Then there was history: In all its tortured playoff wanderings, this Washington franchise had never managed to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series.
Well, retire that stat, and pack away the first set of playoff fears. One NHL team and fanbase melted down in spectacular, historic, cover-your-eyes fashion Monday night. It wasn’t the one from Washington. The Capitals dominated at special teams, dominated the third period, and kept their cool. The Flyers…uh, what’s the opposite of that? The Philly fans, meanwhile, did their best impression of a kindergarten cafeteria in full rebellion. The result for Washington was a sometimes vicious 6-1 win, a 3-0 series lead and a chance to end this series without returning to Verizon Center.
This was a scenario that has been embarrassing for Washington so often: a 2-0 series lead and a postseason matchup that seems under control. Monday night indeed turned embarrassing, but the Caps were mostly spectators to the folly. The game ended in ugly mayhem, with fans chucking their promotional light-up bracelets on the ice as crestfallen PA announcer Lou Nolan repeatedly pleaded with them to stop.
“This is Philly, this is not somewhere else in the NHL,” he said. “Have some class.”
“Okay, those fans that were classless enough to throw these … next one that’s out there is going to cause us a minor penalty,” he said in mounting panic.
“Okay, those of you that have been throwing them, you’ve done it now!” poor Nolan finally said in agony. “Two-minute bench minor. Way to go.”
That’s right, the Flyers were penalized because their fans threw too many light-up bracelets onto the ice. The fans cheered the news of their penalty, by the way. Wasn’t much else to cheer about.
“It’s definitely not what we wanted to have happen there,” Philly goalie Steve Mason said of the ridiculous scene. You don’t say?
Things were even worse on the ice for the home team; a nasty Pierre-Edouard Bellemare hit on Dmitry Orlov led to a third-period line brawl, resulting in misconduct penalties for Bellemare, Radko Gudas and Ryan White. That’s the same White who had asked officials before the game to cut the home team some breaks. An early trip to the showers probably wasn’t what he had in mind.
“They weren’t interested in playing anymore, and so we ended up on the power play for the last seven or eight minutes,” Caps Coach Barry Trotz said. “I just thought it wasn’t good for the game, plain and simple. We were on national television. I don’t think it displays our game very well.”
Amid the nonsense and boos and bracelet clean-up detail and boos and penalties and boos, you had to marvel at the league’s best regular season team, calmly mowing through the chaos. The Caps had promised to play a simple, physical and tiresome game, and they did exactly that, with some unexpected twists. They were an absurd 5-for-9 on the power play, with five different players scoring. (The Flyers have two goals in this entire series.) For good measure, the Caps were again perfect on the penalty kill. (The Flyers are now 0-for-13 with an extra man in this series.) Goalie Braden Holtby got in on the action with an assist, giving him one more playoff point than Flyers regular-season leader Claude Giroux.
The Caps answered shove with shove, but mostly stayed clear of the officials. The Flyers, on the other hand, picked up a tidy 53 minutes of penalties. Seven more, and they could have just held one player out for the entire game. Maybe he could have helped pick up bracelets.
Before the clown show started, though, the Capitals demonstrated some of the reasons behind their brilliant season. The Flyers had said repeatedly they wanted to turn this series into a physical, hard-hitting battle of endurance. It’s the kind of thing previous Capitals teams might have blanched at. This team welcomed it.
“We’re a bigger team than they are,” Jay Beagle said simply.
It was obvious that first few minutes would be a frenetic scramble, after the Flyers honored late owner Snider during an emotional pre-game ceremony. (The video was touching and well-done; the moment of silence included at least one screamed profanity.) It took less than a minute for the Flyers to set up shop in Washington’s end, and less than a minute for them to produce a goal.
Would the Caps wilt? Past versions might have. This one just got stronger, as players had promised
“We’ve been hitting a little bit more and focusing on trying to wear them down,” Karl Alzner said. “We don’t necessarily play this way during the regular season. It’s a hard style to play, especially for 82 games. It wears on guys. But you just know that when you get to maybe play a team seven games in a row that you have to change your style a little bit in order to wear them down.”
There was another trend busted Monday night, one more significant than the recitation of long-ago history. The Caps entered this series 2-8 in their past 10 playoff road games. In their past eight road playoff games, they had scored a paltry 10 goals. These failures away from home – including four losses in potential clinching games – were a major part of Washington’s overall playoff disappointment. It’s why Alex Ovechkin was asked before the game how hard it would be to deal with the rowdy Philadelphia crowd.
“Well, it’s not my first year in NHL,” he noted. “So it’s kind of easy.”
Kind of easy? To play in Philadelphia? In front of a rabid crowd ready to salute its longtime owner and roar its team on to victory?
Smart man. The Caps made it look kind of easy. They were like the rest of us: witnesses to a franchise slapping itself in the face, shaking off the hurt, and then slapping itself again.