WASHINGTON—As playoff collapses go, Thursday night’s 4–3 series-opening loss to Columbus doesn’t even crack the Washington Capitals’ top 10.
Still, for a franchise with a patent pending on postseason heartbreak, it does make Sunday’s second game all the more critical.
Home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup playoffs means far less than higher seeding in any other professional league. Health, hot goaltending and the flukes of a low-scoring sport often mean more than who’s wearing the dark sweaters.
But drop the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home, and, to use a hockey cliche, the ice tilts decidedly in the opponent’s direction. Only once (in the 2008–09 first round against the New York Rangers) have the Capitals overcome a 2–0 deficit to win a series.
Given their dubious history, the Capitals’ confidence (as well as certain body parts) might tighten up severely if they don’t bounce back in Game 2 against their latest loose underdog opponent.
“This is different,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said after his team overcame deficits of 2–0 and 3–2 to win in overtime Thursday night. “We’re having a ball. ... I don’t think you can equate situations from the regular season with these games.”
Grudgingly, the Capitals would have to agree. They won the President’s Cup in the 2015–16 and 2016–17 seasons, only to be bounced in the second round of the playoffs each spring. This past season, only five teams won more regular-season games than Washington’s 49.
But the squad that squandered multiple opportunities to put away the Blue Jackets early in Thursday’s opener bore scant resemblance to the three-time Metropolitan Division champion. The Capitals failed to make the most of a five-minute power play, gave up a momentum-shifting goal soon thereafter and took costly late penalties that allowed Columbus to come back.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot, basically,” said losing goaltender Philip Grubauer.
Andre Burakovsky’s tripping penalty behind his own net—”200 feet up ice,” as coach Barry Trotz put it—allowed Columbus to tie the game at 2 early in the third period. But no one was more self-critical than right wing Tom Wilson, whose third-period charging penalty set up another game-tying Blue Jackets power play goal.
“That cost us the game,” Wilson said. “That’s a critical moment, [and] I’ve just got to be better. Maybe pass up that hit. We’ve got the lead there, so maybe a big hit isn’t needed.”
Credit to Wilson for realizing that after the fact, but the truth is, the Capitals haven’t shown the ability to make those decisions under pressure. They’re usually an inch short or a hair too aggressive when it matters.
A 1–0 series deficit is hardly insurmountable. But there are plenty of factors that make Game 2 particularly pivotal.
Trotz must decide whether to keep Grubauer in goal or return to Braden Holtby, the former starter who lost his job after a midseason funk. Trotz’s decision has to be the right one, because once it’s made, he can’t fluctuate between the two goalies. (The advice here: Holtby has more playoff experience.)
It’s worth noting that Trotz’s contract expires when the Capitals’ season does, and it seems management is using the playoffs as a referendum on his future. That can’t be good for a coach’s sleep patterns—especially when he’s never reached a conference final, either.
If Trotz is fired, it could take a new coach a couple of seasons to implement his style. That could be bad news for 32-year-old Alexander Ovechkin, who remains a lethal scorer but was shut out Thursday night. Ovechkin has three years left on his contract, but his title clock is ticking, and if the Capitals pick a new coach, the once-unthinkable could happen: Ovie could be deemed expendable.
That’s a lot riding on Game 2 of a first-round playoff series. But this isn’t an ordinary team. These are the Capitals.