Capitals’ chances to prove this season’s different fading fast

Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel scored two goals apiece and the Penguins chased Braden Holtby to beat the Capitals 6-2.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Barry Trotz held a public swearing-in ceremony in the nation’s capital this weekend.

There was no Bible. There was, however, most certainly a promise. A change they could believe in. And on a day the Devils won the lottery, the hockey coach even invoked the big guy upstairs.

“It’s my swear-to-God moment,” Trotz began. “Seriously. That’s the change on our team. We’re not going to back off. We’re not backing off. I think we’ve learned to go forward. I think we’ve learned to park things. That’s what the change is.”

On this night, with a potentially soul-crushing 6-2 defeat, they charged forward and lost, again, digging themselves a 2-0 series hole.

A winner to his marrow, Justin Williams took no consolation in the red side’s out-attempting the Penguins 83-41 in Thursday’s Game 1 or 88-45 in Saturday’s Game 2.

“I hate when you say that after a game: ‘Well, we played well enough to win.’ You didn’t win. They won,” Williams said. “So we need to be even better.”

We’re already two-and-a-half weeks into the tournament, but Nicklas Backstrom said the Presidents’ Trophy winners had yet to compile a full 60-minute effort. It was high time for one, and Trotz threw the onus onto his players.

“They have to get there,” said Trotz, when asked how he could summon a better performance from his group of all-stars and Olympians.

“When you go into the playoffs and you’re playing a championship-calibre team, you’ve got to be the better team—plain and simple. They have the DNA. They’ve done it. They’ve put the Cup over their head. They’ve done all those things.”

This is a coach who’s never seen the sunny side of Round 2 guiding a Washington Capitals core that hasn’t either. This is their best chance, all of them, and it’s slipping fast.

Trotz slammed his fist on the podium before puck drop.

“We have to be the better team. And starting tonight, we have to be the better team. That’s everything, through details and execution, all those things that are very important in the game. That’s what we intend to do.

“They’re going to be better, and we’re going to be better. I can guarantee you that.”

Well, they sure started that way.

The Capitals stepped on the ice with Drake and Future pumping their mission statement through the speakers: We need some really big rings….

Trotz attacked the deficit head-on, matching strength against strength. Crosby versus Backstrom. Malkin versus Kuznetsov. Swarming, hitting and drawing the game’s first four penalties, Washington outshot Pittsburgh 15-5 in the first frame but still could not solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

So naturally Penguins role player Matt Cullen would open the scoring, shorthanded, in Period 2.

Washington responded on the same power play, with Alex Ovechkin plating a one-timer for Matt Niskanen, who somehow found himself untouched in the hash marks.

Crosby accepted an errant pass between his legs at speed and beautifully set up a textbook Phil Kessel snipe to regain the lead 2-1 and make Corsi irrelevant.

Then Jake Guentzel held on a 2-on-1 and fired glove-side on Braden Holtby, who gave the rookie too much target and, after allowing three goals on 14 shots, was pulled in favour of Philip Grubauer to start the third.

Kessel welcomed Grubauer to the post-season by beating him five-hole on a power play; trade-deadline prize Kevin Shattenkirk was sitting in the penalty box for shooting a puck over the glass.

Backstrom scored, Ovie rang a crossbar, but the damage had been done before Evgeni Malkin tipped an insurance marker and Guentzel tacked on an empty-netter.

The Verizon Center — 362 consecutive sellouts and counting, thank you — may be the lone corner of D.C. where they don’t like dwelling on history. Well, the champs just blew the dust off an old narrative.

Both clubs tweaked forward lines Saturday, the visitors making the more significant addition.

Washington swapped out fourth-line right wing Brett Connolly, whose ice time had been chopped down to between 6:12 and 4:26 in each of his past four games, and gave AHLer Paul Carey his NHL playoff debut at age 28.

Pittsburgh welcomed a healthy and speedy Carl Hagelin, who’d been sitting since March 10 with a lower-body injury, and reunited its HBK Line (Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel) that gave Washington fits this time last year.

“We know those guys have had a history of playing well together in the past,” said Sullivan, who has now scrambled all four lines.

“We’re not a staff that wants to wait too long; we’re trying to be as proactive as we can to try to help this team win games.”

With the Capitals’ playoff lives down to two, the tension will ratchet one more notch when the series shifts to Pittsburgh for Game 3 Monday night.

Trotz insists it won’t be a must-win, but, swear to God, it feels one.

“For us, there’s only one must game in the playoffs, and that’s when you have three losses,” Trotz said. “For us, it’s about being better.”

Feels like always.

The frightening thing here is that the Penguins have hardly looked like the better squad. Fleury has outplayed Holtby, and they’ve made more of their quality chances, but they have another level too.

“We got to stay hungry,” said Sullivan, a more restrained but equally purposeful public speaker.

“This team has a resilience about it, a certain knack for finding ways to win. I think it starts with their competitive spirit, but certainly by no means are [we] satisfied, and I think that’s an important message, for all of us.”

Amen.

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