Penguins put Capitals on the brink of NHL playoff failure, again

Pittsburgh is up 3-1 over Washington. This series is over. Dead.

Pittsburgh has Washington 'on the brink.'

Pittsburgh has Washington 'on the brink.'

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The idiom ‘on the brink’ is overused in sports. A brink is, simply, an old term for the edge of a steep place bordering water. Most of us would call that a cliff and yet, for centuries — almost 1,000 years — when something bad is about to happen, we say that person, or in sports that team, is on the brink of elimination.

Thanks to a 3-2 victory in Game 4, the Penguins have put the Washington Capitals on the brink. No, this feels like more than that. The Pens pushed the Caps off the cliff Wednesday night. They’re dead already, before they even hit rock bottom. Hey, another idiom that seems perfect to describe the performance of the top seed in the Eastern conference.

Whether the Penguins are the better team or not doesn’t matter, which is good, because they’re not, and they haven’t been for much of this series. But Marc-Andre Fleury has been magical, standing on his head — all the idioms! — this entire series, perhaps no game more impressive than his 36-save effort in Game 4.

The Penguins got out to a 2-0 lead in Game 4 thanks to an own goal by the Capitals in the second period, a two-score advantage that looked absolutely insurmountable given the Capitals’ penchant formerly playoff exits. But Washington battled back with two goals into the proper net in the second period, tying the game, and giving some glimmer of hope to Caps fans. After all, Sidney Crosby is still out, and a 2-2 series headed back to Washington is completely different than going home down 3-1. But it wasn’t meant to be. Instead…the brink.

Justin Schultz netted a power play goal at 11:24 in the second period, and Fleury made 16 saves the rest of the game, including nine in the third period, to put this series out of reach. Done. Caput. Finished.

And so doing a quick search for the term ‘on the brink’ to find the language or origin — Old English with a hint of Danish, if I remember right — one of the top search results is already Pens-Caps Game 4.

Why not just say what it is? The Capitals are dead, again. The Penguins killed them dead. Again. We just have to wait a few days for the funeral.

Is that too much bravado? Are we being too cocksure in suggesting this 3-1 lead is officially insurmountable? The Capitals do have two of the remaining three games at home, which means they really only have to win one game in Pittsburgh to take this series in seven games. And, for what it’s worth, they’ve already won one game in Pittsburgh. And, with Crosby out and Conor Sheary out and Kris Letang still out there’s an element of smoke-and-mirrors to this Penguins team at some point the Capitals are going to break.

And yet, via the aforementioned Puck Daddy blog:

If Washington loses this series to the Pens, it will be the third time in Ovechkin’s career that his team couldn’t beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs in the second-round. Ovechkin has also never gotten past the second-round of the postseason in his NHL career in five previous attempts.

Last season the Penguins beat the Caps in the second-round in six games. In that series Pittsburgh also went up 3-1 on Washington.

In the first round of the playoffs, three teams took 3-1 leads in their series, including the Penguins over the Blue Jackets, and all three won. In the 2016 playoffs, 10 teams took 3-1 series leads in best-of-7 series and all 10 won.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

According to, teams have come from behind from 3-1 in best-of-7 series just 28 times in NHL history and, per, those 28 wins come in 287 series.

Add in the three series in round one this year that went 3-1 and there have been 290 best-of-7 series to go 3-1. That’s more than 90 percent success rate for teams up 3-1. The chances are slim.

It has, however happened a decent amount recently, contextually speaking. Of the 28 comebacks, 13 have come since 2000 and 8 have come since 2009. The Penguins have been involved in five 3-1 comebacks — two on the winning end, both against the Capitals, and three on the losing end — while the Capitals have been involved in seven 3-1 comebacks in history — two on the winning end, five on the losing end.

The last 3-1 comeback in the NHL playoffs was in the second round in 2015, when the Rangers were down 3-1 to the Caps and won that series in seven games.

So it can happen, and most of these Capitals players know it can happen because it happened to them just two years ago. But is it likely? No.

Have the Caps shown anything in their recent playoff history to indicate they have what it takes to get past the second round at all, let alone down 3-1? No.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Up two games, without Crosby and Letang and Matt Murray on the ice, and with the Penguins being outshot 142-94 in the series, could things finally start to unravel for Pittsburgh? Could Alex Ovechkin shake off a bad Game 4 and steal a game for the Caps, then force his will in Game 6 and lead the Capitals back to a Game 7 at home where almost literally anything could happen?

Sure. That could happen. Literally anything could happen. But the Capitals are on the brink. Most teams don’t come back from this, and these Caps never have. So until they do, they can’t. They’re dead. And the Penguins are doing the pushing, shorthanded all the same.