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Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen was asked what the mood was inside the locker room after their soul-crushing Game 2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.
“None of your business,” was the terse reply.
Niskanen was asked what the veteran leaders, led by Nicklas Backstrom, said in a closed-door, players-only meeting following the loss. “None of your business,” he said.
Oh, to have had an ear to the door on that meeting.
What’s left to say?
What can you say about the start? The Capitals played one of the most dominating periods any team has played in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They outshot the Penguins, 16-5. They had 35 shot attempts to just eight for Pittsburgh. The Capitals talked about getting a lead, not chasing the game, after their Game 1 loss. They unloaded on the Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury turned back 16 shots and the first period ended in a scoreless tie.
Then Kevin Shattenkirk got outhustled by a 40 year old for a shorthanded goal, and the Penguins had another lead.
(Shattenkirk was a special kind of terrible last night, getting beaten on that Matt Cullen goal and then later taking a delay of game penalty that resulted in a Phil Kessel power-play goal. He’s got three points and has skated to a minus-7 overall in the playoffs, but Game 2 might have been the deadline prize’s postseason nadir. Squint and you can see the dollars disappearing on his free-agent offers.)
The Capitals can’t play much better than they did for 20 minutes here. But as Omar memorably said on “The Wire”: Come at the king, you best not miss.
What else can you say about the Penguins?
The Capitals have controlled play for long stretches in these two games, but they haven’t even created a furrowed brow on a Pittsburgh player.
There’s no fear on the other side. They know Sidney Crosby will do what he’s done in these first two games, which was put two pucks in the net in Game 1 and then create two more goals in Game 2, one of them off a blocked shot in his own defensive zone.
And now, on top of that, they’re confident that Fleury can be the best goalie in the series.
What else can you say about Braden Holtby?
When I was down in D.C. before Game 2, the talk around the team was about how Holtby hadn’t, to this point, exerted his will and flat-out won a game for the Capitals in the playoffs. You can argue he was the difference in Game 6 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, which was a critical win. But in Game 2 against the Penguins, he was pulled for the first time in the postseason after whiffing on Jake Guentzel’s shot that made it 3-1.
“The playoffs are made of big moments,” Holtby said. “On that third goal, it’s a big moment. That’s where your goalie has to come up and make a big save, and I didn’t do that.”
And so he was yanked.
“I would regret if I didn’t do it. If you don’t try, then you don’t know,” said coach Barry Trotz, who was non-committal on Holtby for Game 3. “On some of the goals, he wasn’t as sharp as he could have been. He’s a game-changer for us. And when he didn’t change the game, I just looked to change the mojo a little bit.”
What else can you say about the “mojo” of this team?
I totally bought what Trotz was selling after Game 1: That the Capitals weren’t in “here we go again mode.” That they played well, could identify their errors and build on it. That the panic they felt after things fell apart in Game 3 last postseason hadn’t manifested.
I can’t believe it’s not there now. These are two missed opportunities on home ice against a bunch of assassins on the other side. This is a series where the Penguins are significantly shorthanded, and perhaps even more so with Patric Hornqvist out. This is a series where Crosby can seemingly turn the tide when he feels like it. This is a series where Fleury has stopped 67 of 71 shots, while Holtby has stopped only 29 of 35. This is a series that’s slowly going from a matter of “if” to “when,” and one in which the established norms in this lopsided rivalry aren’t even close to being subverted.
“They have a great pedigree. They’ve won a Cup. They’ve gone to places in their room that you go when you win a championship. We’re going to have to go to places that we haven’t gone before to beat this team,” said Trotz.
This isn’t something we heard in the first round against the Leafs. The Capitals were demonstrably a better team. They played with confidence and spoke with confidence, a top-seed that felt the inevitability of victory even when they were staring at a deficit.
It’s none of our business, apparently, what was said in the Capitals’ room. But do you think anyone actually said “we’re the better team” and meant it?
And so the Capitals are in an 0-2 hole to their arch rivals, bullies and tormentors. Their best shots haven’t been good enough. Their advantages in the series haven’t been taken. If this is still “the year” for the Capitals, they’ll have it’s almost unfathomable what dynamic needs to change here to overcome the Penguins.
Although, we suppose, it begins with winning Game 3.
“We’re going to go there and win two games there. I think that’s an outstanding challenge for us,” said Trotz.
We’d ask how they intend to meet that challenge. But it’s probably none of our business.
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