- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2018

It took 17 seconds for the Washington Capitals to score Thursday night, providing extra juice to an electric crowd at Capital One Arena. But Game 1 between the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins was decided in the third period, not the first.

All three of Pittsburgh’s goals came from Sidney Crosby’s line in a span of 4:49 in the third period as the Penguins pulled off a stunning comeback win, 3-2, to open their second-round series with Washington.

Alex Ovechkin posted a goal and an assist and Tom Wilson had two assists. For Pittsburgh, Jake Guentzel led with a goal and two assists and Sidney Crosby recorded one of each.

Washington briefly held a 2-0 lead in the third period before the Penguins’ storm of goals. The Capitals have blown a 2-0 lead in every game they have lost this postseason — twice to the Columbus Blue Jackets and now once to Pittsburgh, all in their home arena.

Defenseman Matt Niskanen had a simple answer to what the Capitals must do differently when they go up by two goals.

“Win the game,” Niskanen said. “We played pretty good tonight. … They scored on Crosby’s three shifts in a row in the third period to win the game. Otherwise we played pretty good, so I don’t think you need to overanalyze that.”

Coach Barry Trotz’s explanation of the three Crosby shifts also started off pretty plain.

“Pucks ended up in the back of the net,” Trotz said. “Just little bounces. They executed on a couple of plays, we had our stick on a couple of them and they executed on them. They’re quite a quick-strike type of offense. (We) probably played a little bit to their identity.”

The Capitals‘ struggles with “the most dangerous lead in hockey” can’t be boiled down to one underlying issue, according to Trotz.

“(The losses) all have their own unique identity,” he said. “One game was penalties, this one, Crosby’s line got three goals in four shifts. … I don’t think there’s a common thread through all of them.”

Moments after the opening faceoff, Wilson cleared the puck out from a corner behind Washington’s net to Ovechkin, who found Evgeny Kuznetsov on a breakaway at center ice. Kuznetsov was two strides ahead of two Penguins and buried the shot top-shelf.

After that, the first period was high on chances but low on shots on the net. Braden Holtby made a pad save against Crosby up close, and another shot hit Holtby’s skate even though he dove the opposite way.

But Matt Murray did not have as much work to do, as the Capitals only finished the period with six shots.

“We had a couple of looks at key moments when it was 1-0 we couldn’t pull away. It was quite wide open at times,” Trotz said. “They hit a post, that type of thing. They had some quality chances, as we did. I believe if we could’ve extended it a little bit more, obviously that would’ve sat better for us.”

When Holtby wasn’t stonewalling the Penguins, they missed shots wide. The Capitals‘ goalie had a shutout through two periods and had help from both defensemen and some forwards on his end of the ice. Wilson recorded two takeaways in the second and T.J. Oshie had two blocked shots and three hits, including two in a row on Olli Maatta.

But the Capitals failed to add cushion to their lead until Ovechkin broke through in the early third in a play reminiscent of the opening goal. This time, it was 28 seconds into the action, and the breakaway was a 2-on-1. Wilson sent a pass through his legs and behind him, setting up Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov. Ovechkin kept the puck and slung it past Murray.

When the Penguins finally answered, they answered with authority. First, Patric Hornqvist redirected a Justin Schultz shot from behind the right circle. Next, Ovechkin couldn’t stop a left-to-right pass from Guentzel to Crosby at the same circle, and his one-timer sped past Holtby.

Finally, Crosby wristed a wobbler from the boards and Guentzel managed to redirect it under Holtby’s armpit. By the eighth minute of the third, a 2-0 Washington lead became a 3-2 deficit.

Holtby was not sure whether he’d do anything differently to stop the tip goals from Hornqvist and Guentzel.

“It’s hard to say because it’s one of those situations where you say, it’s 50-50 when there’s two layers of screens,” Holtby said. “You obviously want to shift into the deflection area and I was shifting into both guys who were in front of me, not the high guys. Especially that last one, it kind of just hit him. It wasn’t a planned thing. So I have to look at them again but that’s what happens when you have deflections.”

The Capitals had a few chances left in them with 12 minutes left to play, but Murray and the Pittsburgh defense kept them out of the net. Washington’s Kuznetsov line went from plus-2 to even for the game.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had particular praise for Guentzel, who now leads all skaters in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 16 points.

“He’s just one of those guys that has that intangible that, when the stakes are high, he plays at his best,” Sullivan said. “As I’ve said all along here, we’ve got a number of those guys on our team and I think that’s part of what makes us what we are.”

Despite the loss, some Capitals were ready to take silver linings from the game, which they controlled for more than 40 minutes.

“We just have to focus on the next game,” Ovechkin said. “You can see how we played today. We have to continue to play like that.”

Special teams was not the factor it was throughout the Columbus series. The Capitals‘ power play went 0-for-1 Thursday after they scored a power-play goal in every game in round one. Pittsburgh’s power play was 0-for-2.

Entering this season, the Penguins are 9-1 all-time in best-of-seven playoff series against Washington, making for the most lopsided matchup in Stanley Cup Playoff history. They’re now three wins away from making that 10-1.

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