The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For these underdog Capitals, the shoe is on the other foot. Finally.

The Capitals drubbed the Panthers in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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This feels familiar, doesn’t it? Not so much the 6-1 drubbing the Washington Capitals placed around the neck of the Florida Panthers but the yoke that now rests on the Panthers’ shoulders.

This series isn’t close to over, of course. But there’s a vibe now. The Capitals will carry the momentum from Saturday’s just-how-they-drew-it-up Game 3 victory into Monday’s Game 4 with a chance to put a stranglehold on the series. The hockey intellectuals didn’t have the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers either trailing in this series or being run off the ice. Now both have happened.

It’s almost like amassing a whopping 122 points and outscoring opponents by an NHL-best 94 goals over the course of 82 games means exactly zero when the playoffs start and everyone’s record goes back to 0-0.

Where have we heard that before?

“I can’t speak to how they are feeling right now,” said Capitals veteran T.J. Oshie, one of the six goal scorers Saturday. He thought back to 2016 and his own team that had blitzed through the regular season. Those Capitals came into the playoffs rested. They didn’t necessarily come in ready.

“When we stepped into playoff hockey after being so far ahead — us, at that time, slowed down a little bit before the playoffs,” Oshie said.

A stellar Ilya Samsonov and the Caps take Game 3 — and the series lead

Could that be these Panthers? It’s such a delicate balance at the end of a regular season like that — how to stay sharp for what’s to come but not risk unnecessary injury or fatigue. From March 29 to April 23, Florida secured the league’s best record — and, more importantly, the top seed in the East — by running off 13 straight wins. But what followed to close the regular season: three losses in four games, a stretch in which the Panthers were outscored by 10 goals.

And now this — a matinee in Washington in which the Capitals reestablished themselves in net with a solid outing from Ilya Samsonov (29 saves on 30 shots), in which they continued to hold the powerful Panthers scoreless on the power play (0 for 9 in the series) and in which the attitude of the underdog was decidedly more appealing.

“I think we’re playing a little nervous,” Florida forward Jonathan Huberdeau said. “We’re not playing the game that we should play, and I think we’re a way better team.”

Those words could have escaped the lips of, say, Mike Green in 2010, Justin Williams in 2016 or Brooks Orpik in 2017. But playing the role of the 2010, 2016 and 2017 Washington Capitals just might be the 2022 Florida Panthers.

This is not predicting what will happen Monday or for the rest of the series. It’s merely identifying how it feels. Remember those years, and those gut-wrenching series? In 2010, the Alex Ovechkin-era Capitals’ first real foray into the playoffs with a we’re-in-it-to-win-it swagger, they found a Montreal team that was willing to pack it in and block every shot, one that came with a goaltender who did cartwheels and backflips to make saves. Real Caps fans will never forget his name, so it maybe shouldn’t be typed because of the nightmares it still causes. Alas, journalism classes require including the who along with the what, the when and the why. (Quietly, then. Shhh. It was Jaroslav Halak.) A this-series-is-over 3-1 lead became a debilitating seven-game loss. Ouch.

The years, they kind of run together because for a decade the Capitals looked more likely to play deep into the spring than they did to go home early. Oshie couldn’t quite decide whether the season he was referring to was 2016 or 2017, because the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy both times and both times they lost to old nemesis Pittsburgh in the second round.

But the first of those two was correct. In that 2015-16 season, the Capitals racked up 120 points, 16 more than anyone else in the Eastern Conference.

They handled Philadelphia in the first round. But in the second, they faced those Penguins — who finished all those points behind yet somehow seemed more prepared for the playoffs.

Washington lost in six.

There’s a lesson in there for these Capitals — but in reverse.

“When playoffs start, it is a clean slate,” Oshie said. “Your identity is your identity one team to the next, but everyone is starting at zero.”

This shoe’s-on-the-other foot feeling goes back to Game 1 on Tuesday in Florida. The superskilled Panthers dazzled with their moves and their flash for two periods, and the Capitals calmly and coolly waited them out, scoring three times in the third — Alex Oveckin setting up Evgeny Kuznetsov for a breakaway, Nicklas Backstrom threading an elite pass to Oshie, Lars Eller finding an empty net — for the kind of comeback win Florida had prevented all year.

Look at the names that contributed there. They’re all on the Stanley Cup, back in 2018. On Saturday, Oshie scored again. Ovechkin scored once and had an assist. Backstrom dished out a pair of helpers. This Capitals group — with its goaltending a shot-to-shot question mark — might not be built for a deep run. But the Panthers aren’t facing a bunch of what-are-we-doing-here neophytes, either.

Against that group, Florida also has to deal with its own expectations, and it might be there’s a burden that comes with having the NHL’s best regular season record. It’s basically a coin toss as to whether a Presidents’ Trophy winner will claim the Stanley Cup (eight have done it) or get bounced in the first round (happened seven times).

“So far, the story written right now is they’ve outcompeted us, outwilled us, pretty much in every puck battle, every area,” Florida Coach Andrew Brunette said. “Something we’re going to have to figure out here.”

The Capitals might not be the better team, and they might not win the series. But they responded to a poor third period of Game 2 not by squeezing their sticks tighter but by reverting to what they need to do to win. Maybe that’s easier to do when the hockey-watching world looked at a 5-1 Panthers win and thought it was akin to a market correction.

Next?

“This game, if we don’t follow it up, then that’s on us,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said.

He said it confidently, as if his underdog team was prepared to take control of the series.

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