Not satisfied with any of those choices? Good luck finding another option. Washington’s only other losing streak this season was a three-game slide earlier this month, after the team had already clinched the NHL’s top seed and was just waiting for the playoffs to start. Even that streak featured two overtime losses. That made Washington the first NHL team in 39 years to go through an entire regular season without back-to-back regulation losses.
To lose this first-round series against the Flyers, Washington would have to do something it hasn’t done in 15 months: drop four games in a row. Impossible? No one who’s followed this team thinks any postseason fiasco is completely impossible, up to and including a loss due to time travel involving Egyptian frogs. But for a team that specialized in springing up after its rare losses, the odds should be in Washington’s favor entering Game 5 Friday night.
“Good teams don’t go into a slump,” forward Tom Wilson said Thursday afternoon, after the Caps held meetings but stayed off the ice. “They don’t lose three, four, five in a row. That’s what really hurts a team in this league, if you lose strings of games in a row. And we kind of pride ourselves on bouncing back and doing the right things and refocusing after a loss.”
Their goalie does, too. Braden Holtby went 15-1 this season following games he lost. Before his team’s late-season, post-clinching blip, he was 13-0 after taking a loss, with a goals-against-average of 1.6.
This had been a talking point for the Caps all season, with at least one player mentioning his goal of not losing back-to-back regulation games before the season even began. To be fair, an overtime loss in Game 5 probably wouldn’t feel a whole lot better than a regulation loss, even if it continues that particular streak. Still, after Wednesday night’s 2-1 setback prevented a series sweep, there was at least some comfort in this recent mark of resilience.
“We recognize the importance of [not] killing any kind of momentum in your season,” Coach Barry Trotz said Thursday afternoon. “It’s easy to go on a four-game winning streak and feel real good, and then you give up your next three or four and you just wasted two weeks of your time. We just talked about making sure that any time we lost, the most important game was the next game, and we don’t lose that. And that happens to be a good indication, hopefully, for tomorrow.”
For that trend to continue, the Caps will have to do more than point to their season game log and then strut off the ice. Wednesday’s poor opening two periods were a lesson in how not to close decisively; the Caps were too clever with the puck, too eager to chase a perfect pass and too willing to let the Flyers control the pace. They had been blessed with 17 power-play chances and eight power-play goals in the first three games of this series, all Washington wins. With only a pair of chances in Game 4, the Caps struck out.
Penalties figure to be rare again in Game 5. Washington’s prescriptions were what you’d guess: more early shots on Michal Neuvirth to prevent him from settling into the game, more traffic, more bodies, more forechecking. An early goal would help, too, something mentioned by players from both teams.
“Obviously, tomorrow we want to be playing with a lead,” Philly’s Wayne Simmonds told reporters Thursday. “We got the lead [Wednesday] and you can see the difference.”
“You score a goal right off the bat there and go up 1-0 and they start to think about summer a little bit,” Wilson said. “They score a goal and then all of the sudden they’re feeling good, so the start’s huge. We’ve got to make sure that we’re giving them no hope and just staying all over them.”
These are vague concepts — hope and urgency — which probably influence a game less than, say, skill. For the Caps, though, skill shouldn’t be the problem, with their advantages in firepower and in net. That’s why their performance after past losses seems like a hopeful sign. In their 18 games after regulation losses this season, the Caps went 16-0-2, with a goal differential of 65-32.
Even Philadelphia Coach Dave Hakstol said he didn’t think the Caps were yet feeling any pressure. With a loss in Game 5, though, ” they may start feeling a little bit,” he said. Washington’s losing streaks this season have been like Tiger Woods interviews: rare and brief. This would be a bad time to change the pattern.