Forget choking. That’s totally 1995. The new term, courtesy of Toronto Maple Leafs Coach Mike Babcock, is “puckering.” As in, shrinking. Scrunching. Shriveling up. Clenching. Contracting into a tight little sweat-filled ball of intestinal distress and spine-tickling angst. That sort of puckering.
The Leafs coach started April’s mind games early, suggesting that his young underdogs could mess with the league’s best team by making them marinate in a wet rub of expectations.
“That pucker factor is an unbelievable thing,” Babcock said this week. “Pressure is a wonderful thing for the underdog.”
Well, unclench Washington. At least for now. The Capitals faced down their first bout of April tension, erasing an early two-goal deficit and then quickly canceling a scheduled overtime heart attack. Their 3-2 win Thursday night counts for just one victory in this first-round series. But they successfully killed off Babcock’s pucker play, anyhow.
And they had every chance to do the opposite. An almost instant two-goal hole Thursday night — accompanied by unhappy crowd noises and uncharacteristic mistakes — might have triggered a citywide panic attack. Ditto for an overtime session, after Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen went full-Halak during a Washington third-period assault. An eighth-seeded Canadian team riding a hot goalie in Washington? That sounded ominous.
Instead, the home team relaxed into its game as the night went on. The sloppy passes straightened out. An undisciplined first-period penalty wasn’t repeated. The Capitals dominated the third period, attempting 24 shots, twice as many as Toronto. They came out sharply in the extra time. They got the game-winner from Toronto native Tom Wilson after 5:15. And … what’s that? Did Babcock have any pregame thoughts about Washington’s beefy fourth-liner? Why yes, he did!
“Nothing against [Tom] because he works hard and all that, but he’s not as big of concern as a lot of people on their team,” Babcock said earlier in the week. “They’ve got a lot of players that we’ll concern ourselves with more.”
So that’s 0 for 2 for the league’s highest-paid coach.
In truth, the Caps should head into the weekend knowing they were a bit fortunate not to be trailing in this first-round series. The Leafs needed just 95 seconds to score, with a teenage Mitch Marner outskating Brooks Orpik, who has played more playoff games than anyone on Toronto’s roster. Then came Jake Gardiner, taking advantage of a poor clear to put the visitors up by two goals, and if Washington’s players weren’t yet puckering, its fans certainly were.
“WAKE UP,” one bellowed.
“A little bit nervous, maybe,” Alex Ovechkin said, describing his team’s start.
Nervous and sloppy, too, with Braden Holtby unusually lax controlling his rebounds, several failed clears from reliable veterans, and the young and fast Leafs playing a young and fast game that didn’t much resemble typical playoff affairs.
“A really good wake-up call for us,” Coach Barry Trotz said of the start.
“We have to be better,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “Otherwise a team like this is going to take advantage of it.”
But even with Babcock counting on racing heartbeats helping the visitors — fans, he said, would be “nervous like you can’t believe” if the top-seeded Caps fell behind — there were reasons to breathe. The Leafs had lost eight times in the regular season when leading by at least two goals, the most in the NHL. The Caps had outscored their opponents by 30 in the third period, while the Leafs were outscored by 10 in that frame. Washington is mostly healthy, and the battered Leafs were missing one of their best defenseman.
Then there was experience. The Caps have been through these cruel playoffs nine times in the past 10 years, the Leafs just twice. Washington’s lineup has logged more than three times as many playoff games as has Toronto’s. The Leafs skated eight players making their Stanley Cup playoffs debut Thursday. The Caps had just one. Ignore Washington’s tortured past, and you would expect the better, healthier and more experienced team to gain ground the longer this game lasted.
And so the Capitals gradually chiseled off any nerves and went to work. The third period was this President’s Trophy-winning team at its best, reloading for one sustained offensive rush after another. If Andersen had been less sharp, Washington might have won going away. Backstrom had a great chance in that session. So did Daniel Winnik. Marcus Johansson had at least two. Newly arrived defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk could have been Washington’s best offensive player; if he hasn’t found a permanent residence in the District yet, perhaps he should have his mail forwarded to Toronto’s zone. Nine more periods like that one, and the Capitals could be done with this first-round series before the Wizards even leave town for Atlanta.
And the very players who brought Washington back make any fears of opening-round collapse seem exaggerated. Justin Williams, who scored Washington’s first two, has played more playoff games than anyone else in this series. Shattenkirk, who led all players in shots on goal, was the league’s biggest trade-deadline prize, gobbled up by a Washington team willing to toss in all of its chips. Holtby, who didn’t allow a goal after the first 10 minutes, ranks first among active NHL goaltenders in both playoff goals against average and playoff save percentage.
Nothing is guaranteed, but this is a roster dotted with reliable veterans and playoff performers. Those are the sorts of teams that can shake off an early punch and ignore an invitation to dissolve. They might lose. It won’t likely be because of a mental implosion.
“There was no panic,” Ovechkin said. “The first 10 minutes we don’t have the structure we want, we don’t have the start we want, and they used that. After that, I think, we just do the same thing over and over, and it worked.”
“Even if we were down two goals, we didn’t panic,” Backstrom agreed. “We stuck with it.”
Five of the first six Stanley Cup playoff games were won by the lower-seeded team. But the Capitals steadied themselves and left Verizon Center with both a Game 1 win and a retort to Babcock: No puckering here. Not yet, anyhow.