Mike Wise: Capitals shake off their playoff history, move one game away

May 10, 2013

Alex Ovechkin had a point-blank chance to end Game 5 with 12 minutes left in overtime. The puck was on his stick as he glided down the right wing, maybe 10 feet from New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. He let go of a bottle rocket. Nothing. Lundqvist stoned him, making another surreal save.

And that was it, it seemed, the best chance of the night to help forget so many devastating postseason losses.

Until a guy with no memory of what this team has been through, no recollection of all the series leads lost over the years, put back Karl Alzner’s rebound off a deflection. Until Mike Ribeiro flicked that puck toward the goal and Lundqvist lunged to no avail. Red light on. Bedlam.

Capitals 2, Their Wrenching Playoff History 1.

“Of course, it’s kind of situation you need patience and it’s good thing we have that kind of patience right now,” Ovechkin said. “We just have to relax right now. It’s big win but enjoy this win and tomorrow be ready for big one.”

Track every shot in the Capitals’ playoff games, see which ones they made count, and view by player, goals and ice strength.

No need to minimize. This was “big one.”

Washington leads the first round of their Stanley Cup playoff series over New York, three games to two. The Caps still need one more to advance to the second round and fully vanquish what happened a year ago in Game 5 and all the heartbreak before it. But this heirloom of a hockey game, featuring brilliant play in goal from Lundqvist and Braden Holtby and all the resilience expected of both these clubs the past five years, went a long way to salve some old wounds.

See, beyond the usual pregame pomp and pageantry, the sense of oncoming dread was palpable before the teams took the ice. Before the puck dropped, burdens of the Capitals’ failed playoff past seemed to fall from the stands, dropping like anvils.

This wasn’t just Game 5 vs. the Rangers for Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green; it was a Playoff Demon Exorcising Night, Year 6 – the night the three core players since 2008 showed they have charted a new course, that the losses of springs past had steeled them into something more lasting.

Down 1-0 in a flash — 53 seconds in, they had a brutal defensive breakdown — the Caps gathered themselves and withstood a first period in which they could have been down 3-0. Ovechkin turned the puck over in his own zone and the Caps were lucky to have a fourth-liner in Derek Dorsett racing up ice to be stopped by Holtby. More of a skill player takes off, it’s probably 2-0. Then Adam Oates heard his assistant Callie Johansen tell him to mix up the power play, forcing the Rangers to key on the Caps’ big guns, which opened up the high slot for Joel Ward. His power-play goal in the second tied the game.

Small things like defenseman Jack Hillen being moved up for John Erskine, who simply didn’t have the speed to keep up some of the Rangers’ most gifted players, worked to perfection. The adjustments made, the Caps were now in a dogfight. And as the game went into overtime, and the pressure ratcheted up, their legacies as postseason performers were put in the balance in this taut thriller.

“I don’t know why people keep bringing up pasts, or people keep bringing up stuff that happened,” veteran winger Jason Chimera said before Game 5. “It’s different teams every year. It’s not like it’s the same individuals every year.”

He’s right – in a way. Of all the useless numbers and statistics in sports, few are more worthless than the winning streaks or meltdowns that happened before the present players arrived.

Just as the Boston Red Sox players who didn’t win a World Series for 86 years weren’t “cursed” and Cleveland’s title-less run since 1964 doesn’t make the city snake-bitten, neither are these Capitals prisoners’ of their franchise’s inglorious playoff past. The notion that the Caps are destined to lose another Stanley Cup playoff series they led 2-0 — because since 1985 they’ve lost eight series when they were up 2-0 — is patently foolish.

Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green don’t bemoan their fate. But the recent playoff history of a team’s nucleus counts.

A year and three days ago, these Caps were wobbled badly in Game 5 against the Rangers in New York. In a game in which they outplayed and outshot the Rangers, Brad Richards somehow snuck in a goal under Holtby’s pads with 6.6 seconds left to force overtime and the Caps suffered a crushing loss and lost the series. Same with the Penguins in 2009, when the Caps’ led 2-0 and lost Game 7 at home. The 2010 collapse against eighth-seeded Montreal when, up 3-1 in the series, they came out flat in Game 5 and ended up losing the series, was inexplicable.

Since 2009, the common denominators have been Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Brooks Laich, who hasn’t yet made it back from a minor groin surgery, and bit-part players Erskine and Jay Beagle.

Those players can say last year or the year before doesn’t matter all they want, but until they broke through Friday night, the Caps were going to be judged largely on their inability to climb the hill in the postseason.

Overcoming the adversity that came with going down so early Friday night was huge, and it led to shrills and screams two hours later when Ribeiro scored and put Washington on the precipice of knocking out the Rangers for the third time since 2009.

On a night when they could have dropped their third straight game to New York and made Madison Square Garden await a possible season-ending loss in Game 6 Sunday, the core players and the new ones combined to create a new history.

Indeed, Caps 2, Their Wrenching Playoff History (okay, for at least Friday night) 1.

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
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