- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2018

For a team that has lost consecutive home games to open the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Washington Capitals are undoubtedly frustrated, but not hopeless.

“Obviously we have opportunities to finish it up, but we didn’t, two games in a row,” Alex Ovechkin said. “But I think we played solid game.”

“We gotta win, and that’s what we come for,” John Carlson said. “We don’t come to outplay them, don’t come to outshoot them. We have to win and we didn’t do it.”

Nuggets of truth are buried in there: They did play a solid game. They did outshoot the Columbus Blue Jackets. Several things went right, but enough went wrong for the final score of Game 2 to favor the visitors, 5-4 in overtime.

The series picks up Tuesday evening at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Game 3 is more crucial than ever for the Capitals, who can’t afford to lose another close, winnable game. If they are going to right the ship in time to save the series, these three elements jump off the page.

1. Penalties (and how to kill them)

This feels like a two-parter. Special teams have defined this series so far because both teams’ penalty kills have been shoddy — but this wouldn’t be such a grave issue if fewer penalties were committed in the first place.

The Blue Jackets were called for eight penalties in Game 2 and still managed to win, but not before T.J. Oshie nearly made them pay by forcing overtime with a late-game power-play strike. On the other hand, the Capitals have let Columbus tie both Game 1 and Game 2 with power-play goals, with Tom Wilson sitting in the box both times.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz told reporters Monday that some “individual mistakes” are hindering the team performance he insists has been satisfactory overall.

“We allowed (the Blue Jackets) with a couple mistakes to get back in the game on a couple of odd-man rushes. But that’s part of their DNA, if you look at them the last 20 games, they’ve been in a lot of games and they’ve found ways to hang around,” Trotz said.

Asked specifically about Wilson right after Game 2, Trotz said he is “a bright young man” who is aware his recent penalties were unnecessary and gave the Blue Jackets momentum.

As for killing penalties when they inevitably happen, Washington is only 4-for-8 this series despite an 80.3 percent success rate in the regular season. Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Chandler Stephenson each have been on the ice for three of the four goals allowed.

2. Even-strength struggles

Sergei Bobrovsky is a fine goaltender for the Blue Jackets, but his performance alone cannot explain why the Capitals lost Game 2 despite taking 58 shots, 52 in regulation.

Washington has scored just two even-strength goals all series. Devante Smith-Pelly scored in the third period of Game 1 when Jakub Vrana executed a slick spin to avoid two defenders and set him up. Jay Beagle redirected a long Orpik wrister from the point to open the scoring in Game 2.

And that’s it. Five power-play goals in two games account for the rest of Washington’s scoring. The top line hasn’t converted an even-strength goal yet.

Trotz said Monday the team’s even-strength issues had to do with “a little bit of finish, a little bit of luck, all those things combined.”

“The five-on-five scoring chances are coming,” Trotz said. “I wouldn’t say so much Game 1, but last night they came. We made some adjustments. We just couldn’t find the back of the net.”

Carlson pointed out that there have been enough penalties to make it tough for some players to “get into a groove” in five-on-five hockey.

“We know we need to be better, but it doesn’t matter how they go in as long as we can manufacture them,” Carlson said. “We certainly need to play better five-on-five, I don’t discount that, but we got to bear down when we get the chances that make a difference in games like these.”

3. Return to Holtby

Philipp Grubauer allowed four goals in Game 1 and four more in two periods Sunday. Trotz pulled him in favor of Braden Holtby, who shut out the Blue Jackets for the third period and more than 12 minutes of overtime, until Matt Calvert dumped the game-winner past him.

With 59 career playoff starts, Holtby has far more experience than Grubauer, and the time is right for the Capitals to commit to their old starter for the rest of the series.

By Monday morning, Trotz already had made up his mind about who his Game 3 goalie would be, but he had not yet told the players themselves. He remained optimistic about their situation, though.

“The body of work of both those guys has been terrific, obviously Holts a little longer than Gruby in terms of that. Yeah, I have absolute confidence in both goalies,” he said. “One thing about them is they bounce back all the time.”

Why the rest should take care of itself

Outside this checklist, the Capitals are not playing poorly. They’ve dominated Columbus’s porous penalty kill. Ovechkin broke through Sunday for his first goal of the postseason — and then his second — to rebound from a quiet Game 1. As of Monday morning, Carlson leads the NHL with six playoff assists, most coming as secondary assists that facilitate big plays.

If these strengths don’t falter and the Capitals address the issues that have plagued them thus far, this series is far from over.

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