Capitals drop heartbreaker to Penguins, lose ground in Wild Card race

Caps drop heartbreaker to Pens, lose ground in Wild Card race originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Facing a prime opportunity to gain ground in the playoff race, the Capitals turned in a strong comeback effort by erasing a three-goal deficit against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night before a late third-period goal by Evgeni Malkin sunk them 4-3.

Washington entered the game four points back of the Penguins for the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Florida Panthers and New York Islanders, two teams in the mix, both lost earlier in the afternoon. A win at PPG Paints Arena would’ve injected some serious life into a Capitals team that began the weekend with a playoff percentage in the single digits.

For the first 45 minutes of the game, the Penguins were in complete control. The Capitals had no answers for Pittsburgh goaltender Casey DeSmith, who stopped the first 25 shots he faced. On the other end, the Penguins jumped out to a 3-0 lead on two goals just 2:07 apart in the second period and a power-play tally 27 seconds into the third.

The Capitals generated plenty of chances in five-on-five play early but struggled to get past DeSmith even as they got behind the Penguins’ defense for breakaways and odd-man rushes. Capitals netminder Darcy Kuemper did well to keep the road team in it. He was instrumental in Washington killing three of the Penguins’ four power play chances before finishing the game with 36 saves on 40 shots.

With all three goals against him scored off the rush, Kuemper often found himself in tough positions but managed to limit the Penguins to two scores in five-on-five.

After they fell behind 3-0 early in the third, Tom Wilson gave the Capitals life with a four-on-four tally from the low slot. Evgeny Kuznetsov carried the puck behind the net and found Wilson up front with a wraparound pass to beat DeSmith.

The Capitals climbed their way back into it from there. Alex Ovechkin scored the 299th power-play goal of his career on a one-timer from his office in the left circle before Dylan Strome tied the game with 2:44 left in regulation.

It looked like the Capitals would have a chance to leave the arena with at least one point until Malkin took advantage of a turnover by Anthony Mantha for the game-winning score. The loss put six points between the Capitals and Penguins with eight games remaining on Washington’s schedule. They’ll look to get back in the win column Wednesday when they host the Islanders at Capital One Arena.