In a disappointing 5-3 loss on Wednesday (May 11), the Washington Capitals allowed a three-goal lead to vanish versus the Florida Panthers, handing the Miami-based franchise outright control over the series.
The Capitals’ collapse in Game 5 was reminiscent of their Game 4 loss, with coach Peter Laviolette’s side unable to translate early success into a postseason win. The result leaves them on the brink of elimination as their first-round matchup against the Panthers heads back to the District of Columbia for Game 6 on Friday.
“There were two games that were played,” explained head coach Peter Laviolette. “There was the game to push it to 3-0 where I liked everything we did, including the power play, penalty kill, and 5-on-5 play. And then there was the game that took place after that: where if you play against a team like Florida that is a high-octane team, we are just feeding them and we can’t.”
With the Capitals just one loss away from another first-round exit, let’s consider three takeaways from Game 5’s capitulation.
Ilya Samsonov Left Exposed by Capitals’ Defence
Until midway through the second period, it was all going so well for Ilya Samsonov. He was faultless in the first frame, thwarting all 15 shots he faced as the Capitals raced to an early lead, but struggled thereafter.
Within three minutes of T.J. Oshie establishing Washington’s 3-0 advantage, Carter Verhaeghe scored into a half-open net – with Samsonov unable to scramble across his crease in time to prevent the Canadian from scoring off a rebound from the backboards.
John Carlson was responsible for Florida’s second strike, punished for making an aggressive play in the offensive zone that led to a clear-cut breakaway for Patric Hornqvist. He didn’t miss. All hell broke loose in front of Washington’s net two minutes later, with five Capitals scrambling for possession. Eventually, the puck popped out to Sam Reinhart, who tucked it home at the far post. Samsonov elected not to jump on the puck, delegating responsibility to his skaters to clear the danger. They didn’t and it cost him.
If the road team’s second-period showing was disappointing, their defensive offering in the final frame was pure chaos. Verhaeghe scored again shortly after puck drop, stripping the puck from Dmitry Orlov before racing down the ice and scoring unopposed at the backdoor. Claude Giroux put Florida’s win on ice shortly after, bamboozling Samsonov with smart stickhandling at the top of the crease. Game, set, match.
While the Russian wasn’t responsible for Washington’s defeat, he proved incapable of providing timely saves in his teammates’ moment of need. If Samsonov stays in net for Game 6, he’ll do so under the microscope of an elimination contest on home ice.
Offensive Zone Recklessness Costs Washington
It’s worth pointing out the series would already be over if the Capitals held their nerve in the fourth and fifth games of this first-round affair, blowing two golden opportunities to generate separation from the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
Also of note: Washington’s current predicament must be frustrating to the locker room because it feels self-inflicted. Although the Panthers finished the regular season with the NHL lead in comeback wins, there’s a sense that the Capitals have planted the seeds of their own downfall in this series.
“They’re a great team,” brace-scorer Oshie said of Florida, “[but we] can’t give them offence. 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 they took advantage of their chances. There was a lot of the game where I thought we did a good job.”
Laviolette added: “We gave up the lead, you know? You’re in that position again, there is a way you need to play against them to be successful and so when we did that in the third period, we were successful. When we didn’t, we weren’t.”
Now, they will travel back to Washington for an all-or-nothing match knowing that mistakes in the offensive zone have placed them in dangerous territory. To the Capitals, it’s inconceivable that broken plays in Florida’s end sparked a dramatic comeback.
“We got caught on a couple mistakes of us not making the right play,” Oshie said. “Kind of making either a hope-for [pass] or leaving the position that I know we’re not supposed to leave.
“In a couple of instances there was a goal five or 10 seconds later, and then a couple when there wasn’t a goal, but they had the puck in our end [for what] felt like for four or five minutes. We shot ourselves in the foot here tonight.”
Considering the potency of Florida’s attack, it’s remarkable that Washington allowed themselves to be dragged into a scoring contest. They must tighten up in Game 6.
Capitals Must Take Confidence Into Elimination Game
Finally, a positive word on Washington’s recent performances. They’ve already proven they can hang with the Panthers in a series most pundits expected to be a blowout, meaning it isn’t completely unreasonable to suggest a turnaround is possible. Washington’s top players have stepped up through five playoff appearances, although Alex Ovechkin’s one goal and the Capitals’ overreliance on power-play scoring remain a concern.
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If Washington is to stave-off elimination on Friday, they must hit on three assignments:
- Whether it’s Vitek Vanecek or Samsonov, the Capitals must receive competent goaltending.
- They can’t allow more breakaway goals: the Panthers are dangerous enough without handing them freebies.
- Laviolette’s forwards – Ovechkin in particular – need to produce at five-on-five.
In other words, the Capitals stand a chance of turning the tides against Florida in Game 6 – but only if they avoid self-sabotage. They’ve proven their quality in this series: few predicted Washington would find themselves in a position to ‘blow’ round one against Florida. However, the squad from D.C. has spent all of its margin for error against the “Comeback Cats”. It’s win or bust next time out: which option will the Capitals choose?
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.