Alex Ovechkin tried to focus on the positive while assessing the Washington Capitals’ predicament against the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference First Round.
After being grinded down by the Islanders again in a 5-2 loss in Game 2 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Friday, the Capitals trail 2-0 in the best-of-7 series and face an uphill climb heading into Game 3 on Sunday (Noon ET; USA, SN360, TVAS, MSG, MSG+, NBCSWA).
“It’s a good thing we have plenty of games, lots of games left, and we’ve been in this situation,” Ovechkin said. “We know how to fight, we know how to play, and we’re going to do our best. I believe in this group, and we all believe in each other. It’s not panicking. It’s just 2-0. We know our strength. We know what we have to do to get to bounce back.”
Ovechkin, who scored each goal for Washington in Game 2, is correct that Capitals have been in this position before. They lost the first two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round in 2018 and came back to win that series in six games to begin their run to winning the Stanley Cup.
But this series feels different.
Washington lost the two games to Columbus in overtime and believed it was on the right track despite the results. Although the Capitals started well in each of the two games against the Islanders, taking the lead in each, New York took over as play progressed with its relentless work ethic and commitment to its defensive system.
Coached by Barry Trotz, who guided the Capitals to the championship in 2018 before resigning, the Islanders wear down teams with their unwavering structure. Protecting a 3-2 lead in the third period, they didn’t sit back, but instead pressured the Capitals in their end, winning puck battle after puck battle leading up to Cal Clutterbuck‘s deflection goal that increased their lead to 4-2 with 2:46 remaining.
“It’s the focus,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s (being) mentally and physically sharp for 60 minutes. If you’re not going to do that against a team like this, you’re going to have a difficult time having success.”
It didn’t help in Game 2 that the Capitals were missing center Nicklas Backstrom, who is in the NHL concussion protocol after being injured on a hit from Islanders forward Anders Lee in their 4-2 loss in Game 1. And though Lars Eller returned after missing Game 1 following the required quarantine for leaving the Toronto bubble for the birth of his son, the center understandably was rusty following a eight days without skating.
Ovechkin tried his best to carry the load, scoring on a backhand 56 seconds into the game to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead and tying it 2-2 with his deflection 6:39 into the second.
But Washington didn’t get enough from others and made too many mistakes, including Jakub Vrana‘s turnover that led to Brock Nelson‘s go-ahead breakaway goal 15 seconds after Ovechkin tied the game.
After undisciplined play sidetracked the Capitals in the first and second periods — they were shorthanded five times, including twice for too many men on the ice — they had two power plays in the third when trailing 3-2. Ovechkin had their best chance on a backdoor feed from Evgeny Kuznetsov with 9:46 remaining but hit the outside of the net.
“We haven’t played those big moments well so far and we haven’t swayed the momentum when things aren’t going our way quick enough right now,” defenseman John Carlson said. “So there are a lot of things to nitpick about our game right now, but those big moments, big power-play opportunities in the third or coming off a goal, I think we always talk about those things, and we haven’t done a good job.”
Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, who scored two power-play goals in Game 1, are the only Capitals to score in the series. Vrana, who scored an NHL career-high 25 goals during the regular season, has no points in five postseason games and was benched for the remainder of the second period after Nelson’s goal.
Ilya Kovalchuk, who was acquired in a trade from the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 24 to add scoring depth, had no shots on goal in Game 2 and has one assist in five postseason games.
“Obviously, we know we all have to play better,” Ovechkin said. “It starts with me and everybody have to play better. Everybody (makes) mistakes, but we can’t focus on one mistake. We have to move forward and move on.”