This time for the Washington Capitals, there would be no meltdown. No lead to give up. No inexplicable mental mistake.
But the end result was all the same: A loss. A devastating one, at that.
The Capitals suffered a 2-1 overtime defeat to the New York Islanders on Sunday, pushing them to the brink of elimination. The Capitals now trail 3-0 in a best of seven series.
New York’s Mathew Barzal scored the game-winner in overtime, racing past two Washington defenders and sneaking a shot past goaltender Braden Holtby. The goal came just less than five minutes into overtime.
Washington now faces steep odds of winning the series as only four teams in NHL history have advanced after a 3-0 deficit — the most recent example being the Los Angeles Kings against the San Jose Sharks in 2014.
“You just have to move on,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “I know it’s hard situation, but it’s not over yet. We’re never going to stop believing and we’re going to play. … We’re going to try.”
Ovechkin’s tone was similar to the one he struck Friday, when the Capitals surrendered a lead for the second consecutive game and lost 5-2. The Russian star stressed caution. The Capitals, he said, had been in this scenario before and knew how to handle themselves. After all, just two years ago — when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup — Washington trailed 2-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round before rallying in six games with largely the same core.
But the circumstances, of course, are different.
The man coaching that 2018 team, Barry Trotz, now sits on the other bench for the Islanders. Coach Todd Reirden is now the one tasked with making adjustments for the Capitals. Prior to Sunday’s game, he did just that.
Reirden benched third-line center Travis Boyd and defensemen Michael Kempny and Jonas Siegenthaler, swapping them out for Brian Pinho, Martin Fehervary and Radko Gudas. Pinho and Fehervary, in particular, are rookies, with Pinho making his NHL debut.
The changes, though, didn’t ultimately solve the Capitals’ biggest problem in the series: They can’t score. Through three games, the Capitals have scored just five goals — only two of which have come at even strength. It’s a stunning reversal from the regular season when Washington ranked second in goals per game (3.42).
The issue also extends beyond the solid play of Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov, the former Capitals product who has stopped 69 of 74 shots on goal.
Washington’s failure to generate offense, in the first place, is alarming. The Capitals are averaging 24.6 shots on goal per game — well below their season average of 32 (11th league-wide).
Self-inflicted mistakes haven’t helped.
The Capitals sent a good chunk of the first period on the penalty kill, drawing three penalties in the first period. Washington has had a stellar penalty kill throughout the postseason — and Game 3 was no exception, with New York failing to score on the power play — but the lack of discipline was still a blow for a team who had tried to prioritize cleaning up errors.
The Islanders, too, continued to outpace the Capitals. That was no more apparent than on the first goal of the game.
Recovering a puck that went just off the crossbar, the Islanders worked it around the ice until defenseman Adam Pelech fired off a shot that deflected off Anders Lee’s stick and into the back of the net to give New York a 1-0 lead. By the end of the period, the Islanders held a 14-6 shot advantage.
The Capitals’ lone offensive highlight was a second-period goal from center Evgeny Kuznetsov. On the power play following a Jordan Eberle slash, Kuznetsov sniped a wrist-shot topshelf that flew past Varlamov — tying the game at 1. Kuznetsov then broke out his signature bird celebration, flapping his arms and lifting his knee after he scored almost six minutes into the second period.
But Washington squandered other chances. Tom Wilson had a great look on a breakaway rush, only to misfire the puck. And in overtime, prior to Barzal’s goal, Jakub Vrana had two prime looks only to have both shots blocked. Ovechkin only had one shot on goal.
“We had a few opportunities more around the net than we had,” Reirden said. “Ultimately, it comes down to us continuing to play a physical, forechecking game. … We need to spend more time in the offensive zone.”
The Capitals wasted a solid bounceback from Holtby. After giving up eight goals in two games, Holtby recorded 32 saves, his best mark of the series.
Even the final goal didn’t appear to be his fault as Barzal’s speed created enough space to get him into the zone and go back-hand against the 30-year-old.
As the Islanders celebrated, cameras cut to the Capitals’ bench — with Vrana’s head placed firmly into his hands.
Washington now has until Tuesday to regroup, when Game 4 begins at 8 p.m.
Ideally for the Capitals, it would mean the return of center Nicklas Backstrom (concussion), but Reirden did not indicate whether the center would be healthy enough to play.
“It’s time to pull together,” Wilson said, “or we’ll be out.”