TAMPA — It had been less than 20 minutes since he lost a third straight game, one that left the Washington Capitals’ season on the brink, but goaltender Braden Holtby cracked a smile because the words he was about to utter were the truth. “We don’t like to make it easy on ourselves,” Holtby said of his Capitals.
This Washington team has differentiated itself from past versions by how it has embraced adversity, and the team rode that scrappy, resilient identity to its first conference finals berth in 20 years. But now this Capitals campaign could end in the same way so many others have — with missed opportunities and blown chances. After Washington took a two-games-to-none lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, improbably winning the first two games on the road, the team has lost three straight. One more loss will end its season. This is adversity of the Capitals’ own making.
Narratives of past playoff collapses are louder than ever. Because the team has thrived on external doubt, Washington will embrace that most now are picking the Lightning to win the series. Monday’s Game 6 will be the Capitals’ first elimination game of the postseason, another test of their mettle. Will they respond again, or will they fold as they have done so often in the past?
“Our team this year definitely wasn’t a Cinderella story,” defenseman John Carlson said. “But I think for being a division winner, we had to claw our way most of the season. Things didn’t always go our way. I think we can draw from that for what’s upcoming for us.”
Washington can take some comfort in the fact that it hasn’t lost four straight games all season. Among the things the Capitals have had to overcome along the way: significant roster turnover that led to a less-experienced lineup, a lame-duck coach who still doesn’t have a contract past this year, a late-season goaltending controversy, a three-game suspension for forward Tom Wilson in the second round of the playoffs and, most recently, an injury to one of the team’s best players, center Nicklas Backstrom. There were bumps and growing pains, but the Capitals still found ways to win games.
When Washington was in a two-games-to-none hole in the first round against Columbus, the team reeled off four straight wins to advance. When the Capitals were down three regular top-six forwards in Game 6 in Pittsburgh, they won in overtime to take the second-round series. Washington now has to move past the disappointment of failing to build on a two-games-to-none lead. A three-games-to-two deficit in isolation isn’t surprising considering the Lightning was favored going into a series many expected to be close. But Carlson acknowledged that the route the Capitals took to this point is “less than ideal.”
“A lot of people counted us out when we were down 0-2 in the first round,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Things got hard in the last series, and we could have melted, and we just kept playing. So that’s what we’ve got to do again.”
Said Holtby: “We’re pretty comfortable in the uncomfortable situations, which has been a great characteristic of our group. Now is when you use all of that past adversity and past challenges of overcoming it to your advantage. You can move into this game if we just focus, put our heads down and work and just realize what’s got us here. Just play our game, and we’re going to have success.”
The Capitals have repeatedly reminded themselves that they mostly controlled play in four of the five games.
“You always talk about hockey gods. … They always seem to even it out,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
The difference has been the start of the game. With the exception of Game 4, the team that has scored first has won, able to dictate the style of play and bait the opponent into mistakes. When Washington held the lead, Tampa Bay had to play more aggressively and became more vulnerable to the Capitals getting odd-man rushes. The Lightning has been able to reverse that of late.
“The first couple games, they were chasing us, and we’ve been chasing them the last couple games,” Trotz said. “It is a little tougher mentally. At the same time we’ve had some opportunities to win the game. We’ve had opportunities to tie it. We just haven’t found the back of the net.”
Tampa Bay has also found a way to contain captain Alex Ovechkin, who didn’t have a shot on goal through two periods Saturday night. He scored with 1:36 left in regulation, and Washington’s attempt at a comeback fell short in the 3-2 loss. Trotz said Ovechkin was trying to impact the game with his physicality because the shots weren’t coming easily for him. It’s not coming easily for Holtby anymore either. Through the first two games of this series, Holtby had a .928 save percentage in his 12 playoff starts. In the past three games, all losses, he has an .844 save percentage.
But the Capitals are used to doing things the hard way, and Holtby’s demeanor seemed to relax as he considered that it’s the only path left to the Stanley Cup finals.
“It’s what got us here, especially in the playoffs,” Holtby said. “We’ve had to work for everything we’ve got, and I think that’s why it shows that when it gets uncomfortable, we stay to our game. We stay playing and stick together. We’re going to need our best effort of that in Game 6 to push this thing forward.”