- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Washington Capitals had no choice late in Sunday’s contest, trailing by a goal. So goaltender Vitek Vanecek raced to the bench, allowing another forward to hop on the ice in a last-ditch effort to catch the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Instead, with just over a minute remaining and no Capitals’ goalie on the ice, the Penguins just kept pouring it on, adding two empty-net scores in a span of 14 seconds — including one from center Sidney Crosby, who scored from his knees after he was dragged down.

When it was done, the Penguins had hammered the Capitals, 6-3.

Washington struggled to contain Pittsburgh’s top line, which put together a dominant showcase in Sunday’s matchup. Crosby’s late tally put the finishing touches on a seven-point performance between Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. Those three proved the difference in an outing that stayed close on the scoreboard until late.

The Penguins edged the Capitals in shots, 38-31, and secured 61.7% of the faceoffs. Several of those were in their offensive zone, creating key chances for Pittsburgh.

“We are trying to play hard and trying to do the right things, but it seems like we are doing the same mistakes over and over again and got these easy goals against us,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “And it is an area we need to get better on, defensive zone — that is where the game is decided.”

The Capitals welcomed back a host of players Sunday, benefiting from a week-long gap between games due to coronavirus issues on the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers — center Evgeny Kuznetsov played a game for the first time in a month, for instance.

Kuznetsov was one of four players to land on the coronavirus protocol list during the team’s season-opening road trip, and he and goaltender Ilya Samsonov remained out for three weeks. They said they experienced symptoms, and Kuznetsov said they were “not easy days.”

Washington opened the season without a regulation loss for nine straight games, but inconsistent play has been a commonality in the four-game losing skid, with or without some key players in the lineup. Despite the recent results, the Capitals believe they’re capable of a turnaround.

“We definitely have a great team to prove that, and the last four games it wasn’t there. These teams are hungry for points,” winger Jakub Vrana said. “It’s a short season. So we just gonna clear that out.”

Through Kuznetsov, Washington capitalized on one of two power play opportunities early in the first period. The center’s shot from the right slot took a wicked deflection off Pittsburgh defenseman John Marino, trickling past goalie Tristan Jarry for the opening tally.

But the Penguins soon responded with two quick-fire goals to establish a 2-1 lead. First, Rust finished off a swift move between Crosby and defenseman Mike Matheson, making no mistake with a cross-crease pass. And 32 seconds later, winger Brandon Tanev scored on a rebounder off Vanecek.

While Vrana leveled things for Washington early in the second, Pittsburgh broke through on a power play.

Crosby won the faceoff and Guentzel found Rust on a cross-seam pass, and Vanecek didn’t slide over in time before Rust’s attempt rippled the back of the net. Then Vanecek conceded a fourth, with another rebound landing out in front of the crease for Guentzel to gather and slot home.

“There’s definitely things that we can do better,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “We got tied up in front of the net and lost our footing on one of the goals. They made a nice play on one of them. They caught us out of position a little bit.”

Vanecek, who struggled in his last start last week against the Flyers, kept the Capitals within a score with three strong saves within an 11-second span on the penalty kill late in the first period. He also made several critical saves midway through the third period, but he still let in four goals for the second straight start.

Backstrom continued his standout start to the season, recording his 250th career goal late in the second period to bring Washington back within reach. Backstrom leads the team with 18 points, but his tally would be the final one for his squad.

The Capitals mounted a third-period threat. Pittsburgh’s aggressive forecheck made it difficult for Washington to create enough of one, though, to find the equalizer.

So instead, Vanecek vacated his net with just over a minute remaining, and the Penguins scored twice with no one between the pipes, dealing the Capitals their fourth straight loss despite an unexpected break that gave the team a chance to rest and reset.

“There’s always a level of concern when you drop four in a row,” Laviolette said. “We’re here to win hockey games. We’ve got to get it back on track.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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