Twenty-nine times during the 2017-18 regular season the Caps were able to take a lead to the room at first intermission. Only once – way back on Oct. 9 in Tampa – did they lose a game in which they led after 20 minutes.
Twice in as many games in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Columbus Blue Jackets the Caps have scored the game’s first two goals, and twice they’ve taken a lead to the room after the game’s first 20 minutes. But as the Caps and their fans know all too well, what happens in the regular season has roughly zero correlation with what happens once the playoffs roll around.
Jackets winger Matt Calvert scored at 12:22 of overtime of Sunday’s Game 2 at Capital One Arena, handing the Caps a 5-4 overtime loss, their second setback in the extra session in as many games in this series. The Jackets head home to Columbus with a 2-0 series lead, the second straight playoff series in which the Capitals have dug themselves a two-game hole by dropping the first two at home.
Although he was nicked for four goals – three of them on the power play – Columbus netminder Sergei Bobrovsky made 54 saves to earn his second straight win in the series. He stopped 40 of 41 shots from the Caps at even strength, and has stopped 57 of 59 at evens in the series.
“That is probably one of the best goaltending performances I’ve seen in quite a while with Bob,” says Jackets coach John Tortorella. “He gives us an opportunity to stay in the game, and when they surged he made some huge saves at key times.”
Washington has now lost six of its last seven home games in the playoffs, and the team with the best record in the league (28-0-1) when leading after the first period during the regular season is now 0-2 in such situations in the postseason.
Calvert scored from the doorstep, beating Caps goalie Braden Holtby on a rebound of a Zach Werenski point shot. A video review for a possible offside call gave the Caps a brief glimmer of hope, but that review confirmed the call on the ice.
The goal was the only one the Jackets were able to slip past Holtby who entered the game at the start of the third after starter Phillip Grubauer was dented for three unanswered goals in the second period. Grubauer departed after surrendering four goals on 22 shots.
Washington outshot Columbus 58-30 and out-attempted the Jackets 103-55, but for the second straight game it managed only a single even-strength goal. The Caps scored three power play goals, the first time they’ve lost a playoff game in which they scored as many as three goals with the extra man since a 7-6 overtime setback to the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 19, 1991.
“We’ve got to win, and that’s what we come for,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson, who had a second straight three-assist game in a losing effort. “We don’t come to outplay them, we don’t come to outshoot them. You have to win, and we didn’t do it.”
When an upper body injury forced Caps center Jay Beagle to miss Thursday’s Game 1, Washington mostly missed his face-off prowess and his penalty-killing acumen. But in returning the lineup for Sunday’s Game 2, Beagle made his presence felt in a less customary way on his very first shift of the postseason.
Chandler Stephenson won an offensive zone draw back to Jakub Jerabek at the right point, and Jerabek slid the puck over to partner Brooks Orpik on the portside. From there, Orpik floated a waist-high shot toward the net, and Beagle adroitly deflected it past Bobrovsky on the far side, giving the Caps a 1-0 lead at 2:12 of the first period.
Washington kept the heat on in the attack zone in the wake of that Beagle strike, forcing Bobrovsky to make a number of stops from in tight to keep the deficit at one for his team.
When Cam Atkinson was boxed for goaltender interference later in the first, the Caps did double their lead on the man advantage.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin missed on a one-timer earlier in the power play, but made good on his second chance. After T.J. Oshie won a right dot draw, John Carlson made a slick feed to Ovechkin, sliding the puck under Calvert to Ovechkin, who hung out a rope that beat Bobrovsky on the short side, giving the Caps their second 2-0 lead in as many games in the series.
Unlike Game 1 when Washington was able to take that 2-0 lead to the room at first intermission, Columbus carved into the Caps’ advantage before the first buzzer. Atkinson got behind the entire Caps’ defense and tore into Washington ice on a breakaway with four red sweaters in pursuit. Atkinson beat Grubauer to halve the Washington lead to 2-1 just 95 seconds ahead of first intermission.
The Caps unraveled in the middle period, but not before briefly improving their situation. Ovechkin scored his second power-play goal of the night, a rocket from the office, restoring the Caps’ two-goal advantage at 4:09.
Columbus then scored three unanswered goals, including two on the power play. The Jackets went from one goal down to one goal up in just 20 minutes and 27 seconds of playing time. Josh Anderson made it a 3-2 game at 8:49 of the second, beating Grubauer high to the short side – glove side – on an odd-man rush goal that came about when Caps winger Brett Connolly lost an edge deep in the Columbus zone.
For the second straight game, Washington winger Tom Wilson took a poorly timed and unnecessary penalty, this one a roughing call midway through the second. And for the second straight game, one of the Caps’ best penalty killers found himself in the box when the Jackets tied the game. Noted Caps killer Atkinson netted his second of the night, also going high on the short side, glove side to make it a 3-3 game at 11:13.
With Devante Smith-Pelly in the box late in the frame, the Jackets took their first lead of the night on a Zach Werenski floater from the point with 1:08 left in the middle period.
Washington poured pucks on Bobrovsky in the third, but was only able to manufacture the equalizer with a lot of help from the Jackets, who took four minor penalties in a span of just over 14 minutes in the third.
Oshie scored the tying tally with 3:35 left, a one-timer from the diamond on the power play. Carlson nearly scored a fourth power-play goal for the Caps in the waning seconds of the third, but his shot rang iron. The Caps outshot the Jackets 21-5 and out-attempted them 37-8 in the third period, but had to settle for hat single power-play goal.
Even in overtime, the Caps had chances to win it. Bobrovsky stopped Stephenson from in tight after a Jackets turnover. Michal Kempny pushed a shot wide from the slot. Matt Niskanen carried to the cage and threw a pass through the slot, but nothing came of it. Bobrovsky denied Kuznetsov, and then Wilson shanked a glorious one-timer shot from the left circle, a chance for atonement.
Before they could muster yet another chance, Calvert ended it. The Caps have squandered a trio of two-goal leads in the first five periods of this series, and they now must find a way to win four of the next five games – including at least two on the road – in order to avoid another in a lengthy series of ignominious springtime endings to their season.
“I think we’ve got to manage to not only get the lead, but hold onto it,” says Grubauer. “It’s not easy. It’s a tough team to play against. But we made it really hard on ourselves, too.”
The Caps know how to take the lead, they just don’t know how to hold the lead. And that’s really the most important part of the lead: the holding. Their next chance to do so comes on Tuesday in Columbus in Game 3.