PITTSBURGH -- So, here's the weird part: The Washington Capitals team that we expected to see this spring, the one that promised so much for so long during a spectacular regular season, showed up for the first time in this hard-as-nails second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins -- but it turned out to be in a 3-2 loss.
The Capitals did so much so right in Game 3.
They pounded 85 shots in the general direction of Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray. Forty-nine of them found Murray. Just two made it past him.
By comparison, the Penguins directed just 36 shots at Braden Holtby. Twenty-three were official shots on goal, three found the back of the net. It was enough, of course, to give the Penguins a 2-1 series lead and up the ante for the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals.
"I just take it that's the way hockey is sometimes," said Washington winger Justin Williams -- a three-time Stanley Cup winner -- after the game. "It's not always going to be roses and grapes all the time. You have to battle through bad breaks, bad calls, everything. It's playoff time."
Williams got his first goal of this postseason in the third period of Game 3 in the final minute of regulation to make the score 3-2.
He signed with Washington last offseason and was considered a key piece to a Capitals puzzle that has long promised much but delivered little when it mattered most in the playoffs.
The first of those moments is at hand.
"Well, we know we played better than we did in Games 1 and 2, but to win Game 4 we're going to have to play better than we did tonight," Williams said.
Few people expected this Capitals team to be facing such a critical juncture this early in this series -- or this early in the postseason. During the 82-game regular season, they obliterated the competition by not once losing back-to-back games in regulation. The Caps have now done so twice in the past two weeks and are 2-4 in their past six playoff games this spring.
Game 3 was supposed to be a game in which they pushed back, and restored order in this series after coming out of the gate slow in Game 2 and dropping a 2-1 decision that tied the series at 1-1.
Did they accomplish that? In losing, can the Capitals somehow claim victory? Because in many ways they were the better team Monday night.
They took the play to the Penguins. They outshot them early, something that had not happened in Game 2. They outhit them 58-25.
After the game Capitals players were asking coach Barry Trotz if they were going to practice on Tuesday in preparation for Game 4 Wednesday night. They couldn't wait to get back to work.
"We're looking forward to Game 4," Trotz said. "Guys are excited."
The coach likened Monday's game to another Game 3, against the New York Islanders in the first round a year ago. The Caps fell behind 2-1 in that series -- losing in overtime in Game 3 -- but were the better team moving forward and defeated the Islanders in Game 7.
Trotz said this team has the same perseverance.
"You didn't see any quit in the Capitals," he said. "The mountain never looks too big for us. The only thing I don't like about it was the result."
And yet, here's the thing: We're back to not really knowing about this Capitals team.
We might think we know. The players might think they know. But the truth will be revealed on Wednesday night.
Maybe Caps fans were slightly agitated when their team lost two in a row to the Philadelphia Flyers after going up 3-0 in the first round. But those Flyers were a shadow of the team the Penguins are, just as that Islanders team a year ago cannot be compared to what Pittsburgh is bringing to the party.
This version of the Capitals was supposed to be tougher, deeper and more ready for these kind of moments.
Wednesday night will be first time these Capitals will be asked to deliver the goods.
And that means, quite simply, the Caps face a must-win situation in Game 4. Win, and it's a best-of-three. Lose, and face the prospect of having to beat the Pens three consecutive times with no margin for error.
That seems unlikely to happen, given how solid Murray has been in this series.
"Excuses are for losers," Williams said. "And we're not losers. We're going to try and be even better in Game 4. We've imposed our will a little bit more on the forecheck, which is what we want to do. We did a lot of things better, but we can do them even better now."
Great teams relish these moments. They rise to the occasion. They yearn to play in these games.
Wednesday night, we will discover if that is truly what this Capitals team is about, if they are the team they have promised to be for so much of this season.