“We basically gave the series to them,” a somber Nicklas Backstrom said after Game 6.
Washington had a 2-1 third-period lead in Game 4, a 3-0 lead in the second period of Game 5 and a 2-1 third-period lead in Game 6. Each time, the Panthers confidently stormed back as the Capitals wilted under pressure.
“We were unable to capitalize on all those opportunities,” said winger T.J. Oshie, who led the Capitals with six postseason goals. “ … Last three games, the game was in our hands. That comes down to us just finding a way to get the job done.”
Washington’s Game 4 overtime loss — in which forward Garnet Hathaway barely missed what would have been a clinching empty-net goal — was particularly deflating. After the puck missed the mark, Panthers forward Sam Reinhart found the late equalizer in regulation. Then Carter Verhaeghe, Florida’s breakout star, notched the overtime winner to tie the series at two wins apiece.
If Washington had taken Game 4 instead of Florida, would momentum have shifted? Would the Capitals’ season still be alive? Those weren’t questions Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette could dwell on.
“You can’t live in that world,” Laviolette said. “You’ve got to close the door.”
The Capitals had a shot to take Game 5, too. Washington commanded the first 30 minutes on the road, jumping out to a 3-0 second-period lead.
But then the Capitals crumbled again, as the Panthers scored five straight en route to a victory, capitalizing on the visitors’ uncharacteristic mistakes.
The Panthers trailed the Capitals twice in Game 6 on Friday night. Both times, Washington let its lead slip away.
“We all understand when we get the lead, we don’t have to give them empty spots, give them the chance,” said captain Alex Ovechkin. “Especially when they put the puck deep we have to play much harder in the [defensive zone]. Again, mistakes from everybody … It’s us. All 20 guys who are out there have to be more responsible.”
Defenseman John Carlson, who had a lackluster postseason riddled with individual mistakes, echoed Ovechkin’s thoughts, noting Washington was better at closing out games in the regular season. When it mattered most in the postseason, the Capitals came up short.
“You have to shut down teams,” Backstrom said. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s obviously on us. It’s disappointing.”
Washington has yet to win a postseason series since its Stanley Cup win in 2018, a startling stat that Ovechkin called “kind of a “f—ed-up situation.”
Oshie acknowledged the underwhelming playoff efforts in recent years, noting opponents “had their way” with the Capitals. Oshie said Washington’s “all-in aspect” was not quite there in the past. This year, something felt different, but Washington still couldn’t advance.
“We were extremely close to being 100 percent everyone on board, and we let three games get away from us,” Oshie said. “In the playoffs, the margin of error is so small. One bad bounce or one misread can change the whole momentum of a game.”