- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2016

PITTSBURGH — The room was empty, yet no answers could be found.

All that was left in the Washington Capitals‘ dressing room shortly before midnight struck on Thursday were a half-dozen players, forlorn and frustrated.

They had, for weeks, believed that their style of play would stand up to the rigors of the postseason test. They had, for months, understood that their dominance put them in the Stanley Cup conversation.

None of that matters now — not after they squandered their best opportunity of their second-round, best-of-seven playoff series, not after a 3-2 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday pushed them to the brink of elimination in a two-game hole.

“Those are always tough,” coach Barry Trotz said. “That’s why it’s sudden death. That’s what it feels like.”

After previous losses, the Capitals could defer to their ideals — their oft-repeated desire to “play the right way” and to “stick to the script” — as a source of comfort. That was the case on Monday when, despite losing to the Penguins, they collectively believed that their performance, save a bounce or two, should have won that game.

Not so on Wednesday.

“It’s not going to be easy,” center Nicklas Backstrom said, clearly agitated. “We knew that going into this series, too, but going into this next game, we have to look forward and make sure we regroup here.”

The loss was only the second time all season the Capitals have lost three consecutive games. In order to recover and advance to the Eastern Conference Final, they’ll have to beat the Penguins, a team that hasn’t lost consecutive games since mid-January, three times within a week.

That’s what made Game 4 that much more crucial. That, combined with the absence of top defenseman Kris Letang and second-line winger Eric Fehr from Pittsburgh’s lineup, provided Washington with an opportunity it had not had at any point in the series.

Instead, the Capitals were unable to build on Jay Beagle’s opening goal, scored at 2:58 of the first period, or John Carlson’s equalizer, an invigorating blast at 16:19 of the second.

Again, they struggled to contain the Penguins’ transition game, and could not capitalize on their power play, which would very politely be described as disjointed in two chances and is now 0-for-12 on the series.

The dagger was a turnover in Washington’s own zone, one that defenseman Mike Weber could not clear 2:34 into overtime. A shot by Conor Sheary from the left point caromed off the back of Weber’s stick blade and floated across the slot, and his lunge instead poked the puck directly to Patric Hornqvist, who swooped in and draped it into an open net.

“It’s what probably any defenseman would have done in any situation,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “The puck’s rolling around, you turn and try to poke it out of the danger zone and it just so happens a guy is flying in there. Didn’t matter who it was in that situation. Probably would have done the exact same thing.”

The exact same thing is what the Capitals are hoping to avoid. They have shunned talk of history under Trotz, stressing the independence of each individual playoff appearance.

Yet, here they are again, on the brink of elimination in the second round — the same place they were last year, the same stage they have not been able to advance past since 1998.

A two-day break will allow players to decompress on Thursday before reconvening for practice on Friday. Then, on Saturday, they will confront their past and their future, hoping that what they’re seeking presents itself.

“We can’t really be looking too far ahead now,” defenseman Taylor Chorney said. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re in full desperation mode from the drop of the puck next game.”

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