- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2017

PITTSBURGH | There was the own-goal by Dmitry Orlov. There was the high-sticking penalty from T.J. Oshie that came with the Capitals down a goal with less than two minutes to play. The Capitals played three periods of good, solid, dominant hockey that, in the end, served only as connective tissue between the pivotal moments in which they lost Wednesday night, 3-2, to the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena. 

The Capitals now face elimination which could come as soon as Saturday, when they return to Verizon Center for Game 5.

“We’re sitting here now down 3-1 and our backs are against a wall and it’s the most important game, next game, is the most important game of the year,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.

Wednesday’s loss came on a night when Washington had every reason to win.

Sidney Crosby, the pride of Pittsburgh, missed the game with a concussion, as did left wing Conor Sheary. After the two were hurt in Monday’s Game 3, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had to change his forward lineups significantly.

The line of Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel became the top line of forwards. Left winger Jake Guentzel moved down a line to play with center Nick Bonino and right winger Bryan Rust. Carl Hagelin, Matt Cullen and Patric Hornqvist made up the third line and Scott Wilson, Carter Rowney and Tom Kuhnhackl the fourth.

“It was a gutsy, gritty, scrappy game for our group,” Sullivan said.

Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen, whose hit in Game 3 concussed Crosby and was the source of debate, ire and conspiracy, was booed when he took the ice and whenever he touched the puck. Other than that, he faced none of the retribution he felt was a possibility before the game. There was plenty of physical play, but the Capitals were the ones who racked up seven total penalties. 

It was a game that Washington needed to win. Pittsburgh won Game 1 and Game 2 in Washington before the Capitals got one back Monday on the Penguins‘ ice. A loss Saturday in D.C. would equal elimination at the hands of the Penguins for the second-straight year, this time without Crosby, Matt Murray or Kris Letang.

The Capitals fell behind 2-0 after a breakaway and a bad bounce, the types of things that are easy to excuse in the regular season but difficult in a playoff game where the opponent is missing its best player and several other key pieces. 

“That’s sort of the deal that you’re dealt,” Trotz said. “During the playoffs you’re going to have a lot of different things that will happen to you. I could look back at a number of things.”

It was Patric Hornqvist who netted the breakaway goal, giving the Penguins a 1-0 lead less than five minutes into the game. His was the only scoring action in the first period, where the Capitals survived two penalties committed in their own offensive zone, one by Alex Ovechkin, the other by Lars Eller. Offensive zone penalties stuffed momentum for the Capitals on four other occasions. 

Then, at the second period’s outset, Jake Guentzel was centering the puck when it hit Orlov’s skate and turned into an own-goal for the Capitals. The score was 2-0 Penguins.

“It was just a bad bounce. I don’t think if he going to throw 20, 30, 40 pucks, I don’t think it’s going to go in,” Orlov said.

In the span of 72 seconds, though, Washington got it all back. The Capitals, at times guilty of sitting back when they should be throwing pucks, threw pucks. First, Evgeny Kuznetsov scored 7:21 into the second and just after, Nate Schmidt scored the first playoff goal of his career to tie the game.

Before the second intermission, the Pittsburgh power play got a goal. Capitals defenseman John Carlson went to the box for roughing 10:45 into the period and Justin Schultz scored on the power play to give Pittsburgh a 3-2 lead.

The Capitals went into the second intermission with a 29-13 shot advantage, but trailed by a goal. In the second period alone they led 17-4 in shots on goal, 31-10 in shot attempts overall, but were even 2-2 in goals, numbers that go a long way in illustrating the Capitals’ ability to play hockey well, but go nowhere in illustrating an ability to simply win. 

“I just think it’s more right now that we’ve got to find a way to get an extra goal,” Trotz said.

With so many chances for the Capitals, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was excellent in a 35-save performance. He needed to be, as his team only got off 18 shots on Braden Holtby. The Capitals could have made one last push, but they were de-clawed by Oshie’s late penalty.

“Tough time to get a penalty. That’s kind of an amateur play by me there,” Oshie said.

The series now returns to Washington where the puck drop is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Saturday, once NBC is finished airing the Kentucky Derby, the fastest two minutes in sports.

If the Capitals wish to advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, after losing Wednesday, they’ll need to go the whole seven-game distance in this series.

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