- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2021

For so much of Ilya Samsonov’s night, the 24-year-old goaltender had been stellar.

But a critical miscommunication with defenseman Justin Schultz in the second overtime period Wednesday proved fatal for the Washington Capitals, nullifying all the preceding good. Samsonov gathered a loose puck behind his net, and he waited for Schultz to retrieve it. But Boston Bruins center Craig Smith crashed hard and beat Schultz to the puck.

Then Smith whirled around the net, even as Samsonov rushed back into position. Samsonov had made 40 saves to that point, but he couldn’t make No. 41. Smith flung the puck into the net to send his Boston teammates off the bench into an overtime celebration for the second game.

Smith’s goal, taking advantage of the misplay between Samsonov and Schultz, secured the Bruins a 3-2 double-overtime victory and gave Boston a 2-1 series advantage.

Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said he hadn’t had a chance to discuss the miscommunication with either of the players yet. But to him, there’s a dialogue that flows between both players — a dialogue that didn’t appear to happen.

“It looked like one of them went for ‘leave it’ and one went for an outlet pass,” Laviolette said. “There was just a little bit of a miscommunication. It was a tough break the way the game ended. I thought Sammy played a hell of a game for us. It was just tough the way it ended.”

Samsonov hadn’t seen a shot in a game since May 1. And he had never seen a shot in a playoff game — with all the added tension those matchups bring. But Samsonov returned to the ice for the first time in nearly three weeks and gave the Capitals a chance.

He recorded 17 saves in the first overtime, part of his 40 overall with a .930 save percentage. Throughout the game, Samsonov was there with big-time stop after big-time stop, including two in quick succession on a 5-on-3 power play in the first period.

But one mistake downed the Capitals in overtime after they had surrendered another third-period lead, changing the complexion of the series mightily. Boston and Washington meet again Friday in Game 4.

“Composure and will are the biggest things after wins and losses,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “I think we’ve got to be hungrier and we all know that. It’s going to be our best effort next game.”

Washington became the second team to start three different goaltenders in its first three playoff games, but the rotation hasn’t been by design. The Capitals have weathered a slew of absences to end the regular season and to begin the playoffs. Samsonov landed on the coronavirus protocol list at the beginning of the month, and Vitek Vanecek suffered a lower-body injury early in Game 1 of the series.

That propelled Craig Anderson into the net to close out the first game and start Game 2, in which he recorded 44 saves in the 4-3 overtime defeat. But Samsonov returned Wednesday, making his playoff debut after being off the ice for two weeks.

“Why did I put him back? Because he’s been our goaltender all year,” Laviolette said. “He and Vitek were the two guys who got us here.”

Samsonov didn’t show any of the rust that might’ve been expected until late.

Evgeny Kuznetsov also returned after a stint on the coronavirus protocol list, helping to alleviate some of Washington’s depth issues at center. The Capitals finished the second game of the series with two true centers on the ice because Lars Eller left injured. Eller missed Wednesday’s game with that lower-body injury, but Michael Raffl filled in at center, allowing T.J. Oshie to move back to the wing.

After a scoreless first period, the Capitals got on the board first through Alex Ovechkin, who fired a one-timer past Tuukka Rask in the Bruins’ goal on a power play to tie Steve Yzerman for 17th all-time in career playoff goals with 70.

Taylor Hall beat Samsonov just 56 seconds after that opener, though, flicking the puck over Samsonov from close range. But Washington took back a one-goal lead with another strong contribution from the fourth line.

Garnet Hathaway picked up a loose-puck turnover in the Bruins’ defensive zone and fired a pass across to Nic Dowd, who tipped the puck past Rask.

The Capitals have received a boost from unlikely scorers early in the first round. Hathaway and Dowd had combined for 17 goals in the 56 regular-season games they played, but they’ve scored four of Washington’s first eight goals in the playoffs.

Midway through the third period, though, an ill-advised high-sticking penalty from Dowd proved costly. Brad Marchand leveled the game at two, batting the puck out of the air and into the net, finally breaking through on Boston’s fifth power-play attempt.

And while the Capitals dominated the share of chances after Marchand’s equalizer — including a shot each from Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson deflecting off the pipe — the third period ended all square for the third straight game of the series. 

“I think in the third period we had the momentum. I mean, we were taking it to them,” Wilson said. “We liked our style of hockey. Into the overtime, it wasn’t our best, but there’s ebbs and flows in the game. You’ve got to try to control the moments as best you can.”

Then miscommunication struck, leaving Samsonov and his teammates to skate off the ice at TD Garden with another bitter pill to swallow.

Shortly after the Capitals’ overtime loss in Game 2, Laviolette said his team would be in Boston “with a response.” He didn’t specify what that response would look like at the time, but Wednesday’s performance from Washington checked most of the boxes for Laviolette.

The Capitals improved at the faceoff dot, winning 52.3% of draws after losing 61% of them in the first two games. They cut down on the number of shots the Bruins had in regulation, and the physicality that defined the first two games continued in Game 3.

But even with those improvements from Game 2, the Capitals were doomed by one moment. That’s sometimes all it takes in a series this tight.

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