The Washington Capitals weren’t at their best in Game 4 on Monday night with a chance to take a 3-1 series lead over the Florida Panthers, but they still nearly were able to grab a win. But a late 2-1 lead evaporated with 2:04 to play with Sergei Bobrovsky pulled for the extra skater, and then the Panthers evened the series and took back home ice before the Capitals even registered a shot in overtime, as Carter Verhaeghe won the game off a rebound just before the extra session was five minutes old.
Washington wasn’t quite as crisp as they had been in their Game 1 and Game 3 wins only generating 16 shots in nearly 65 minutes of hockey and allowing 32 shots on net in the 3-2 loss. The result guarantees a Game 6 at Capital One Arena on Friday night with the winner of Game 5’s contest in Sunrise getting a chance to move on to face the winner of the Tampa Bay Lightning-Toronto Maple Leafs series in the second round.
The Panthers certainly looked like they were playing with some nerves early, but the Capitals weren’t able to close the door on one of the league’s best comeback teams and as a result, missed a chance to take a stranglehold on the series.
Capitals’ Offense Limited
The Capitals even got an early lead in the contest, as they got on the board first on a power play, as a John Carlson shot went off T.J. Oshie‘s leg and past Bobrovsky with 7:15 gone in the game.
Despite the strong start, the Panthers were able to even the score up less than seven minutes later on a breakdown in the Capitals’ end on a 4-on-4 chance, which led to a 2-on-1 break that resulted in Carter Verhaeghe poking a puck past Ilya Samsonov off an Aaron Ekblad feed for a 1-1 count.
Washington ended the first down 11-7 in shots, but that low total ended up being their high of any period in the game, as the game took on a defensive feel for the Capitals, who registered only nine shots through the game’s final 45 minutes.
The Capitals managed to keep the Panthers off the board despite a 12-4 shot disadvantage in the second, which was primarily driven by three unsuccessful power plays for the Panthers. The Capitals had its own shot with a brief 5-on-3 in the period but failed to cash in and the game took on an overtime feel at a critical juncture of the series.
The Capitals were finally able to break through and take the lead with 10:29 left in regulation, as Evgeny Kuznetsov continued his strong playoff with his second goal in four games, both coming in key situations in the third period. The Panthers turned the puck over at the Washington blue line after an Oshie hit on Sam Bennett, and Alex Ovechkin took the puck and fed Kuznetsov streaking down the boards and came in and beat Bobrovsky on a breakaway.
Washington was able to frustrate the Panthers down the stretch after the go-ahead goal, but Florida coach Andrew Brunette rolled the dice and pulled Bobrovsky with 3:09 to play.
The decision nearly ended Florida’s night when Garnet Hathaway had a shot at the empty net, but hit the post and went for icing. Then the Panthers dominated the ensuing faceoff, and Sam Reinhart‘s first-ever Stanley Cup playoff goal evened the game with 2:04 to play.
There wasn’t much offense generated in the overtime, with the Panthers getting the only two shots with just under five minutes elapsed, as after Ekblad’s shot resulted in a pad save, Verhaeghe ended the game with a shot past Samsonov. While Capitals coach Peter Laviolette thought the goal should have been washed out due to goaltender interference by Florida, video review upheld the goal and the series became a best-of-three, with the Panthers taking back home-ice advantage.
Game 5 Keys for Washington
With the series tied, Game 5 becomes a key contest in the series, with the winner getting a chance to move on Friday night in Washington. While the Capitals had been mostly limiting Florida’s chances and generating some timely offense, that was largely absent on Monday.
The Capitals set a season-low for shots taken in any game this season, besting a 17-shot performance in a 4-3 loss on Jan. 20 at TD Garden. The performance was also just two better than the franchise low for shots in a home playoff game set exactly 32 years ago in Game 4 of the 1990 Wales Conference Final against those same Boston Bruins.
The Capitals also allowed 32 shots, only bettered by Florida’s total of 36 in Game 2, largely thanks to a 17-shot third-period in that contest. Samsonov was very sharp for the second straight game, with only the opening goal being somewhat soft, as he made 29 saves on the night and kept his team in it with some strong play.
Clearly, getting outshot 2-to-1 against the league’s best offensive team isn’t a sustainable formula, and while Washington has been mostly successful at limiting Florida’s chances in four games, they also have to generate some more offense themselves than they did in Game 5.
With the Panthers looking nervous at times and carrying the weight of high expectations, not to mention numerous chances for the Capitals to put them in a big hole – particularly on a 5-on-3 power play – they were committing some of the reasons that gave them a playoff-worst home record this season with overpassing and not taking shots when given the chance.
The Capitals are now just 2-4 in their last six playoff games at Capital One Arena, dating back to their Game 7 loss to Carolina in 2019. When the series shifts to Florida on Wednesday, they will need Samsonov to turn in another strong contest as the presumable starter for Washington for perhaps the rest of the series. However, the Capitals also need to generate more shots on Bobrovsky, who looked much more comfortable in Florida’s net with not a ton of good Capitals looks in Game 4.
While the Capitals would take a 2-2 series before it began, Wednesday’s game becomes critical for Washington in its upset bid, as they probably can ill-afford to need to win two straight to advance to the second round for the first time since 2018.
The Capitals likely will need to strike first and play a more solid defensive game than they did Monday, as while the goaltending was better than expected at home, they still need to try and slow the Panthers down. Their penalty-killing continues to be strong, keeping the Panthers off the scoresheet with the extra man in the series, something that likely will become less of a factor as penalties tend to decline as elimination games begin. The Capitals’ power play went 1-for-5 with Oshie’s goal, but also came up empty on some key chances in the second period.
Who Will Take Control?
Game 5 will probably be key in the Capitals’ upset chances, as the league’s best road team this season has a chance to eliminate the Panthers with a win. Washington has gone 1-2-1 at FLA Live Arena this season, including a split in the first two games of this series.
The Capitals also will get some additional bodies back before the contest, as the Hershey Bears were eliminated from the Calder Cup Playoffs on Monday night, so some Black Aces will be heading to Sunrise to give Washington some more bodies for practice.
While the Capitals have given the Presidents’ Trophy winners all they could handle so far, they will have to wrestle some momentum back after nearly putting them in a 3-1 series hole. They bounced back nicely from an ugly Game 2 loss, and they will need to do the same in Game 5 following a tough Game 4 setback.
“Third period we played well, we played solid,” Ovechkin told reporters after the game. “Kind of turned around the game. At the end, it was bad bounces and it goes in. … It is going to be a tough, long series, so move on. Forget about it; move on” (from “Caps can’t slam the door in Game 4 as Panthers rally for OT win to knot series,” The Washington Post, 5/9/22).
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Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.