The Capitals lead the Stanley Cup finals three games to one. In other cities, you maybe stock up on champagne. Lay the groundwork for a sick day at the office. Scout parking along the parade route. But this is Washington, and these are the Capitals, and two-game leads can feel about as comfortable as a parka in summertime.
While teams holding a 3-1 lead historically have a 32-1 advantage in the finals, including 31 straight, the Caps are a franchise that’s still haunted by playoff phantoms from years ago. There were the Islanders (1980s), the Penguins (1990s, 2000s and beyond), the Rangers and the Canadiens, too. All trailed Washington 3-1 in the playoffs, and all came back to spoil the Caps’ Cup hopes.
For years, Washington couldn’t shake the nightmarish visions. Players would shrug off the calamitous history, and fans inevitably were left in tears.
But now the Caps lead another series 3-1, courtesy of Monday’s 6-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights. It was one of the Caps’ most lopsided efforts of these playoffs, and they find themselves teetering on the most exhilarating precipice in sports, one win away from a championship.
This is a team that has already vanquished every pesky demon it’s faced — tangible ones such as the Pittsburgh Penguins, incomprehensible ones such as the second round of the playoffs and perennial ones such as the expectations and disappointments that are sprinkled like ash throughout the team’s history book.
And now they have just one left to slay. Scared?
“We’re trying to write our own story here,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “It seems like the rest of the city is on board with that. We’re going to go about our business. We haven’t dwelled much on the past.”
They’ve certainly exhibited that in these playoffs. Where past teams have wilted, the Caps have dug deeper. While teams of yore struggled to fight their way off the ropes, this one has counterpunched. The result is a wholly unfamiliar position — not to mention a foreign sensation that feels faintly like optimism — for the Caps and their fans.
The make-or-break Game 4 was, in a word, weird. There was no bated breath, no racing hearts, rising blood pressure or fingernail clippings left scattered on the floor. Emergency room docs could rest easy across the District because after a shaky few minutes to open the game, the Caps somehow built a 3-0 lead in the first and never looked back.
“Obviously, we know the fourth one is the hardest to win,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “But we are just going to refocus here and fly to Vegas and make sure we play our best hockey.”
Yes, the fourth is supposed to be the toughest. But that hasn’t always been the case for Washington in the postseason. We’ll spare you all of the gruesome details, but no NHL team has blown more 3-1 postseason leads (five). In the Alex Ovechkin era alone, the Caps have led after four games on four occasions. They lost Game 5 three of those times and went on to lose the series twice (2010 against Montreal and 2015 against the Rangers).
“We don’t really dwell on the game before, let alone the things that happened in years past,” Oshie said late Monday night. “There’s been heartbreak here, we know that. But I think that’s kind of scarred over and has made us a little stronger.”
Historical footnotes and postseason oddities certainly don’t give the Golden Knights any comfort. Heading back to Las Vegas, where the Golden Knights posted the league’s fourth-best home record, the expansion squad isn’t likely to lie down, even if Monday’s game seemed to slip away earlier than the Knights had hoped.
“I don’t think that they’re going to just fall apart at the seams,” Washington forward Tom Wilson said. “They’re going to keep going. They’re going to keep playing hard. They’re a tremendous hockey team. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t.
“We know that the hardest time to push a team out is the last game. It is hard to close a team out, so we are expecting their best game.”
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz is expecting that as well but says his team also hasn’t put forth its best effort. In the next 48 hours, he won’t switch up the team’s routine. The Caps won’t linger too long on Monday’s win and will try not to think past Thursday’s contest, uncharted territory for most everyone in the organization.
“We’ve done a great job of not getting ahead of ourselves,” Oshie said. “We haven’t been getting too high or too low whether the other team scores, we score, we win or they win. We’ve been pretty levelheaded through this whole thing.”
Following Monday’s win, Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker, stood at the entryway to the Capitals’ dressing room, a guest of owner Ted Leonsis. Robbins spotted forward Jay Beagle, shook his hand and embraced him in a half-hug.
“You’re on the cusp,” Robbins said. “You’re going to close this one out.”
“It’s our time,” Beagle said. “It’s our time.”
No, 3-1 leads haven’t been kind to the Caps. But this team is trying to make history, not wallow in it.
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.
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