Are the Capitals still what we thought they were?

Patric Hornqvist beat Braden Holtby to give the Pittsburgh Penguins a 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night in Game 4 of the second-round series.

PITTSBURGH – Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals are now standing in front of a mirror. What do they see?

Is it the long past of playoff heartbreaks, or the fortitude they claim to have fostered these last several months while compiling the NHL’s best regular season record?

They will spend the next two days hearing about both possibilities before facing a must-win Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins back at Verizon Center on Saturday. This will be an uncomfortable time.

For while there will no doubt be plenty of soundbites from the key figures on this team that they’re playing with short memories, they can’t completely escape the fact that they’ve never managed to win the big one.

“It’s a totally different year,” Ovechkin said after Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime loss. “Last year we (were) winning 3-1 against the Rangers and we lost. We just have to have the mentality of shift to shift, period by period, and try to turn it around. Try to win the next game.”

There is no shame in losing to the better team in a best-of-seven series, but the Capitals entered this one believing they were it. This is unquestionably the best group Washington has had during the Ovechkin era.

And yet they missed a golden opportunity to even the series here in Game 4.

The Penguins’ blue-line looked awfully thin with Kris Letang serving a suspension and Olli Maatta out injured. Veteran winger Eric Fehr was also unable to go for Pittsburgh. When you couple that with the fact Washington had dominated everywhere but the scoreboard two nights earlier, this was a favourable situation.

“We didn’t take advantage of it,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz.

This was a tense evening at Consol Energy Center, where Jay Beagle staked his team to an early 1-0 lead before Trevor Daley and Matt Cullen put Pittsburgh up 2-1. John Carlson tied it before the second intermission and you just knew the next one would be the winner.

It was essential to hold your nerve, to be hard on pucks, to find a way to make a difference.

The clock stopped 2:34 into overtime when Caps defenceman Mike Weber – a trade deadline pickup dressing in just his fourth game since March 22 – inadvertently cleared the puck directly onto Patric Hornqvist’s stick.

What a game.

“In the playoffs you see a lot of that,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “You see different scenarios, getting a lead, losing it, close games like this, tight-checking games. I think you just have to believe in the way you play and trust we’ll get our chances and when we do someone will step up.”

That is what Washington needs more than anything.

It doesn’t have to be Ovechkin. Where is Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team’s leading point-getter this season? He has one assist in this series and a mere two points in these playoffs.

Perhaps it can come from an unsung member of the team, one of the depth forwards or maybe even a defenceman.

The point here is that it has to come from somewhere if the core of this team is ever going to shake its reputation. We’ve seen teams like St. Louis and San Jose get to work on remodelling their images this spring and time is running awfully short for Washington to join them.

Understandably, we found a pretty dejected group when the visiting locker-room opened at Consol Energy Center after Hornqvist’s winner.

“That’s why it’s (called) sudden death,” said Trotz. “That’s what it feels like. We’ll have to deal with it. This group’s dealt with a lot of things, I think they’ve handled adversity pretty well all year so they’ll have to do it again.

“We’ve dug ourselves a hole and see if we can dig ourselves out a little bit.”

The painful truth is that erasing a 3-1 hole against these Penguins is almost certainly too big of a mountain to climb. Pittsburgh has only lost three of its last 18 games overall. It’s difficult to imagine it suddenly losing three in a row.

But perhaps we might see some progress in how the Capitals at least respond to this latest setback.

At minimum, they should deliver their best performance of the series in front of their home fans on Saturday night. The dream is nearly dead but there should still be some life in the body.

“I think it’s time for everybody just to forget those two games,” said Ovechkin. “You never know what’s going to happen. We have to win the next one and then we’ll see what’s going to be.”

We’re going to learn something in Game 5.

Have the Capitals taken a step forward or are they still what we thought they were?

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