PITTSBURGH | When Matt Cooke mouthed off at the officials after being called for boarding Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals had their break: a four-minute power play.
Four minutes to untie the score. Four minutes to gain ground in the playoff race. Four minutes to end the Pittsburgh Penguins' winning streak.
“That power play was going to be the game. I think everybody knew it,” forward Eric Fehr said. “You got a four-minute power play the last 10 minutes of a game. Obviously we need to score.”
Two shots, several clears down the ice by the Penguins and corresponding roars from the sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center followed. In four minutes, the Caps couldn't score a goal left with no points after Matt Niskanen scored just after the power play expired to hand them a heartbreaking 2-1 loss on Tuesday night.
“It kill us,” Ovechkin said. “That kind of chances what we miss it, it cost us, especially in the third period. Four minutes, I think we have only two shots on net. It's awful. It kill us.”
Coming up empty on that power play killed the Caps against the Penguins and put another sizable dent in their playoff chances with their fifth loss in seven games. The Carolina Hurricanes lost, so they're still seven points back of the final playoff position, but the Winnipeg Jets won, pushing the Southeast Division deficit to nine points with just 19 games to play.
“Any game's big for us with points right now,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Obviously it matters what everyone else is doing, but first and foremost it's us. … This one definitely does sting, especially [because] we were in position to win.”
Washington was in a good position and controlled play against the Eastern Conference's top team for stretches. With the score tied 7:49 into the third period, Cooke's boarding and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties allowed the NHL's third-ranked power play to go to work.
Consider that same power play was 3-for-9 against the Penguins this season, counting Ovechkin's blast in the second period that gave the Caps the lead. Just like the New York Islanders did March 9 when Mike Ribeiro was called for a similar double-minor, the Caps had a chance to make Cooke and the Penguins pay.
“It’s a big, big moment in the game,” coach Adam Oates said.
From the start, the Caps were out of sorts but managed to keep the puck in the zone amid pressure from Craig Adams and Pascal Dupuis. They attempted four shots, two that got on net, but none that beat Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
“I thought we had a lot of great chances,” Fehr said. “It was tough. They weren't going in tonight. We got to find a way to put one in on the power play. Specialty teams is too big of a part in this league right now; we've got to find a way to score one.”
Each time Fleury made a big save or the Penguins were able to send the puck down the ice, the vast majority of the crowd of 18,653 cheered. Every clear it got louder.
“That was the loudest I think I've heard Consol this year,” Pittsburgh defenseman Paul Martin said.
When Cooke's second penalty expired, it felt like the loudest roar of the night. But that came nine seconds later, after Caps right wing Joel Ward turned the puck over and sprung the Penguins on a three-on-two rush.
At that point, everyone in the building could feel a goal coming the other way, even if center Nicklas Backstrom didn't want to think about it at the time.
"You felt the momentum at the end of that kill as the puck was going down the ice of probably the loudest the building's been," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "And you just kind of felt like somehow that was going to end in a goal."
Oates and his staff could feel it, too.
“We were just yelling it on the bench,” he said. “You feel that momentum switch and obviously the place is getting crazy and you’ve got to be able to withstand that.”
The Caps could not withstand the shift. Niskanen fired one past diving defenseman Karl Alzner, beating Braden Holtby and sending fans into a frenzy. Holtby called it a shot he's “more than capable of stopping.”
But his teammates were also more than capable of scoring on a four-minute power play and preventing Holtby from even facing that shot.
“We just got to score, and then it's a different game,” Backstrom said.
It was a different game for the final eight minutes, but not in the way the Caps wanted. They didn't manage another quality scoring chance until 50 seconds remained, and even with an extra attacker on couldn't undo the damage done by the failed power play and Niskanen's goal.
“They give them momentum, the crowd get into [it] and they score right away,” Ovechkin said. “It was great game for both teams. Goalie play well. Unfortunately we lose two points. At least we deserved one point tonight.”
But the Caps were left devastated and without a point. A victory would have cut the distance between them and the final playoff spot in the East to a more-manageable five.
Instead, players were left lamenting four crucial minutes that went awry, destroying what was one of their better 60-minute efforts of late.
“I think we play great today, all three periods,” Ovechkin said. “We don't give them lots of chances. We score one. We should [have] kept going. In the third period we have power-play chances and I think we lose concentration, make a bad decision, make a bad passes and it cost us the game.”
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