When all the curse words had finished flying and the crushed souls had emptied out, the Washington Capitals’ captain took a seat at a locker stall, wearing nothing but two red towels and two chains around his neck. He wiped sweat from his brow and looked down at the carpet. Speaking in a soft but firm tone, confidence gushed from his lips.
The flotsam of Sunday night’s 4-3 loss in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals had dumped both trash and treasure into the home dressing room at Verizon Center. The Capitals allowed goals within the first minute of two periods, blundered breakouts and stumbled through three power plays. They pelted 45 shots onto the opposing net, more than in any other game during these 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. They had first been mashed into embarrassment by the New York Rangers, then nearly risen from the dead.
And when the miracles ran out, when a third-period siege fell short of breaching their blue-shirted visitors, they faced another winner-take-all for the second straight round, and with it more chewed nails and churned stomachs for a fan base desperate to see all this heartbreak go away. So here came Alex Ovechkin, held without a point in four straight games, ready to zap any lingering pessimism into dust. They would win Wednesday night in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, he declared at the start, even though the Rangers have won nine straight there when facing elimination. They would move onto the conference finals for the first time in his career, he reminded at the end. In his mind, there was no doubt.
“We’re going to come back and win the series,” he said. “We’re going to play our game, and we’re going to come back and we’re going to play Montreal or Tampa.”
Parroting the postgame speech of Coach Barry Trotz, with their season now one loss away from ending, the Capitals tried placing their winding road into perspective. They had snatched home-ice advantage with a Game 1 win in midtown Manhattan, then held serve twice in Chinatown to take a 3-1 series lead. And now, facing two days to practice, tweak and stew before reconvening for a third Game 7 against the Rangers in four seasons, they still saw no reason to panic.
“We thought we’d come in tonight and obviously the goal was to knock them out and move on,” forward Tom Wilson said. “But that’s adversity. That’s going to happen. We’re on a little bit of a different route than we imagined and we hoped for, but we’ve got to take the adversity and turn it into something great.”
Said defenseman Brooks Orpik: “I don’t think anybody will sleep well tonight, then you just come in tomorrow, just to see what you can do better.”
They could have been forgiven for spitting on the ashes of Sunday and brushing them beneath the carpet, but the issues were inescapable. There was forward Chris Kreider’s backhander 40 seconds into the first period, then later his power-play goal with 0.3 seconds left before intermission. There was forward Rick Nash shuttling around goaltender Braden Holtby to put the Rangers ahead 3-1 less than a minute into the third, freed up after a missed icing call by the officials and a defensive-zone turnover by Washington, and soon after the game-winner defenseman Dan Boyle knuckled over Holtby’s shoulder.
And finally, there was James Sheppard’s questionable delay-of-game penalty whistled for flipping the puck over the glass, even though it appeared to strike the boards on its way out of play. Gifted a break in the closing moments, the Capitals emptied their net, sending a sixth skater to join their power play. They called a timeout to strategize. Three blocked shots later and nothing more, they finally ran out of steam.
“We build on what we do best,” Trotz said. “You see the urgency in our game. We got heavy, a little heavier today, and that’s the game we’re going to have to play, plain and simple. We almost pulled it off.”
For this near-miracle, the Capitals could thank the product of a hastily scrambled forward corps, rejiggered not long after Kreider booted them into a 1-0 hole, all three of their goals coming from the same new line. Twenty-eight seconds into the middle period, forward Jason Chimera nudged a loose puck past the goal line, his third goal of the postseason. Roughly three minutes after Boyle put the Rangers ahead by three goals, forward Evgeny Kuznetsov crushed a puck from close quarters and screamed like a madman. And soon, forward Joel Ward jabbed a rebound past Henrik Lundqvist and waved his arms, asking the fans to blow off the roof with roars.
“We have to play that way,” Ovechkin said. “You can see, they don’t want to play that game. We knew that. Obviously as soon as we put the puck deep, hit their D, they afraid, because we big, we strong and you can see how we score goals.”
Two nights ago, the Capitals had stood 101 seconds away from sending the Presidents’ Trophy winners into an early summer, and now here they were, a two-game series lead zapped for the 10th time in franchise history. Ovechkin’s teammates were less declaratory in their assessments but still sprinkled their answers with words like “character” and “adversity,” pointing to the comeback for proof of their resolve. Now, against the shatterproof Lundqvist, in the building where he has maintained a 0.97 goals against average in nine games facing elimination, the puck will drop again, quite possibly for the last time this season.
“It’s one game,” Trotz said. “Loser goes home. I don’t think you can say there’s more pressure on us than them. No matter what, someone’s going home.”
If their captain is to be believed, it will not be them.