It’s late April and things are falling in place for the Capitals, not falling apart. That’s not only distinctly different, it’s probably downright important.
Any team that wants to make a deep run toward a Stanley Cup needs many things to fall in place. It’s a long, difficult checklist. In just a few days, an inordinate number of those factors have started to align for the Caps. Win an early series quickly. Get your stars playing their best at the right time. Find a hot goalie. Watch your foes get injuries, or risk elimination, while you have time to heal. Integrate young players who find their playoff legs. Meld veterans who mesh with old stars and add poise. It’s all happening.
On Saturday, the Caps finally won a fast series that might’ve been long and brutal, knocking out the rugged, chippy Rangers, 3-1, in Game 5 at Verizon Center. The NHL playoffs are about physical attrition almost as much as talent.
Now, the Caps are the first team in their conference to end their series. Rest, it’s beautiful. At least for a few days, Mike Knuble’s mysterious (hand) injury can heal and defenseman Dennis Wideman will probably be back for the next round. Mike Green, who got hit in the head by yet another scary shot, but seems okay, can regather himself.
How vital are such quick series? The last 10 Cup winners have had an average postseason record of 16-7. That means they played five games less than the maximum possible postseason load of 16-12. So somewhere, you need to cut about five games off your playoff workload. The Caps just subtracted two of those games.
“We’ve never done it before. When I wake up, I’ll give my head a shake and wonder where we play tomorrow,” said Coach Bruce Boudreau of the Caps, whose franchise hasn’t won a postgame series in less than seven games since ’98 — the only time the Caps ever reached the Stanley Cup finals.
At the very least, the Caps will be off until Friday. Matt Hendricks likened those six extra off days to “ice bags for the body” and “the mind, too.”
Perhaps just as important, the Caps now get to root for the misery of others. Let other teams, such as the Penguins, who’ve lost superstars Sidney Crosby for the first round and Evgeni Malkin for the season, or the Flyers, who are minus giant Chris Pronger, or the Bruins, who can’t seem to win at home, worry about their long, exhausting series. The Flyers, down three games to two, could actually be eliminated as soon as Sunday. If so, the Caps could stumble into playing the seventh-seeded Buffalo Sabres next. What, an open bracket for the Caps?
“Every other series in the conference is going to go at least six games [while] we get to rest our bodies and have extra practice time, too,” said Brooks Laich.
Last year, the Caps were in an almost identical position, leading three games to one against an eighth-seeded foe. And lost. “We were aware of our position last year,” said Laich. “The chatter before this game was, ‘This is the game we have to have.’ ”
Alex Ovechkin confirmed that last year “we thought it was over and we was a little bit relaxed. . . . Now everybody focused and everybody don’t have any relaxes.”
This time, said Laich, “it’s a totally different team.”
Totally is a mouthful. But it sure feels different.
In Game 5, the goals came from the Caps’ three best-known gunners — Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Green. “It’s perfect,” said Nicklas Backstrom, the assist man in charge of their care and feeding.
“When we have those guys scoring, we’re a tough team to beat,” said Jason Chimera, who had two game-winning goals in this series, but doesn’t want that burden indefinitely.
“This was [Ovechkin’s] best game — easily,” said Boudreau. “In other games he had flashes of brilliance and other times he was not so visible.” In Game 5, he was “visible all the time,” said Boudreau. “And I thought his goal was spectacular.”
So did the Rangers, unfortunately for them. In the second period, Ovechkin swept in from the right wing where Boudreau has started using him more; with Marc Staal on his hip, but losing ground, the Great Eight cut to his left, faked “King” Henrik Lundqvist out of his clogs and flipped a point-blank backhand to an unprotected side of the net.
“Is my job,” shrugged Ovechkin. “If team has success, I will play [more] on the right. If we don’t, we always can change back.”
Throughout the Caps’ room, that’s the mantra: We’ll do whatever it takes. It’s amazing what a history of mutual humiliation will do to engender teamwork.
The stabilizing contributions of veterans such as Jason Arnott, Scott Hannan, Chimera, Knuble and Marco Sturm have been praised. But just as vital is the arrival — together — of a quartet of youngsters who all seem to love springtime hockey: goalie Michal Neuvirth (age 23), swift all-around future star Marcus Johansson who assisted on Semin’s two-on-one blitz of a goal and two defensemen, John Carlson and Karl Alzner.
“These young guys are real good players who are getting primetime minutes on hockey’s biggest stage. They are coming through,” said Boudreau. “I’m proud of ’em.”
The most vital is Neuvirth, who allowed only eight goals in five games and, many times, looked as acrobatic at his end as Lundqvist did at his. “A lot of people don’t know his name too much,” said Boudreau, “but he’s a heckuva goalie.”
Not becoming one. After 27 regular season wins and four in the playoffs, he is one.
This is the month when, so often, it’s been the Caps who found themselves with ice-cold scorers or who faced a hot goalie or squandered a chance for a quick series win. It’s too soon to say they’ve flipped the script entirely. But, on this day when the Verizon Center crowd chanted, “We Are Louder,” the Caps themselves showed that They Are Better.