- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Washington Capitals found one way Sunday afternoon to test the mettle of a young, inexperienced goaltender who finds himself the starter of a team with high aspirations.

At the end of a game that already included a mistake from Ilya Samsonov, the 23-year-old showed poise and patience in the crease, turning away three shootout attempts from the Pittsburgh Penguins — including a pad save on a Sidney Crosby backhand.

But the fourth attempt from Jake Guentzel went five hole and trickled into the back of the net, securing the Penguins a 4-3 victory. Washington salvaged a point despite looking outmatched at moments in the second period, playing just its third game under a new coach after a shortened training camp.

“I liked the way we started,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “The third period was competitive. The second period I wasn’t real happy with. There’s things that we’re doing with the puck that aren’t going to lead to us being and staying in the offensive zone that needs to get cleaned up.”

Still, the Capitals had a chance to win all two points from the outing, even with the uneven display. Pittsburgh shot-stopper Casey DeSmith parried attempts from T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov before Guentzel scored in the shootout. Alex Ovechkin had the opportunity to equalize, but DeSmith stopped his effort, too.

Through three games, the Capitals have picked up five of the possible six points. There were positives, such as the team’s penalty kill unit. But the fact that unit had to kill off five penalties for the second straight game was a worrisome sign.

“I think we’ve been doing a good job of managing what we’re giving up,” defenseman Nick Jensen said. “When you’re on PK, you’re going to give up something. I just think we’re giving them stuff that isn’t high quality.”

The Capitals opened the season with an unproven goaltending duo — Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek had started 22 games combined at the NHL level before this year. Much of that arrangement was out of Washington’s control. The team had signed veteran netminder Henrik Lundqvist this offseason, but a heart condition held the long-time New York Rangers goalie out.

Inexperience can result in mistakes. And midway through the second period Sunday, Samsonov’s miscue allowed Pittsburgh to level the game.

The goalie handled the puck behind his net, but his attempted clearance found a Penguins player. As Samsonov scrambled back to his goalmouth, winger Colton Sceviour flicked home into a mostly empty net, tying the contest at two.

“We probably didn’t get the zip on it that we wanted,” Laviolette said of the clearance. “They made a nice read and threw it back out in front and put it in.”

Samsonov still made some impressive stops, finishing with 24 saves. Samsonov also responded well in the first period, having conceded a goal just 19 seconds into the matchup.

After Evan Rodrigues’ opener, center Nic Dowd took advantage of a turnover in the offensive zone to poke home the equalizer.

Then, forward Tom Wilson harried Crosby out of Washington’s defensive zone, forcing the puck deep into Pittsburgh’s territory. He chased and laid a hefty hit on John Marino that sprung the puck free. Kuznetsov played a centering pass that ricocheted around the goalmouth before Ovechkin buried it for his first goal of the season.

A high-scoring second period began with Samsonov’s miscue. But Washington soon rectified that through Backstrom, who finished at the back post during a 4-on-3 power play, slotting home a pass from Kuznetsov.

That opportunity was the outlier from a second period Pittsburgh controlled. The Penguins had eight more shots than the Capitals in that frame, and defenseman Marcus Pettersson sent a drive over Samsonov’s glove hand into the back of the net to equalize the score at three.

“If we are looking at these three games, I think some periods are better than others. Even today I think maybe the first was pretty good, second was really bad and third was all right,” Backstrom said. “I think that was one of the issues last year too. We couldn’t put together 60-minute games. That is an area we need to work on for sure.”

Pittsburgh controlled overtime by winning faceoffs and racking up more than three minutes of possession time. While the Penguins didn’t turn their opportunities into scores, Guentzel beat Samsonov in the shootout to secure his team’s first win of the season.

Throughout training camp, Laviolette said the Capitals would be a work in progress in the early stages of the season. Two wins over the Buffalo Sabres to begin the campaign showed the fast-paced offense Laviolette wants is already coming together.

But issues have risen, too, from penalties to defensive discipline — byproducts of a short preparation period. And they showed in the third game, resulting in a shootout defeat.

“Again, it’s early on, it’s Game 3,” Laviolette said. “So we’ll continue to show these things and work on these things.”

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

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