That also gave them a luscious opportunity: to turn this into a short series. They could finish matters as soon as Wednesday night, allowing them to attend their Passover Seders instead of playing a Game 5 next Friday night.
Why is this season different from all other seasons? We’ve already seen plenty of indications, but ending a series quickly would be another data point. This franchise has been through 11 playoff series in the Alex Ovechkin era; nine of them have gone the full seven games. It’s great for TV ratings and stress-toy manufacturers; it’s also exhausting torture. The Penguins and Rangers seem set for a bruising series after New York’s’ win Saturday afternoon; if the Caps advance, they will play one of those teams. Better to spend a few days tending their gardens than going back and forth to Philadelphia.
“We’re in a good spot,” Matt Niskanen said. “We took care of business at home. That’s a good start. It’s going to get harder, though. It always does. It’s harder to close a team out.”
Remember, the Caps had series leads of 3-2 and 3-1 in the playoffs last year, and still went to seven games twice. What was it Barry Trotz said after the season ended?
“If we can learn anything, it’s that we’re still going to have to find that next level of killer instinct,” Trotz said during his season epilogue. “If you can knock out a team, you’ve got to find that next level of hardness, killer instinct, whatever. And I think we recognized it.”
They did something about it, too, importing proven winners in Justin Williams and Mike Richards. Trotz has spent this week praising that duo for steadying his dressing room, “sort of pulling everybody into the fight, pulling everybody back into focus.” And teammates describe them using Trotz’s same phrase from last May; “at times, you really see that killer instinct,” as Karl Alzner put it.
You could see it on Saturday. Richards delivered one of the night’s most ferocious hits when he leveled Nick Cousins; he also saved Washington repeatedly with his work on the penalty kill.
He wasn’t the only one. Braden Holtby, whose postseason stats are among the best in NHL history, continues to impersonate a cottage made of concrete. He helped Washington kill off a two-man advantage late in the first period, giving the home team an intermission lead it may not have deserved and earning repeated ovations from fans, who alternated between saluting Holtby and mocking Mason. Holtby made 41 saves on the night. He has yielded as many total goals in two games as Mason has allowed from 110 feet.
There were more standouts. John Carlson notched his second power-play goal in as many games, after Washington had three power-play goals in the entire 2015 postseason. Niskanen and Alzner joined Richards as penalty-killing robots; Philly is now 0-for-8 with an extra man.
Ovechkin, meanwhile, is a wound-up toy whose knob learned to wind itself. In the first minute on Saturday, he leveled Michael Raffl. Before the period was over, he launched Brayden Schenn airborne and into the Philly bench, without even checking his luggage. After taking Sean Couturier out of the series with a game 1 hit, Ovechkin appears determined to bulldoze his way through the first round. Oh, and there was also his bazooka of a second-period power play goal.
And then, despite getting overwhelmed in puck possession for most of the night, the Caps pulled away, finishing the game with a fine 10-minute stretch in which they out-hit the Flyers, controlled the puck and found an insurance goal. That’s a trend, too, and one of the most encouraging of the season. The Caps finished the regular season 21-0-1 when leading after the first period, the best mark in the league. They were 37-0-1 when leading after two periods, second only to Pittsburgh. They’ve had leads after the second period twice in the playoffs, and earned two wins. Both nights, they’ve gotten progressively stronger as seconds ticked away.
That’s a product of being good, but it also hints at the killer instinct Trotz wanted, the kind of thing that might help a top seed win Game 3 on the road. That Monday night affair figures to be overflowing with emotion and energy. The Flyers will be playing for beloved franchise founder and owner Ed Snider; Game 3 will be Philadelphia’s first home game since his death. If you thought the first few minutes at Verizon Center were electric, just wait for the first 10 minutes after Snider is honored.
“It’s one of the hardest road buildings to play in,” Alzner said. “Tough fans, and a team that’s a little bit different at home, I think. They play with a little bit more of an edge, and even more feisty than we’ve seen. Difficult, but it’s what we’re here for.”
Survive that initial push, and Philadelphia could be ripe. The Capitals have better depth, a better goalie, a better power play and a lineup built to go beyond the first round. Now they’re getting breaks too; better health than the Flyers, and a crucial Saturday night goal that a two-by-four could have saved. Those are the sort of assists you need in the playoffs; “you have to have a little bit of luck,” as Williams put it.
Washington took full advantage of that on Saturday. Do that two more times, and then sit back and relax while the Penguins and Rangers batter each other.