This was their chance. This was where the Washington Capitals would get even and go home, back to the Roar in Red at Verizon Center, back to a best-of-three with a "Can you hear us now?" swagger.
The Capitals were the desperate team, which we hear so often is a provably beneficial intangible for a playoff team, while the Pittsburgh Penguins could afford to lose one. Besides, there was the built-in excuse of not having their best defenseman on hand.
Instead, the Capitals are going back to Washington facing what appears to be an insurmountable task, a three-games-to-one hole after a crushing 3-2 overtime loss in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at Consol Energy Center. Patric Hornqvist's one-timer past Braden Holtby early in OT—after Washington defenseman Mike Weber slid the puck to his waiting stick—gave the Pens a victory they probably didn't deserve. Just like in Game 3 on Monday night.
Weber's one-handed attempted to clear of a loose puck in front of Holtby was one of only two official giveaways on the night by the Capitals. The Penguins were charged with 13. But just like it's gone in the last three games of this series, the Penguins capitalized on their chances and the Caps didn't.
"That's why it's [called] sudden death," Caps coach Barry Trotz told Sportsnet's Chris Johnston. "That's what it feels like."
It's just too hard to see how the Capitals, the Presidents' Trophy winners, can overcome this. The Penguins will have Kris Letang back for Game 5. The Pens can play with some house money in Washington, knowing things will still look good if they don't close it out. The Capitals have to go home and try to answer to their Cup-starved fans how they're on the verge of losing another playoff series when everything seemed to be going their way.
Washington got out to a 1-0 series lead and was playing fine in Game 2 when Brooks Orpik's foolish elbow to Olli Maatta's head changed the trajectory of the series. If the Caps are closed out Saturday night, Orpik will rightfully take much of the blame for the unfathomably stupid action that got him suspended for three games and probably fired up the Penguins when they might have started to worry a little.
Part of the reason Weber was in the lineup at all can be directly attributed to Orpik's foolhardy elbow. Game 4 was his first action of the series, and it showed in the worst possible moments. Weber played only 10:53, the least amount of time of any Caps defenseman. But in an overtime situation, Trotz couldn't shorten his bench too much or risk tiring out his top D-men too fast. An active Orpik would have made his decisions much easier.
Pittsburgh actually played a much better game without Letang than it did with him in Game 3. The Pens were only outshot 36-33. But Washington had the better scoring chances in the latter stages of regulation and seemed on the verge of getting the goal to send this thing back to D.C. evened up.
Washington's best offensive players just can't finish, though. Captain Alex Ovechkin, despite seven shots on net, couldn't get anything past rookie Matt Murray. Nicklas Backstrom continued his series-long disappearing act with another pointless night. Backstrom has one assist and seven shots on net in the four games. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had 77 regular-season points, has one (an assist) in this series.
“We got our fair share of chances toward the end of the game and overtime and we just didn’t cash in at the big moments,” Caps defenseman John Carlson told the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg. “It’s something we’re going to have to do. At this point, you lay it on the line, and that’s not good enough. And now we’ve got to reach back and dig deeper, work harder and lay it on the line a little bit more.”
The Caps even got to play with Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby seemingly not at his best after getting slashed in the hand by Ovechkin. Crosby took several hacks at the tunnel wall after leaving the ice from the hit and wasn't too effective when he returned.
The finger of blame can't escape Holtby, either. The OT winner was not his fault, but he was once again outplayed overall by the first-year Murray. After allowing a soft early goal by Jay Beagle, Murray was mostly terrific, making 34 saves. Yes, the Caps keep helping him out by missing the net on a lot of shots (they sent 85 attempts toward the net in Game 3, but only 49 were on target), but the kid has made the biggest stops when his team has needed them.
Wrote Steinberg for the Post:
The Penguins had been just 2-8-1 without Letang, who was averaging more ice time than anyone in this series. Washington had lost three straight games itself just once during its record-setting regular season. The Capitals thought they had found a way to impose their style on the Penguins, to control the puck and unleash their combination of strength and skill. That made this night feel like the pivotal moment of the series.
It's down to the old "we just have to win a hockey game" bromide for Trotz and his club. Somehow, they are down 3-1 in a series in which the score could easily be reversed and at worst should be 2-2. But the truth is the Caps have to win three straight hockey games against a team that not only is really, really good right now but also getting its share of luck.
It all adds up to being just too much for the Caps to overcome. There will be no Miracle of 2016 hockey-wise in our nation's capital.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.