WASHINGTON, D.C. — Mask flipped atop his head, Capitals goalie Braden Holtby cruised from faceoff circle to faceoff circle, staying loose and stealing glances at the video board overhead. Across the ice, Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist leaned over the dasher boards between the benches and peered at the television monitor, chit-chatting with NBC Sports’s Pierre McGuire while an anxious crowd was serenaded by the lyrical falsetto of 4 Non Blondes:
And I say … hey, yeah, yeah ... hey yeah, yeah ... I said hey, what's going on?
Excellent question. As the dust settled following Washington’s 4–1 win over Pittsburgh, no one seemed entirely positive. The indisputable facts: Midway through the third period in Game 2 of these Eastern Conference semifinals, with the Capitals leading 3–1, Hornqvist had jammed a loose puck inside the right goalpost, smack against Holtby’s left leg pad. Contorting like a pretzel, Holtby plunged face-first and kicked his leg into the air, smothering the puck and shielding the overhead camera. The Penguins celebrated. The Capitals protested. The officials retreated to the penalty box and conducted a review. Now here comes the tricky part, destined for debate on barstools and backpages for the duration of this already-manic series:
“My view was that it’s 100% a goal,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “When you blow it up, you can see the white. It’s behind the post.”
“I don't think anybody really knew,” Washington forward Brett Connolly said. “Anytime you get those reviews, it’s stressful.”
“The view I saw, in between the benches was not great,” Hornqvist said. “But from my view up top on the ice, it looked like that was in.”
“I thought it would be clear one way or the other,” said Holtby, who finished with 32 saves, “but I was told it was a pretty strange play.”
Hockey might be considered a game of inches, but this moment came down to mere millimeters. Perhaps that speck of white that Sullivan referenced was indeed enough to justify overturning the initial no-goal ruling. Perhaps it was instead a miniscule mound of snow onto which the puck was perched, inconclusive evidence as referee Chris Rooney announced to wild applause. If the call had changed, the Penguins would’ve climbed within one goal and deflated Capital One Arena. As it stands, the series will instead migrate to Pittsburgh knotted at one game apiece.
For that, the Capitals can thank a dearth of available camera angles, yes, but also a group-wide resiliency that helped them rebound from a demoralizing Game 1 loss in which they bumbled away a two-goal lead for the third time this postseason. Sunday afternoon started much the same way when Alex Ovechkin hammered an unassisted goal and Jakub Vrana snuck a power-play tally past Matt Murray, giving Washington another 2–0 lead entering intermission. Then two minutes into the middle period, Connolly caught the Penguins changing and beat Murray glove-side on a breakaway wrister, his first goal of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and a vital cushion. “We earned our breaks,” Connolly said. “I think we deserved them.”
No doubt that the Capitals received plenty. There was the interference challenge that Sullivan requested on Vrana’s goal, upheld only because Connolly whacked Murray’s pads with barely enough time to spare before the puck was fired. There were the ill-advised tripping and slashing minors taken by center Evgeny Kuznetsov, both of which were salvaged by a shorthanded Washington unit that has now snuffed 22 straight opposing power plays. And then there was the shoulder-to-skull collision that left Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin crumpled on the ice and his teammates howling for justice against Tom Wilson, who nonetheless skated away penalty-free. “It’s the playoffs,” Crosby said later. “Things don't always go your way.”
Not that these Penguins are the types to pout, two-time defending champions and all. “We know what they’re about,” Connolly said. “We know they’ve got guys that can hurt you.” Two of those players—future Hall-of-Fame center Evgeni Malkin and speedster winger Carl Hagelin—missed Games 1 and 2, so dangerous reinforcements could arrive soon enough. Combined with a tilted middle frame in which Pittsburgh outshot its hosts 16–6, that offered enough reassurance heading back home. “Our first period was probably one of the worst in the playoffs, then our second and third were really good,” Hornqvist said. We know it’s going to be a long series.”
For now, though, the Capitals can draw confidence from a combination of factors: a scorching-hot Ovechkin, a rejuvenated Holtby, a bottom-six group of forwards helping shoulder the offensive load. What’s going on? A few fortunate breaks, an inconclusive call and a tied second-round series that promises one hell of a finishing ride.