Stanley Cup contender around Alex Ovechkin. But they annually seem to run into a hot goaltender or an opponent that’s tougher, more disciplined or just better than they are.
If they can’t rally from this 2–0 deficit—and only 49 of 361 teams have in NHL history-—this one might sting more than most of the others. First, the Blue Jackets are good, but hardly great. And they’ve taken advantage of the Capitals’ untimely mistakes--something a veteran team like Washington is supposed to do.
“That’s what happens if you don’t bury the chances you get,” Carlson said. “Teams are going to come back. That’s what the playoffs are for.”
Nicklas Backstrom has been a Capital for a decade and has endured more playoff heartbreak than anyone except Ovechkin. He admits to being baffled by his team’s failure to learn from its mistakes.
“We’re actually an emotional team,” Backstrom said. “We like to get involved. Maybe we should just work on a more serious game.”
It doesn’t get more serious than the Capitals’ plight at the moment.