The Capitals know what their game could and should look like to beat the Florida Panthers. When the Capitals have been at their best in this first-round series, they’ve displayed a mature game consisting of defensive discipline, strong puck management and a healthy dose of physicality.
The Capitals have shown these elements in bursts, but they haven’t shown them consistently enough. That’s why they suddenly find themselves on the brink of elimination, trailing the Panthers three games to two in the best-of-seven series.
Game 6 is Friday at Capital One Arena.
“You’ve got to win a hockey game,” Capitals Head Coach Peter Laviolette said Thursday in Florida. “There’s things that we’ve done well in this series, and then there’s things that we haven’t done well … We’ve got to take those things that we’ve done well and the positives and bring that for a more consistent amount of time.”
To Laviolette’s point, the Capitals looked good to start Game 5 on Wednesday. Washington built a 3-0 lead early in the second period and were seemingly well positioned to take a 3-2 series lead.
Undisciplined play with the puck, though, combined with defensive breakdowns, opened the door for the Panthers to claw their way back. Florida ultimately rallied with five unanswered goals in an eventual 5-3 win.
“We gave the game away,” veteran forward Nicklas Backstrom said.
The Panthers are the NHL’s highest scoring team in 26 years, having averaged 4.14 goals per game during the regular season.
Florida’s quick-strike offense feasts off turnovers and the ability to transition up ice with pace. The Capitals played into that game Wednesday with several miscues that led directly to Florida goals.
“We got caught on a couple of mistakes of us not making the play,” conceded Capitals winger T.J. Oshie. Oshie scored twice in Game 5, but also committed a neutral zone turnover moments before the Panthers got on the board at 6:50 of the second period.
“In a couple of instances, there was a goal five or 10 seconds [after a miscue],” Oshie said. “Kind of shot ourselves in the foot. They’re a great team. Can’t give them offense. They’re going to find a way to create something on their own. For a lot of the game, I like the way we played. It’s unfortunate we didn’t show up on the scoreboard and that they took advantage of their chances.”
For the second straight game, Florida’s Carter Verhaeghe scored the eventual game-winning goal after a costly Capitals turnover. In Game 4 at Capital One Arena, Verhaeghe and the Panthers converted in overtime soon after Capitals rookie Connor McMichael lost control of the puck in the neutral zone. In Game 5, Verhaeghe stole the puck from Dmitry Orlov inside the Panthers zone before quickly transitioning up ice and eventually beating Ilya Samsonov for the go-ahead marker in the third period.
“If you play against a team like Florida that is a high-octane team, we’re just feeding them,” Laviolette said. “And we can’t.”
“There should be a lot of confidence from the things that we have done well in the series, the games that we have won, the times that we played well. But you really have to work for a clean game against a team like Florida, who’s dynamic with what they do.”
The Panthers led the NHL with 29 comeback wins during the regular season, including a League-record five comebacks by three-or-more goals. Now the Cardiac Cats have entered the postseason chat. Come-from-behind wins in Games 4 and 5 have the Panthers on the verge of completing an in-series comeback after trailing Washington two games to one.
While the Panthers are looking to advance to the second round for the first time since 1996, the Capitals will look to avoid a fourth consecutive first-round exit.
“We’ve got to reset here,” Oshie said. “You obviously don’t want to be down 3-2, especially when we felt like we had a chance to go up 3-1 in [Game 4]. You’ve just got to regroup. We’ve got a veteran group in there and a bunch of guys with great character.”