First round proving no team is invincible

RALEIGH, N.C.—Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie lay flat on his back with both feet in the air before the pain looked so unbearable that he rolled over on his side and screamed.

This first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes is tied at two games apiece, but that lasting image of Oshie down on the ice after a nasty crash into the boards makes it feel as if the Capitals are falling apart after two straight losses.

T.J. Oshie goes to the ice in pain following a hit near the boards from Carolina's Warren Foegele. The Capitals don’t expect Oshie back “anytime soon,” according to coach Todd Reirden.
T.J. Oshie goes to the ice in pain following a hit near the boards from Carolina’s Warren Foegele. The Capitals don’t expect Oshie back “anytime soon,” according to coach Todd Reirden.  (Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post)

“We just need a sense of urgency in our game,” captain Alex Ovechkin said.

Now with their 2-0 series lead gone and one of the team’s top forwards out for at least the rest of this series — and, even if the Capitals advance, Oshie “won’t be playing anytime soon,” coach Todd Reirden said — has that urgency finally arrived?

“It has to be,” Ovechkin said. “It’s a wake-up call for all of us. We can’t hope one guy is going to make a save or score a goal. You have to go out there and play your game. If you don’t want to do it, don’t play.”

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This entire post-season has been a wake-up call for talented teams with Stanley Cup aspirations that might have taken the first round for granted. On the nights Washington hasn’t been on the ice, the Capitals have watched the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team with far and away the best regular season record, go down to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Pittsburgh Penguins, champions in 2016 and 2017, were swept by the New York Islanders. In the Western Conference, the top-seeded Calgary Flames are one game away from being eliminated by the Colorado Avalanche. Those teams weren’t invincible, and neither are the defending champions.

“We just want to make sure that we keep pushing,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We don’t have enough right now. We know that, and that’s on our group in here to keep pushing forward. And it’s something that we’ve been able to do a lot. We’re pretty confident in the fact that we’re going to go home and we’re going to put our best game on the ice.”

The Capitals have tried to replicate much from last post-season. Players have spent off nights on the road playing Mario Kart on a Nintendo 64 in the team hotel, just like last year. Morning skates at PNC Arena have started with a hot lap, a tradition started in the playoffs a season ago. But in other aspects, Washington has looked like the team it was before it hoisted that hulking silver chalice last June. The Capitals’ secondary scoring has dried up, and they’re struggling with a less talented team’s speed and hustle.

Even as they started to find more of their game Thursday night, the Capitals simply looked tight at times — a condition from past springs.

“It’s tough to talk about an improved game when you’re losing,” Reirden said.

In the two days between Games 3 and 4, Reirden called the team’s “leadership group” the strongest in the league and expressed excitement in how Washington would respond after its first loss of the post-season. Then on the first shift Thursday night, with a top line of centre Nicklas Backstrom, Oshie and Ovechkin, three significant members of that leadership group, the Capitals allowed a three-on-one rush. Carolina defenceman Jaccob Slavin blew past Washington’s Matt Niskanen to set up Warren Foegele for a goal just 17 seconds into the game.

To this point in the series, the team that has scored first in each game has gone on to win.

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This is a Hurricanes team missing two top-six forwards in Andrei Svechnikov who’s in the concussion protocol after a fight with Ovechkin; and Micheal Ferland who has an undisclosed upper body injury. Then winger Jordan Martinook appeared to injure his right leg in the first period Thursday night.

The Capitals will have to be equally resilient without Oshie, who was pushed into the boards by Foegele in the third period.

Foegele, who had 10 goals and five assists in 77 regular season games, has scored three goals in the past two games. His speed is a headache for the Capitals every time he steps on the ice.

Meanwhile, Washington, which had seven 20-goal scorers during the regular season, has been top-heavy, making Oshie’s injury sting even more. The bottom two lines don’t have a five-on-five goal, and neither do second-line forwards Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals’ leading scorer last post-season.

Maybe now would be a good time to recall right wing Devante Smith-Pelly, a playoff hero last season with seven goals in a fourth-line role. He has been in the American Hockey League since late February, when Washington waived him to clear salary-cap space before the trade deadline.

Ovechkin scored his second goal of the series on a power play in the second period, a one-timer that snapped an 0-for-11 stretch for the man-advantage. And just as Washington was about to get out of the second period with a 1-1 tie, it lost focus in the way a veteran, postseason-proven team shouldn’t.

With less than 30 seconds left in the frame, three Capitals went to cover centre Sebastian Aho entering the zone along the wall, leaving Teuvo Teravainen all alone to receive Nino Niederreiter’s pass right in front of the net for the go-ahead goal.

That was the rare period in this series when Washington was arguably the better team, but it was still down at intermission. The Capitals are still struggling with the Hurricanes’ super-aggressive forecheck, which is giving Washington fits trying to come out of its own zone. There was progress Thursday, but through four games this series the Capitals haven’t generated enough time in Carolina’s end to really wear down an opponent that might have been gassed from its late-season push just to make the playoffs.

The Hurricanes have been playing desperate hockey for a while, and now the Capitals will know what that feels like.

“You never want it to just be smooth-sailing because then when something does happen down the road, you don’t know how the group is going to react,” forward Tom Wilson said. “We’ve got to figure out how to react right now, and it was a good game for the most part tonight.

“That being said, it is the playoffs and the ups and downs and how you manage them. I think the team that kind of manages them the best ends up going far, so we are going to continue to review and get better. In the long run, these types of situations can be good for you.”

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