PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Riddle me this: If the Washington Capitals, the NHL's best regular-season team by a country mile and a team seemingly built for its best chance at Stanley Cup glory, cannot beat an injury-depleted Pittsburgh Penguins team in a crucial test, what hope do they have to win three straight to stay alive in these playoffs?
The simple answer in the wake of the Penguins' dramatic 3-2 overtime victory Wednesday is that the Capitals, for all their resolve and success and talent, are once again staring into the abyss.
That's how good the Penguins are proving to be, no matter who is in their lineup. And that's how big an opportunity the Capitals let pass in Game 4, a game that was fully set for the taking but which still somehow eluded them, just as previous playoff successes have always seemed to settle just outside their grasp.
"Those are always tough," Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said after Patric Hornqvist earned the Penguins a 3-1 series lead just 2:34 into overtime by taking advantage of a Mike Weber giveaway to beat goaltender Braden Holtby.
"That's why it's sudden death," he said. "That's what it feels like. We'll have to deal with it."
Before Game 4, the water-cooler talk wasn't so much about whether the Capitals would win and tie the series at 2-2 as it was about by how big a margin.
They had finished Game 3 on a high note, including dominating the Penguins in shots, shot attempts and hits -- everywhere but the scoreboard, as they lost 3-2. Further, star Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, who is averaging 29:14 a night in ice time and a catalyst to the Pens' quick-strike, lightning-paced attack, was suspended for Game 4 for his high hit on Marcus Johansson in Game 3.
In the end, it didn't matter to the Penguins, who got goals from three players for the second straight game to hand the Capitals their third straight loss. They did not lose two games in a row in regulation all season.
"We're not discouraged by it," defenseman Karl Alzner insisted in the Capitals' locker room.
"We said it in the room. They were going to play better than they did last game with those guys out," he said. "It was a good game by them. They held on tight. They made the plays when they had to make the plays."
It's not that anyone expected the Penguins to take a knee. But wasn't this the kind of game that was especially built for the Capitals?
This series has been a rollicking, jalopy ride of high skill, rock-hard physicality and nastiness, and terrific goaltending. Game 4, the fourth straight one-goal affair, had all of those elements once again. So how is it that the Penguins seem to have that steely resolve, that killer instinct, if you will, and the Caps seem to not possess it?
"I mean, whenever you lose a game, it's obviously an opportunity missed," Capitals center Jay Beagle said. "It had nothing to do with them missing some of their players. It was just a matter of we needed to win the game and get the split here and then head back to our barn. But now looking forward, our backs are against the wall and most important games of our lives coming up."
This isn't to say the Capitals won't win Game 5 on Saturday. As Penguins captain Sidney Crosby noted, both sides have lots of experience with a series that is 3-1.
"They're a good team, and they have been all year for a reason," said Crosby, who started the play that led to the overtime winner and also added an assist on the Penguins' first goal, his first point of the series.
"Being in this position, I think a lot of us have been on both sides of a 3-1 series," he said. "I think that you understand that when you got a team in that position, you've got to take advantage of it, take advantage of that opportunity. It's always the most challenging one."
If it comes as a surprise to observers and fans that the Caps are on the brink this quickly, I wonder, in fact, if it is a surprise to a Capitals team that really hasn't been tested or pushed in the way it has been tested and pushed in this series.
"We just didn't cash in at the big moment," said Washington defenseman John Carlson, who scored the Caps' second goal late in the second period. "Something we're going to have to do. At this point, you lay it on the line, and that's not good enough. And now we've got to reach back and dig deeper, work harder and lay it on the line a little bit more next game."
A year ago, the Capitals led the New York Rangers 3-1 in their second-round series. They could not close the door and lost Game 7 in overtime at Madison Square Garden.
Two years ago, the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead against the Rangers in a second-round series.
It happens. And it might yet happen here.
But given what happened in Game 4, it seems highly unlikely.
"I think this team has lots of character," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. "Last year, we were winning 3-1, and we lost the series, so we have to take that experience and turn it around our way. I think it sucks. We wanted to tie the game and tie the series, but overall, I think we have to play our game."
The problem for the Capitals is their game might just not be enough -- not against these Penguins.