Capitals Playoff Hopes Dashed In Comeback Effort, Fall To Penguins 4-3

Mar 26, 2023 - 3:07 AM
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Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

With their long-shot playoff hopes on the line, the Washington Capitals returned to the road and faced off against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Caps, four points behind Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference standings, badly needed a win to do anything but extinguish their postseason hopes, but they were soundly out-classed by a final score of 4-3 in the third and final matchup between the two Metropolitan division rivals.

And now, this...

Washington came out with a sense of urgency in the game’s opening minutes, recording the first three shots of the contest in under the first minute of play. At 15:12 left in the first, Nicolas Aubé-Kubel was ridden down while playing defense but tagged for a holding call, but Washington continued their hot streak on the penalty kill and held the Penguins to just one shot on the man advantage. The penalty killers allowed four shots but no goals on a subsequent high stick by TJ Oshie midway through the period. Pittsburgh fended off an ensuing Washington powerplay courtesy of a Kris Letang trip on Alex Ovechkin, and the game went to the first intermission scoreless. Pittsburgh out-shot Washington 12-9 through the first period of play while the Caps out-shot-blocked (8-to-3) and out-hit (8-to-7) the hosts.

Washington’s best open ice chance of the opening stages of the second came five minutes in as Dylan Strome got loose in a two-on-one with Rasmus Sandin – Strome’s shot rebounded to Sandin who shoveled it just wide of Casey DeSmith as they sought the game’s first goal.

With 9:50 left to go in the second period, Ryan Poheling collected a stretch pass down the middle of the ice in a one-on-one break with Rasmus Sandin a step behind, but the 24-year-old shoveled a backhand shot high over Darcy Keumper’s glove side to give Pittsburgh the 1-0 advantage.

Just under three minutes later, Chad Ruhwedel beat Kuemper again over the glove side off a motion play with Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund. Poheling’s goal was his sixth of the season, while Ruhwedel recorded his first of the year in 42 games and just the twelfth career tally for the 32-year-old.

Following a Rasmus Sandin-Josh Archbald fight that sent both players to the locker room for the remainder of the period, with just over two minutes left in the period, Alex Ovechkin collected in a pass and sprinted in on a breakaway but was stymied by the left pad of Casey DeSmith. A furious chance at the end of a short-handed two-on-one for Washington was stopped short as the second-period horn sounded, and the Penguins headed to the intermission with a 2-0 advantage.

Through two periods Pittsburgh extended their shots advantage (28-to-23) and put the Caps with their backs up against a wall with increasingly dimming and distant playoff hopes on the line.

On the carryover powerplay to begin the third period, Jake Guentzel sprung in beyond the defense off a breakaway pass and slid the puck between Kuemper’s legs to give Pittsburgh the 3-0 advantage.

With Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin in the box, Kris Letang turned the puck over to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who slid behind the Penguins net and pitched it to Tom Wilson who was in alone on the goalmouth door front and he capitalized on a tip-in to give Washington life with their first goal of the night at the 5:19 mark of the third. The goal was Wilson’s ninth of the season, and Kuznetsov picked up his 41st point of the campaign.

The less than pleasant (though, perhaps less than surprising) news of the day is that The Evgeny Kuznetsov Experience may soon be coming to a conclusion in Washington. It’s been a weird and wild ride with Kuzy, who has been nothing less than an enigma since before his (much delayed) arrival in the District. If this is it for the 30-year-old Russian, his legacy will be cemented with their 2018 Stanley Cup Championship which was made possible by his game-winning, series-clinching goal in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals above any and all latent misgivings between the player and the management of the only NHL franchise he has ever played for.

A quick-moving third period led to a Capitals powerplay under seven minutes remaining in regulation. Then with 6:42 left on the board, Alex Ovechkin rocketed a one-timer from his office past DeSmith on an 88-mile-per-hour shot, tallying his 14th powerplay of the season, his 42nd of the season and the 822nd of his career, trimming the deficit to just one goal.

The marker brings Ovechkin to 72 goals away from Wayne Gretzky for the most NHL goals scored all time.

With 2:44 left to go in regulation, Washington completed the comeback as Strome collected in a Sheary rebound, skated behind DeSmith’s net, and eeked a backhand shot over the goal line to bring the game back even at three apiece.

The goal was Strome’s sixth point in the last four games and was his 18th goal of the season.

Then, with all the momentum on his team’s side, Anthony Mantha committed an absolutely gift-wrapped turnover to give the puck to Evgeny Malkin who walked in alone and scored his 25th goal of the season with snatched the lead back with 80 seconds remaining in the contest.

With Kuemper pulled from his net, Washington was unable to capitalize on extended 6-on-5 offensive zone time as Pittsburgh’s defense withstood a late onslaught to salt away the 4-3 win.

The Penguins recorded 40 shots, which marked their fourth game straight with 40 or more, and set a franchise record.

Darcy Kuemper stopped 36 of 40 shots, for a .900 save percentage while Casey DeSmith posted a .912 save percentage with 31 saves on 34 shots.

With the loss, Washington dropped to 34-31-8 and with 76 standings points they sit four points back of Pittsburgh for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with nine games left on the season slate.

Hey, it’s the last Caps-Pens game of the year and our last one here at the home of our soon-to-be former internet landlords. I can only speak for myself when I say that I’m incredibly proud of the community that has been built here at Japers’ Rink and for all the kind words and support we’ve heard from you over the past few months. I can assure you that our captains (Becca and J.P., of course) are charting a course for a better future ahead, and I hope that you’ll all join us in the not-too-distant future at our new home. Personally, after nine years and two different sites at SB Nation, well, it hasn’t always been a pleasure, but it has been an honor. The Japers’ Rink writers and commenters are some of the best folks I’ve encountered on the Capitals Interwebs, and for us, it’s not goodbye, but rather bye for now. See you all on the other side.

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