For as frequently as the Washington Capitals attempt to ignore their playoff history, a blueprint they can use to escape their current predicament can be found in their not-too-distant past.
A year ago, the Capitals won three of the first four games of their second-round playoff series against the New York Rangers, only to surrender a lead late in Game 5 and lose in overtime. The Rangers were disciplined, steady and opportunistic, and their success in that game propelled them to a victory in the next — and then a series-clinching win in the decisive Game 7.
For the Capitals to escape their current 3-1 deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they’ll need to be equally spirited.
“I mean, there’s a reason that we won 56 games,” coach Barry Trotz said on Thursday afternoon, a day after Washington’s 3-2 overtime loss in Pittsburgh. “That didn’t happen by accident. What that meant is there was a lot of good work put in. There was a lot of belief in the group. There was a lot of response after maybe a loss or two. That’s where the belief comes in.”
Though it wasn’t specifically one of their goals, players spoke early in the season about a desire to not lose consecutive games. When that happened for the first time in January, just shy of the midpoint, the focus changed to not losing consecutive games in regulation — which didn’t occur until the first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Now, the Capitals are enduring only their second three-game skid, and their task now will be to beat the Penguins — a team that has not lost back-to-back games since mid-January — three times over the next week.
If they couldn’t do it on Wednesday, when the Penguins were without top defenseman Kris Letang, another top-four defenseman in Olli Maatta and second-line right wing Eric Fehr, one has to wonder how it could happen at all.
“I mean, I guess you’d have to take a step back and spend some time thinking about it,” defenseman Taylor Chorney said after the game. “I feel like we did a lot of good things again. We had some chances. They obviously had some chances. I think that more than anything, we’ve just got to find a way to score some of those timely goals. I mean, we were buzzing there at the end of the game. We just can’t really get one to go.”
For starters, the power play that helped the Capitals cruise to three quick victories over the Flyers in the first round will need to be sorted out. The unit has gone 1-for-12 this series, with the lone goal scored in the third period of a 2-1 loss in Game 2.
The second line will also need to ramp up its production, especially at even strength. Right wing Justin Williams and center Evgeny Kuznetsov have each scored only one goal in the postseason — Williams with an extra attacker in the final minute of a Game 3 loss, and Kuznetsov on the power play in the first round.
The pair of 20-goal scorers — Kuznetsov led the Capitals with 77 points during the regular season — played better on Monday once Andre Burakovsky returned to their line at 7:43 of the second period. Their ability to sustain an offensive zone presence over their next several shifts directly contributed to John Carlson’s tying goal at 16:19 of that period.
“We need to get some more production from that group,” Trotz said. “When you look at production through the playoffs, we haven’t had a lot out of certain guys. We just need it. We’re playing a team that gets production from all four lines. We cannot afford to not have production from any lines to have a chance to win the series.”
Of course, Pittsburgh won’t surrender quietly. Mike Sullivan has repeatedly said since taking over as coach on Dec. 12 that the Penguins’ lack of success in the playoffs in recent years is a direct result of their lack of mental toughness.
“One of the biggest challenges of coaching is trying to influence the mindset of the group,” Sullivan said on Thursday. “Fragility is something that becomes a part of teams when they don’t have success, and how you handle those adversities are a big part of your ability to climb out of those situations.”
A year before the Capitals fell short of closing out the Rangers, the Penguins were in the same position, claiming a 3-1 lead in the series before New York recovered to win.
How Washington approaches Saturday’s game, and any others that may be played after that, will go a long way to dictating outcomes.
“Win the first period, keep going,” Trotz said. “If you win one [game], then things can change. … Hopefully, all we can do is just look at the game in front of us and just take it from there.”