Nervous? Do you have a worried feeling that this Caps-Rangers series - seemingly in the Caps control as recently as Sunday morning - could all come crashing down at any moment? You’re not alone. There are thousands of Caps fans who have that same angst. It’s a defense mechanism borne of a fan base that has been abused by gruesome playoff failure and blown two-game leads, the likes of which no fan base of any other professional franchise in the big four sports has ever endured. Like it or not, this spring-time nervousness and fear of impending doom is what defines Caps Nation.
Want me to tell you why things will be okay? Sure. The Caps laid an egg on Sunday. They didn’t deserve to win. There were too many penalties, too many breakdowns and too little focus. Plain and simple, Game 3 was a poor effort from a Caps squad that you expect more from. Why should you take solace in that? Because odds are it won’t happen two games in a row, especially with so much at stake. The Caps are simply better than that.
Want to know why things won’t be okay? Game 1 of the Caps-Rangers series two years ago involved some fluky Ranger goals and questionable refereeing. The Caps told themselves they would have to play better in Game 2. Guess what happened? Henrik Lundqvist came up huge and the Caps limped to a 1-0 loss. Moral of the story: just because you’re a better team and you’re playing with a chip on your shoulder doesn’t mean you’re going to win.
Frankly, Game 4 can go either way. We know what the Rangers will give: solid, selfless, team-oriented play; an under-skilled, yet workman-like offense; a few cheap runs on Michal Neuvirth; and several great saves by Henrik Lundqvist. None of that should surprise you. But let’s be clear about something. This isn’t about the Rangers. This is about the Capitals, a team that has for the past few years been told that they play wrong, that they lack mental toughness, that they’re soft. Now is the time to show the NHL that things have changed, that they’ve addressed their deficiencies and are for real.
The first major test starts on Wednesday night. They now have a chance to walk the walk instead of talking the talk about “staying angry” and waiting 50 weeks to get a chance to redeem themselves after getting Halak’d last year. So let’s see it. If they bring their “A” game into a hostile environment against a confident opponent, they will win because they’re the better team. If not, and they let the Rangers play their 50/50 game of roulette, then there’s a good possibility we head back to D.C. tied at 2.
Sure, the Caps can still win the series if they lose Game 4. But for a team that fancies itself a Stanley Cup hopeful - and the Caps, to a player, all do - Washington needs to develop a killer instinct and not let middling NHL teams take it to six or seven games. Losing Game 4 won’t inspire confidence that this team is mentally tough enough to make a Stanley Cup run.
Is it fair to put all that into one game, in a series Washington will still most likely win? Probably not, but it’s the way I see it. I’d like the Caps to show that the heartbreaking playoff defeats of 2009 and 2010 weren’t lost on them, that they’re capable of learning and adapting to the circumstances, that they can put away the Rangers and make a statement to the NHL that the mentally soft teams of the past few years are a thing of the past.
Despite everything in the franchise DNA suggesting otherwise, I actually think they will.