By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008
The Washington Capitals have been overcoming long odds since November. Now they must do it one more time to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
After Thursday's 4-3 double-overtime defeat in Philadelphia, the Capitals trail the Flyers three games to one in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Of the 223 teams that have faced a 3-1 deficit, only 20 have rallied to win a best-of-seven series.
Those are long odds. But if any team is experienced in beating them, it would be the Capitals, who rebounded from a franchise-worst 6-14-1 start in November, then won their final seven games to clinch a playoff berth on the last day of the regular season.
Embracing that underdog mentality, forward Brooks Laich said, was the theme of yesterday's team meeting at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. The Capitals face elimination this afternoon at Verizon Center.
Coach Bruce Boudreau "talked about it this morning, that we've been in this position before," Laich said. "He talked about how people have counted us out. They have wrote us off, saying it's been a good push, it's been a good story. Some people are waiting for us to die. We don't feel like that in here. We feel we still have a lot to give. We think this is going to be a long series still."
Said Boudreau: "If we look at it as just going out and winning Game 5, it's not like it's a situation we haven't been in before. We're used to it."
"I've got a favorite saying: The things that are the most rewarding are the things that people say you can't do in life," Boudreau added. "Down the stretch, no one said we could make the playoffs. Well, here we are."
Ironically, Boudreau's team is facing elimination one game after putting forth its best effort of the postseason, one in which the 13 Capitals making their NHL playoff debut finally appeared to figure out what it takes to win in April.
The power play went 2 for 16 in the first three games but struck twice in the first period Thursday on goals by Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, both of whom had been shut out in the series. The Capitals also out-hit the Flyers, 38-29, and committed fewer giveaways (16 to Philadelphia's 24). In the first three games, they committed a combined 43 giveaways to the Flyers' 23. The Capitals also received stellar goaltending from Cristobal Huet, who made 42 saves to rebound from mediocre performances -- by his own standards -- in the first three games of the series.
"It was the first game I thought we played at the level I believe we can play at," Boudreau said. "I think we can play better. It's like Rocky getting knocked down eight times and realizing he's still in the fight, he's not knocked out yet. We're going to fight until we get knocked out."
Flyers Coach John Stevens also noticed a change in the Capitals' intensity level.
"They certainly came out and made a very concerted effort early," he told reporters yesterday. "They were physical, they got pucks to the net right away, their power play scored two in the first period. They did a lot of things they wanted to do."
But to avoid the knockout punch, the Capitals still have some areas in which they must improve, individually and as a team.
First and foremost, they need Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's leading scorer during the regular season, to start scoring again. He still is struggling to escape Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen's suffocating coverage, a point underscored Thursday when only one of his 10 shot attempts found its way on net. Ovechkin has one goal and four assists (two of which are secondary assists on the power play) in his first playoff series.
"His bar is set so high, people are expecting miracles from him," Boudreau said of Ovechkin. "The longer the series goes, the more chance it's going to happen, that he's going to break out."
The Capitals' defense also must find a way to slow the Flyers' top line of Vaclav Prospal, Daniel Brière and Scott Hartnell. The trio has a combined 15 points and a plus-minus rating of plus-eight, led by Brière's five goals.
Though most of them are too young to remember, the Capitals rallied from a 3-1 series deficit once before -- in 1988 against the Flyers in the Patrick Division semifinals, winning on Dale Hunter's overtime goal in Game 7. It's the only time the franchise has won a seven-game series.
When told that only 20 teams have come back from 3-1 down, defenseman Steve Eminger said, "Why not 21?"