- Sunday was the seventh sudden-death scenario in eight first-round playoff games for Washington dating to last season, though there was nothing sudden about how the latest installment died.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — They lingered on the home bench, necks craned toward the video board, waiting and wishing. A few players trickled back through the entrance tunnel, coaxed by the faint prospect of a miracle. The air had already deflated from Capital One Arena, thanks to another overtime heartbreaker preceded by another blown multi-goal lead and now here came one final pinprick for woebegone Washington in this first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets:
After further review, the call on the ice stands...
It was a long shot, really. Footage showed that Matt Calvert’s skate had dragged across the blue line entering the offensive zone, onside and legal, moments before the Columbus winger punched a rebound past goalie Braden Holtby for a 5-4 win and a 2-0 series lead. As the Blue Jackets celebrated nearby, Capitals defenseman Jakub Jerabek—who had been jockeying with Calvert for position outside the crease—chucked his stick and struck teammate Alex Chiasson in the back. Then, for good measure, he kicked the twig down the ice in disgust.
Hockey fans around the Beltway can relate—and commiserate. This was the seventh sudden-death scenario in eight first-round playoff games for Washington dating to last season, though there was nothing sudden about how the latest installment died. It was a slow bleed, starting when three Blue Jackets strikes in 10 minutes flipped a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 advantage, ending when the officiating crew finished convening with its replay overlords at NHL headquarters in Toronto and announced a decision.
“It’s a long climb,” Washington’s Matt Niskanen said. “You can’t think about the whole thing. We’ve got to get Game 3. We all know the statistics if we go 0-3. That’s got to be our focus.”
Focus. That buzzword arose often inside the Capitals locker room, where a quiet postmortem was conducted amid the clatter of gear getting packed for Columbus. They had pelted 58 shots at Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, including 21 during a tilted third period. They had been gifted a late power play on Boone Jenner’s boneheaded slashing, only to watch defenseman John Carlson’s slapper clang off the crossbar. “The penalty kill is killing us,” lamented fellow blueliner Niskanen, though not as much as penalties themselves: Second-period whistles on Tom Wilson (roughing) and Devante Smith-Pelly (holding the stick) directly aided another Blue Jackets comeback.
“Obviously we’re disappointed,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’re mad … We’ve got to be mentally prepared and go to Columbus.”
A few minutes later, Capitals coach Barry Trotz stepped to the dais and preached resilience. After all, his team had fallen behind 0-2 in the second round against Pittsburgh last spring only to scratch and claw its way to a winner-take-all Game 7. Why not again? Why not now? “We’re not going away,” Trotz said. “We’re going to be around. You’re going to see us dig in, and you’re going to see us fight, and you’re going to see us make something happen here.”
They almost got there Sunday night. After no-showing in Game 1, captain Alex Ovechkin cranked two power-play goals past Bobrovsky and finished with 17 shot attempts. Goalie Braden Holtby showed well while relieving starter Philipp Grubauer, making eight saves until Calvert arrived on his doorstep. Playoff overtimes are cardiac coin flips by nature, baked with enough random variance for professional athletes to forget fast, but here is the pressing reality: NHL teams facing 2-0 deficits historically advance less than 14 % of the time and Columbus’ swagger has swelled from snatching a pair on the road.
“I just think we’ve found our confidence at the right time, for a lot of our name players,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. “I think our team has found itself at the right time and it’s showing here. And Washington has just a tremendously skilled team. It’s two crazy games. Two overtime games. You can’t ask for anything … it’s fun.”
Tell that to the towel-waving faithful here in Chinatown, who went from booing the refs to booing the Metro to just booing altogether. Tell that to GM Brian MacLellan, rewatching Calvert's goal while waiting outside the press box elevator, hands in his pockets and eyes on the TV. Tell that to the group sitting on the home bench, two losses now from an early summer, not quite needing a miracle but headed to Columbus looking for something close.