April 19 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7
Game 4, Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Leafs lead series, 2-1.
Losing two straight Stanley Cup playoff games will frequently put a team in a precarious position, but losing three straight puts a team at death’s door in a best-case scenario. As they prepare to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series here in Toronto on Wednesday, the Capitals are in the former situation and they’re desperately seeking to avoid the latter.
Monday night’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Leafs in Game 3 was the Caps’ second straight overtime setback by the same score, and it leaves Washington down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. The Capitals must now win three of their next four games to remain alive in the postseason, but a loss on Wednesday would leave them needing three successive wins.
It’s the same situation the Caps found themselves in last spring in their second-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins. After winning the series opener and dropping Game 2 at home against the Pens, the Caps lost Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh to fall into a 3-1 ditch in the series. They got a Game 5 win at home, but bowed out with an overtime loss in Game 6 back in Pittsburgh.
Monday’s loss in Toronto leaves the Caps with four straight road losses in playoff competition. A loss on Wednesday would match the longest road playoff losing streak in franchise history; the Caps dropped five straight road games to Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers in the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs, and they lost five straight in the 2012 and 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, all to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
What really stings is that the Caps owned a two-goal lead with less than 25 minutes to play in Game 3 and they weren’t able to lock it down. Washington also had a full two-minute, two-man advantage – and another power play shortly thereafter – during which it was unable to add to its advantage.
“I think you stay off Twitter,” said Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik after Monday’s loss, “and you don’t listen to outside noise, and watch some video and see the things we did well and the things we can do a little bit better.
“We made some adjustments coming into [Game 3], that we thought obviously in the first period worked for us. We’ll probably do the same thing again. But anytime you have a two-goal advantage – especially twice in one game – it’s a missed opportunity and unacceptable on our part.”
The Capitals were the league’s best team during the regular season at preventing five-on-five goals. They surrendered just 113 five-on-five goals, the lowest total in the league in the last three seasons.
Heading into Tuesday’s slate of Stanley Cup playoff games, all 16 teams in the postseason have played three games. Only Columbus (nine) has surrendered more five-on-five goals than the Capitals (eight). Chicago has also allowed eight, and Calgary has permitted seven.
Columbus, Chicago and Calgary are all down 3-0 in their respective series, so the Caps can consider themselves fortunate to have earned their Game 1 victory.
“It’s unacceptable, to begin with,” says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. “We can’t be giving up two-goal leads, especially in the playoffs. You play all year and you create a foundation all year to get the job done in the playoffs. It doesn’t really matter whether we won the Jennings [Trophy] all year long. It comes down to getting the job done in the playoffs.
“It’s big moments and stuff like that, but we’ve got to create our own luck and we’ve got to create our own bounces. You see a fair bit of their goals have been from funny bounces of Orpik’s pants or off [Nate Schmidt’s] face, but you know what? That’s hockey. You look at a lot of the goals around the league, it’s pucks thrown to the net and havoc and creating traffic. Maybe we have to take a page out of their textbook and do that a little bit.”
Three playoff games constitutes a small sample size, but that’s what the playoffs are, a small sample size. Even the longest series is the equivalent of less than one-tenth of a regular season. Playing well over a long sample size – an 82-game regular season – gets a team into the playoffs, but that team has to be able to play well over a small sample size to stay alive once the playoffs start.
In Monday’s Game 3, the Capitals finally came out and had the strong start they didn’t get in Games 1 and 2 on home ice. Washington scored on its first two shots on goal of the game and owned a 2-0 lead before the game was even five minutes old. But the Capitals could not sustain that prosperity over 60 minutes, and the Maple Leafs out-attempted Washington by a whopping 40-20 over the game’s final 30 minutes, wresting away the momentum in the game and taking their first lead in the series.
Nothing that happened in those first three games matters to the Caps now, except in terms of fixing that which is broken and continuing to do the things they’re doing well as they prepare for Game 4.
“There are not going to be a lot of tactical, systematic adjustments,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “I think it’s more a little bit of mindset, maybe trying to do one or two things that you see that [the Leafs] are taking away from you, and trying to put that into your favor.
“In Games 3, 4 and 5, there are just the minor things. You start to look at your individual people, your lines and your systematic play and what’s working and what’s not. You make the subtle adjustments; there is not going to be anything earth shattering or anything. I think it’s a mindset of getting some players to be in the right spots at the right times.”
Whether that results in any line changes remains to be seen on Wednesday. The Caps are generating scoring chances, and they're fourth in the league in palyoff goals to this point. But they haven't been able to keep the young and dynamic Maple Leafs in check in the Washington end of the ice.
“It’s going to be all about the will, and who wants it more,” continues Trotz. “You get to the playoffs and the standings don’t mean anything at all. You all go at it and you play hard, and whoever wants it more will end up winning. You’re going to need some breaks and some opportunities, and you’ve got to cash in on those opportunities. And we didn’t do that in a couple of games, and therefore we’re down.
“That can change in a heartbeat. That can change [Wednesday] night. We can only control what’s ahead of us, not what’s behind us now.”