Heading into the second round of the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Capitals coach Barry Trotz predicted Washington was over any postseason jitters the team might have felt while struggling to put away the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s like a firefighter going to his first fire,” Trotz said. “You know, he’s prepared. He’s prepared all year and put all the work in. Now he has to go into that first fire and its just different. It ramps up. It’s intense. It’s exciting and it’s fun. All those things, all those emotions go through.
“And once you go through it, you go, ‘I can handle it. I can handle it.’ Things just calm down for everybody.”
Two home losses to the Penguins later, flames are licking at the Capitals’ Stanley Cup hopes. Things are definitely not calm as the NHL’s No. 1 seed heads to Pittsburgh, down 2-0 and looking at another early exit from the playoffs.
The Capitals’ locker room was tense following Saturday’s 6-2 loss to the Penguins, during which goaltender Braden Holtby was benched for the third period.
Players held a lengthy meeting before the room opened to reporters. Forward T.J. Oshie said his teammates said what they needed to say.
“Sometimes in our game, and I’m sure in other sports as well, sometimes you need to hear from your teammates more than you need to hear from your coach,” Oshie said, “and [Saturday] was one of those nights.”
The Capitals’ frustration can be traced back to stretches on the ice in which Washington has largely outplayed Pittsburgh with nothing to show for it.
Through two games, the Capitals lead the Penguins 171-86 in shot attempts and 71-45 in shots on goal.
Furthermore, Washington’s offensive zone-start percentage, or how often players start face-offs on offense, has been at 66.9 percent for Game 1 and 61.1 percent for Game 2. The Capitals have had plenty of opportunities with the puck.
But blocked shots are killing the Capitals. The Penguins are sacrificing themselves to limit the number of pucks goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has to face.
Pittsburgh has 62 blocked shots in the first two games.
“If you work hard, I think you get lucky,” Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s just one of those things we’re a little unlucky with the bounces. But at the same time, I think we can create those things. If we can get the pucks through a little bit better, and I mean they’re blocking a lot of shots, and we can get them through, we can work ourselves in a little bit harder.”
The Penguins are also using blocked shots to set up goals. In the second period of Game 2, Pittsburgh scored their third goal when Penguins star Sidney Crosby blocked a shot, which gave rookie Jake Guentzel a 2-on-1 and he proceeded to score.
It’s part of the Penguins’ philosophy to take advantage of those situations. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said there’s a risk and a reward when the Capitals are being aggressive. He said his Penguins believe their ability to strike quickly is among the league’s best.
The Penguins’ speed, particularly in transition, has given the Capitals major problems.
“One way to take away speed in this game is obviously the physical element, time and space, and your gaps and your angles,” Trotz said. “When you do that, teams aren’t as fast. … If you’ve got good angles and good gaps, then that speed gets nullified.”
Holtby, however, hasn’t helped. Trotz has repeatedly referred to Holtby as a gamechanger, but admitted he pulled the plug in Game 2 because he was changing the game in a negative way.
Against the Penguins in the playoffs, Holtby has a career .910 save percentage, worse than his playoff career .934. He is now 2-6 all-time against the Penguins in the postseason and has only stopped 82.9 percent of the shots in this series.
Despite Holtby’s performance so far, Trotz said Holtby is starting in Game 3 instead of backup Philipp Grubauer.
“I just think I have a lot of confidence in him,” Trotz said. “He probably hasn’t had his series to this point. But I do know this: His body of work has been excellent. His mental toughness is excellent. I think he has the ability to park things, and he’ll park it. And he’ll be the difference in this series.”
For the past year, the Capitals have made a series of changes they had hoped would payoff against the Penguins, who also defeated them 4-2 in the second round last year. In 2016, the Penguins’ third and fourth lines proved to be the difference.
Penguins third-line center Nick Bonino scored the winning goal in Game 1, but the Capitals’ third line has played much better through two games. Lars Eller, who was traded from Montreal in the offseason, has been very aggressive and Trotz said he has been very happy with the bottom six.
Kevin Shattenkirk, the Capitals’ other major acquisition, has struggled in the playoffs. The defenseman is a team worst -7 when he’s on the ice. Trotz said he would talk to Shattenkirk and said he needed him to be better.
The Capitals, though, will now head to Pittsburgh for Game 3 Monday and Game 4 on Wenesday, both starting at 7:30 p.m.
Players are aware the Penguins have capitalized on mistakes. Defenseman Matt Niskanen said they know areas they need to clean up.
If they don’t, the Capitals’ Stanley Cup hopes are done.
“No one in here needs a lesson about how to go home early,” Oshie said. “We’ve done that. It’s well known. The fans know it. We need to man up here and go into Game 3 and change our attitude and have some fun while we do it.”