Ahead by two goals and flirting with a clinching empty-netter, the Capitals instead saw the Penguins tie the game, scoring twice in the game’s 59th minute. Washington’s hockey franchise has marinated in playoff misfortune for the entire length of its existence, but losing a two-goal lead to your archrival in the final 113 seconds constituted a new level of torture.
And then? Out of nowhere, a heartbeat. The reeling, gassed Washington forwards would never get a power play in overtime, but here was Marcus Johansson earning one in less than three minutes. Poor Kevin Shattenkirk — a trade deadline prize who seemed to be a double agent for much of this series — would never live down this performance, but here he was blasting in a game-winner almost before you could blink. The Capitals, retching out the last bits of their season, would never get off the mat, but here they were, calmly skating off with a 3-2 win in a silent, stunned arena.
Look back on this wildest playoff game — a three-hour action flick consisting of nothing but explosions and car crashes — and what you see is some bizarro anti-Caps universe. This must be how the other side lives. It was, in the end, first the embodiment and then the opposite of those previous Capitals catastrophes. With this pivotal season on life support, Washington watched an opponent ask itself a familiar question: How did we lose that game, when we had a chance to finish this team? And how do we now bounce back?
It wasn’t just the Caps reviving themselves in overtime. There was also the first-period injury to Penguins star Sidney Crosby, a play that will be debated for the next 30 years but that inarguably jolted the odds of this series. There was Washington taking its first lead of the series not on a brilliant passing sequence but on an independent-minded puck that ricocheted off an errant leg. There was Pittsburgh equaling the score, only to see Chris Kunitz’s goal waved off because of goalie interference.
A postseason goalie interference call going Washington’s way? Next you’ll tell me the Cubs and Cavaliers both won the …
Okay, okay, enough of that. This was just one game, and Pittsburgh still leads the series 2-1. But this was a game in which the Capitals had every opportunity to lose — in which the men with the shovels were standing around and sizing up the dirt — and yet they leave the arena still breathing. How many playoff games have we watched in which the Caps were the ones doing the early dominating, only to stare in confusion at a scoreboard that had other ideas? How many games have we seen in which there’s a chance for overtime salvation, but the blessing never arrives? Let the worry lines on the faces of longtime fans answer those questions.
This time, the seesaw tilted in the other direction, starting with Crosby — perhaps the most dominant player in the sport — getting knocked out after a bitterly disputed hit to his head. As with every controversial playoff knockout, partisans saw this one through partisan lenses: Either Washington’s Matt Niskanen was an immoral head hunter targeting a player with a terrifying history of concussions, or Niskanen was unjustly tossed from the game because it was Crosby face-first on the ice, not because of an especially violent transgression.
Whatever you believe, I’m not going to change your mind here. Suffice it to say, Caps fans have seen how stunning and contentious injuries to team captains can alter a semifinal series. The die-hards still haven’t let go of Rod Langway’s injury in the 1988 Patrick Division finals, when an errant Pat Verbeek skate blade ended Langway’s season. Those what-ifs will never be answered.
That was in the early days of Washington’s masochistic spring pastime, but it was a pretty apt indicator of how the next three decades would go. If the Caps needed a lucky bounce to the right, the puck would veer left. If they needed an overtime hero, they instead had a half-dozen goats. Just against their nemeses in Pittsburgh, the Caps were 3-9 in playoff overtime games before Monday night.
This was just one game, but it had some startling differences. Karl Alzner was healthy enough to play, so Washington dressed seven defensemen for the first time in Barry Trotz’s three seasons. That historical hiccup allowed them to weather Niskanen’s early ejection. The Crosby injury was awful to watch and terrible for the sport, but the Niskanen-for-Crosby exchange clearly benefited the Caps.
Then there were the bounces. Not all of them went Washington’s way, but enough did. Bryan Rust stared at an empty net midway through the first period; his backhanded attempt managed to find the shaft of Daniel Winnik’s stick. A few minutes later, Nicklas Backstrom’s centering feed ticked off the leg of shot-blocking defenseman Ian Cole and past Marc-Andre Fleury. That gave Washington its ugliest goal of the playoffs, the sort of lucky break that fuels every long postseason run. Two bits of random playoff ping-pong, and both went in favor of the Caps.
And don’t forget the officials. The review of Kunitz’s collision with Braden Holtby early in the second period surely triggered any Caps fan who lived through 2015, when Joel Ward had a goal wiped out by interference. This time, officials sided with the team in white. And then there was Shattenkirk in overtime, performing the Heimlich on a franchise that was teetering toward the big one.
They’re still underdogs in this series, depending perhaps on Crosby’s health. After coughing up that lead, the emotion should be more relief than joy. They still have questions to answer.
But for a perennial playoff loser to finally break through, maybe they’d need a spurt of insanity like the one that played out in Monday’s circus. Maybe they’d need someone to rouse them from the ICU and offer them another chance. I know, I know, but the Cubs needed to come back from the dead in the World Series. Ditto for the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
That would have been crazy talk during their latest flirtation with agony late Monday night, a near-collapse almost unimaginable from any other franchise. And now? Well, it’s a little less crazy, anyhow.