- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2022

Nicklas Backstrom didn’t have much to say after Wednesday’s 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers.

The Washington Capitals center sat silently next to teammate T.J. Oshie, seething over the fact that Washington gave up five unanswered goals after holding a 3-0 lead.  The defeat put the Capitals on the brink of elimination, and the anger on Backstrom’s face was apparent. 

Backstrom was concise when asked for his point of view.

“Yeah, I felt like we gave that game away,” Backstrom said. 

Wednesday’s game marked the second straight contest in which the Capitals collapsed: On Monday, Washington held a 2-1 lead late in the third until Florida scored with 2:04 left and then won in overtime. Had the games resulted in wins — had the Capitals been able to just hold on — Washington would already be moving on to the second round. But now, the Capitals will look to avoid their fourth straight first-round exit when they head back to the District for Friday’s Game 6. 

The Capitals were underdogs heading into the series, so it may not be a surprise they’re trailing the team that held the NHL’s best regular-season record. Still, Washington’s core — with Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie among them — isn’t a group known for melting down like this. Not after winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, anyway. 

Throughout the first round, the Capitals have touted their experience — but it hasn’t translated late in their back-to-back losses. 

“There should be a lot of confidence of the things that we have done well in this series, the games that we have won, the times that we have played well,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “But you really have to work for a clean game against a team like Florida, who’s dynamic with what they do. 

“Those will be the points of emphasis moving forward. We’ll get on the ice (Friday) and be ready for a big game.”

The Capitals have already switched goaltenders once in this series, moving on from Vitek Vanecek during Game 2 for Ilya Samsonov.

Laviolette, though, sounds like he has no plans to make another change — telling reporters that the five consecutive goals in the latest loss weren’t on Samsonov. “We left him in tough situations,” Laviolette said, adding he doesn’t think goaltending “let us down.” 

Instead, Laviolette pinpointed the Capitals’ defense as the main issue for Game 5.

The Panthers were able to race up and down the ice, and Washington didn’t help matters with careless turnovers. Protecting the puck has been a priority for the Capitals, though the Panthers have punished Washington lately after generating breakaways and odd-man rushes on takeaways. Florida’s Carter Verhaeghe, who has five goals in the series, gave his team the lead after stripping defenseman Dmitry Orlov, passing it off and racing down the ice to be in a position to sneak one past Samsonov. 

“We have to take care of things against the high-powered team that scored a lot of goals this year,” Laviolette said. “When we’re on it, we do a better job inside the game. When we’re not on it, that’s when they get their looks and they get their opportunities. …. It’s a constant reminder that we always have to think about the defensive side of things.” 

Offensively, Washington has been mostly able to hold its own. Ovechkin only has one goal in the playoffs, though he has generated looks for others with five assists. Oshie leads the Capitals with five goals — two of which came Wednesday.  Others like Evgeny Kuznetsov (two goals, two assists), John Carlson (one goal, four assists) and Backstrom (one goal, our assists) have also stepped up. 

The dramatic swings of each game have left players and coaches tasked with having to figure out how Washington can play so well in parts and so poorly in others. The Capitals have already had to adapt without winger Tom Wilson, who hasn’t played the last four games with a lower-body injury and remains day-to-day.

“We’ve got to reset here,” Oshie said. “Obviously you don’t want to be down 3-2, especially when we felt like we had a chance to go up 3-1 in the last game. You just got to regroup. We’ve got a veteran group in there, a bunch of guys with a lot of great character. We’ll be a little (ticked) off here and … head home and get back to work.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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