By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009
After the few Washington Capitals who skated yesterday at the team's Arlington training complex came off the ice, they removed their sweaty pads to reveal red T-shirts that left little doubt about what they consider an acceptable outcome to this season. On the back is the silhouette of a man hoisting aloft a familiar oversized chalice, all stenciled underneath unambiguous words: "Our Goal Now."
That would be the broad picture, because the group that will assemble tonight at Verizon Center believes a Stanley Cup championship is a realistic possibility, considering the youth and talent of the team's core. But such wide-angle views aren't permissible at this moment, not while trailing the New York Rangers three games to one in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, not while facing goalie Henrik Lundqvist in tonight's win-or-be-done Game 5, not while a season filled with expectation and accomplishment could end.
"Desperation," is how forward Brooks Laich described the team's mind-set.
"We're one game away from elimination," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "So we have to play with a sense of urgency that we've never played with before."
A year ago, in the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2002-03, the Capitals faced exactly this same scenario, falling behind the Philadelphia Flyers by the same three-to-one margin. They hosted the fifth game at Verizon Center -- and won. They traveled to Philadelphia, where they won Game 6. They hosted the seventh and deciding game, and lost -- but barely, after taking a penalty and allowing a power-play goal in overtime.
So the easy parallels are all there.
"We've been in this position before," defenseman Mike Green said.
But there are, too, significant differences between this year and last. Start, first, with the opponent. The Capitals have averaged 12.5 more shots per game than the Rangers. Twice in Wednesday's deflating 2-1 loss, Washington rang shots off the frame of the goal. There is still the sense that, as star winger Alex Ovechkin said, "We lost three games, and I think we played good in those three games -- but one guy beats our team."
That guy, of course, would be Lundqvist, who has held the Capitals -- who scored the third-most goals in the NHL during the regular season -- to eight goals in four games, more than a goal-and-a-quarter less than their average during the regular season. When they faced this deficit a year ago against Philadelphia, the Capitals had to overcome more than just one player.
"Last year, I think we were playing against a team that it was more about their hockey team than about their goaltender," Laich said. "This year, I think their goaltender is really the star of their team. Last year, the Flyers were a big, physical strong team. And the Rangers, they're the same thing. But last year was more of a shootout."
Laich believes the Capitals didn't truly start playing their best brand of hockey in last year's series until they faced elimination. "We just almost played carefree," he said.
But that was when this team was the newcomer, the squad that roared into the playoffs with a final-month push that culminated with a Southeast Division championship, secured in the 82nd and final regular season game. This year's team led the division comfortably by the holidays and was more frequently mentioned as a potential Eastern Conference champion than a first-round out. The dynamics are different.
"Coming off last season and falling short, I mean, there's big expectations this year for us to go on, with the season we had," said Green, who led all defensemen in goals and points during the regular season, but has just two assists and a minus-3 rating in the playoffs. "But in the playoffs, anything can happen."
Including overcoming a three-games-to-one deficit -- though it has happened just 20 times in 229 instances. Ovechkin, who scored his first goal of the series in Wednesday's third period, yesterday conducted an odd, unscientific poll to gauge how his team is viewed right now. He surfed the Capitals Internet message boards and found a level of distress among fans, one that accompanies teams that expect to play deep into May.
"They say, 'Okay, what's next?' " Ovechkin said. " 'What do we have to do? Trade him? Build new team?' It's kind of interesting situation."
These Capitals, though, won't be blown up, regardless of whether they lose tonight or force Game 6, which would be Sunday in New York. The team did not make any moves at the trade deadline this year because its core -- one that includes Ovechkin, Green, Laich, forwards Alexander Semin, Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischman, goalie Simeon Varlamov and defensemen Milan Jurcina and Jeff Schultz, all 25 or younger -- could remain together for years to come. There are supposed to be chances beyond tonight, chances deeper in the playoffs.
But there's one other thing this group learned from last year's playoffs: Losing, even after coming back unexpectedly, isn't fun.
"We all know how it felt to lose that game in Game 7 last year," Green said. "We don't want to have that this year. It's such a long season and such a lot of hard work that it'd be a shame to have that happen."
Ovechkin, for one, all but refused to acknowledge it as a possibility. "We still have three games," he said defiantly.
He then assessed, for perhaps the final time this season, the men in the locker room around him. This year, unlike last, they are seasoned by a rollicking playoff series. Producing a run that doesn't duplicate that experience, but improves on it, is impossible without a win tonight.
"We don't give up," Ovechkin said. "This is our group of guys. They just fight for each other; it don't matter what. We play hard. . . . Right now, we're in a position: No mistakes, no excuses."