Tuesday, February 27

Capitals’ ‘bad bounces’ may have just shifted the series against the Panthers

For four games, the Washington Capitals have surprisingly kept the Florida Panthers’ power play in check. For four games, Washington’s shorthanded penalty kill has neutralized one of the most dangerous parts of a lethal offense that dominated the NHL in the regular season. Over that span, Florida has had 13 power-play opportunities in the series — including four Monday night — and hasn’t scored on any of them. 

So naturally, in a cruel twist, after Washington was so good at being outnumbered, the series may have just swung on a goal that came when Florida had an extra attacker.  

The Capitals were just over two minutes away Monday from taking a commanding lead in their first-round series against the Panthers when center Sam Reinhart knocked in the game-tying goal in Florida’s eventual 3-2 overtime win. Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was off the ice and the mayhem created with six potential scorers on the ice led to a perfect redirect for Reinhart in front of the net. 

If the Capitals lose this series, remember that moment. Remember that they could have taken a 3-1 lead and instead head back to Florida for Wednesday’s Game 5 tied at 2-2. Yes, Florida’s Carter Verhaeghe dealt the actual dagger with his overtime goal, but the Panthers wouldn’t have been in that position if Washington had just been able to hold on. 

Instead, the Capitals haven’t won back-to-back playoff games since 2019. That year, Washington blew a 2-0 lead, lost to the Carolina Hurricanes and failed to advance out of the first round.

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Three years later, Washington still hasn’t gotten out of the first round since 2018, the year the team won the Stanley Cup. Perhaps Monday’s loss didn’t shift the series, but Reinhart’s goal sure felt like a missed chance for the Capitals. 

“It was bad bounces,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. 

“This is going to be a long series,” Washington center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “We knew that before.”

After the loss, Kuznetsov and Ovechkin were relatively calm. There would be no panic, Kuznetsov said. And indeed, as tempting as it might be to bring up Washington’s past playoff trauma, this was hardly like a Capitals’ playoff defeat in 2016 or 2017 — when practically every defeat seemed crushing, a curse Washington couldn’t overcome. 

Winning a Stanley Cup will help change a team’s outlook. Washington’s championship from four years ago likely gives players perspective, no matter how long ago that may now seem.

But at the very least, the Panthers can no longer be easily painted as a Presidents’ Trophy winner out of their element come the postseason. Following Washington’s 6-1 victory Saturday, the Panthers looked to be the classic case of the dominant regular-season team unable to re-create their style of play in the playoffs. A win for the Capitals would have all but certain cemented that narrative, even if the series hadn’t actually been over yet. 

The Panthers, though, won — and they did so in a way that carried them to a league-high 24 comeback victories in the regular season. The Panthers — or the “Comeback Cats,” as they’re nicknamed — dominated the offensive zone, outshooting the Capitals 73 to 37 in shot attempts and 32 to 16 on shots on goal. 

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The contrast was especially apparent in even-strength play, where the Capitals mustered only 11 shots on goal to the Panthers’ 26.

The Capitals’ two wins in the series have come, in part, because of their ability to keep Florida out of its offensive zone. That wasn’t the case in Game 4, even though Washington was close to pulling off the victory.

“They fired a lot of shots,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said.

Despite the loss, there are reasons why Washington can still win the series. Goalie Ilya Samsonov, who started his second straight game, wasn’t the problem — and repeated chants of “Sammy! Sammy! Sammy!” indicate that the Capitals may have found the reliable goaltender they’ve been looking for. In addition to its successful penalty kill, Washington has been effective on the defensive end  — blocking 24 shots and delivering 18 hits. The Capitals’ defense is creating offensive chances, with the team taking the lead on a Kuznetsov breakaway goal after a hard T.J. Oshie hit freed up the puck. 

Still, as the Capitals well know, playoff series can be decided on the margins. They can come down to “bad bounces,” just as Ovechkin put it. 

“No panicking,” Ovechkin said. “It is the playoffs so everybody has to be ready for everything.” 

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