Fans in Washington before Game 5. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Rational people try to avoid easy and hackneyed narratives, but there is an easy and hackneyed narrative that the Capitals started playing better in this second-round series once all appeared lost, once the tons of pressure were removed from their aching shoulders and tossed into yonder Potomac River, once everyone had counted them out and they were allowed to play free and easy.

If you subscribe to that narrative at all, you should not read this. Because now everyone once again thinks the Caps will and should beat the inferior Penguins to advance to the conference finals. It makes logical sense; the Caps dominated this series for long stretches even in the games they lost, Marc-Andre Fleury seems to have misplaced his invincibility and Game 6 was a Washington drubbing.

Still. To be the favorite again is possibly a scary thought. Now observe:

Mike Milbury and Keith Jones

For better or worse, the NBC analysts are the voice of network hockey in this country. Well, they have voices, anyhow. And they’re lending theirs to Washington.

“Based on [Game 6] you’d have to give them the edge,” Milbury said of the Caps. “They go home, they’ve dodged a couple of bullets here, they’ve passed a few tests, their confidence level should be high, their goaltender seems to be on, the line shake-ups have made a difference. And Pittsburgh looks like they’re banged up.”

“Everything points to a Capitals victory,” Jones added. “And this is where the Capitals have had problems in the past. … They still have to find a way. If you watched the last game they look like they’re miles ahead of Pittsburgh, look like they have all the energy, look like they’ve got this thing wrapped up. The Penguins will have something to say about that.”

Charles Barkley

Hey, why not.

“It’s going to be a good night: the Washington Capitals are going to win Game 7, and the Washington Wizards,” Barkley said on TNT. “The Capitals and the Wizards both win tomorrow.”

 Mike Rizzo

The Nationals general manager confidently predicted that the Capitals would beat the Leafs in six games — at the point of the first-round series when Washington trailed 2 games to 1. Sure enough, the Caps won three straight games and took the series in six games.

Now Rizzo is back with more optimism.

“The Caps are the better team,” he told the Junkies on 106.7 The Fan. “They’ve got a wounded Penguins team. Crosby’s not 100 percent, they’ve got a few guys nicked up. They’ve been the more dominant team the whole series, and I think the Pens are fortunate it’s 3-3. You played the whole regular season to get this Game 7 at your building. It’s going to be rocking, and the Caps are going to win this one.”

Bruce Boudreau and Adam Oates

The AP’s Stephen Whyno talked to both former Washington coaches — who both saw their share of playoff disappointments here — and both seemed rosy about Game 7, with Boudreau saying Washington “for sure is due to win.”

“I’ve got to believe that (the momentum from Game 6 is) going to roll over,” Boudreau said, “that they’re finally sick and tired of hearing that they haven’t gone to the third round and will break through.”

“At the end of the day they’re a different team,” Oates said. “I think they’re the better team right now, so hopefully they play that way. Based on (Monday) night I don’t see any reason why they won’t.”

Barry Melrose 

The ESPN analyst — who first picked the Caps to win the Stanley Cup, and then picked the Penguins to win this series — seems to be leaning toward Washington’s side again.

“You know what, number one, it’s going to be crazy, because I never would have expected Pittsburgh to lay an egg like they did [Monday] night,” he said on the Junkies. “But this is why you have a Game 7. The Caps have a Game 7, they earned it, it’s in their building. They’ve been the better team the last two games by quite a bit. You could argue they’ve been the better team all series. You know, the only thing I can say is [Braden] Holtby’s got to be as good as Fleury. If Holtby’s as good as Fleury, I would think the Caps will win this game, by the last two games — how good they’ve looked, and how poor Pittsburgh’s looked.”

John Buccigross

The ESPN host was asked by a reader to pick the winners of tonight’s two Game 7s. He picked Washington.

Caps fans

Every Caps fan I know is crouched in a closet somewhere, hiding under grandma’s quilt. But when CSN took a poll of fans in the giddy moments after Game 6 ended, they were riding high. This isn’t the perpetually petrified fan base I’ve come to know, but good for them.