Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

2012 NHL playoffs: Capitals aren’t done because they don’t know what done is

NEW YORK — I know. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory — or something like that.

Painful? You lose a lead with less than seven seconds left in a seminal game of the Stanley Cup playoffs and it’s pretty much over, right?

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For the doomsayers who act as if their relatively nascent NHL franchise founded in 1974 actually went title-less between 1908 and now, like the Cubs — or experienced misery from 1940 to 1994, like the Rangers — that’s an easy one.

But for the recent chroniclers of everything Capville? Predictable.

Look, I don’t want to go all John Belushi after the most crushing, absolutely devastating loss of the Washington Capitals’ season Monday night. But people: it’s not over.

The Caps are not done because they don’t know what done is. They have now been tied or been up or down a goal for a surreal 792 minutes of 806 total minutes played in the postseason.

That’s 14 minutes in two measly games out of 12 played that they have been up or down more than a goal.

Hey choking-dog doomsayers: They are 3-0 in games after an overtime loss the past three weeks. Choke on that.

Really, with all that’s happened since October with this crazy crew, can this gut-punch of a Game 5 against New York remotely be considered from nowhere? In hindsight, this is what they do, who they have come to be.

Magnificent and persevering one minute, maddening and heart-piercing the next.

That goal with 6.6 seconds left that got past Braden Holtby in regulation, the one that sent Madison Square Garden into a tizzy and a pendulum-swinging game in the Eastern Conference semifinals into overtime, where New York prevailed?

Part of a script that has been playing out all season, that’s all. Now we see if the epilogue is written at Verizon Center in Game 6 on Wednesday, where the Caps have to forget they were less than seven seconds from having their second closeout game on home ice in less than two weeks.

To the Charlie Browns of Washington sports whose identity is tethered to their abject loserness — who actually use the term “Les Boulez” to signify their loserness — would it have surprised you if the Capitals went up three games to two and lost Game 6 and home ice to New York, just like in the Bruins’ series? No.

So how can anyone assume this dizzying ride Dale and his dump-and-chasers have taken their loyalists on for a month is 48 hours from being over now? (If you were at the LaFontaine game, okay, you can raise your hand for a second.)

People, please. This is the team that has toyed with tickers, taken its legions from euphoria one week to abject anger the next.

Alex Ovechkin, money playoff goal-scorer the past two games, goes without a single shot on goal in the defining game of the series?

Joel Ward giveth; Joel Ward taketh away. The hero of Game 7 against the Bruins in the first round, his overtime goal knocking out the defending Stanley Cup champions in Boston, is the unfortunate goat of Game 5 of the second round — his crippling four-minute penalty for high-sticking enabled the Rangers to have more men on the ice for both of their game-tying and game-winning goals.

How Holtby lost an absolute gem to Henrik Lundqvist is a story in itself. He was essentially target practice in front of the net as the Rangers outshot the Capitals two to one for the game. Though Washington had better scoring chances late, the Rangers had an onslaught going for the game’s first 20 to 25 minutes that resurfaced again later in the contest.

Really, how does a 22-year-old respond when he’s got that win in his pocket, when a loose puck right of the goal in front of him is hacked and whacked, until it finds the net with, what must have felt like for him, just a sickening 6.6 seconds left?

“I don’t have to [talk to him],” Coach Dale Hunter said afterward. “He’s a resilient kid. He battles. He’ll battle again.”

Of all the intermissions in Holtby’s career, the minutes between the end of regulation and overtime had to be the longest and most excruciating. Six seconds from being one win away from Washington’s first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals in 14 years and it all disappeared — in a blink.

It began with a loose puck, in a game the Capitals had suddenly seized control of after being outshot and outgunned for much of the first two periods.

“They got two or three whacks at it into my pad,” Holtby said of the goal at the end of regulation. “. . . I just tried to cover it quick and [Brad Richards] got a stick in there before I could get it. One I’d probably like to battle harder with, but that’s ifs and whatnot. It is what it is and we’ll move on.

Six seconds.

That’s all that would separate him from having an opportunity to be the winning goalie in a closeout game at Verizon Center on Wednesday night against the top-seeded team in the East.

Now, two unlikely Rangers goals in the final 1 minute 42 seconds — including an overtime winner he barely saw — makes a rookie the last line of defense for the season.

Rangers 3, Caps 2 — in Game 5 and the series, which winds toward Washington for another wild one.

Just when their legions start to feel safe believing again, they pull you right back down that drain of despair and hopelessness, no?

Which, of course, means it’s going seven.

And in some ways, they were lucky to be tied that late. The end was portended early on in Game 5.

All the telltale signs of an ugly road loss surfaced in that first period. The Rangers had 17 shots on goal to the Capitals’ four. Holtby wasn’t the last line of defense; he was the only line of defense, the one who battened hatch during the nastiest storm of Washington’s postseason.

For all the times over the past month the Caps’ offensive stars dove headfirst to block a puck and all the grinders stood sentry in front of their rookie goalie, they took off the first 20 minutes Monday night at a howling Garden.

But the cocksure youngster in net kept them in it. Weathered the worst, shots from every imaginable angle, inches from the net.

And he almost survived.

Instead of being one game away from a mesmerizing trip to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1998, he now plays for the season.

Does Ovechkin score twice or does he even shoot on Wednesday? Is Ward lifted on his teammates shoulders or left sulking in the locker room?

Does the kid in net hold up for one more scintillating night? Or is it the end of this unexpected run?

What? You expected 5-1? Uh-uh.

Frankly, it should shock everyone who follows this team if they didn’t take the Rangers to Game 7. It’s what they do; it’s who they are. Quit fretting and enjoy the ride.

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise

 
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