Before Alex Ovechkin’s Hart-worthy rocket to put the game away made the building erupt with the sound of “M-V-P! M-V-P!,” something strange, almost foreign, had taken root in the Washington Capitals’ locker room at Verizon Center. Hockey players addicted to drama were learning what every good team on their way to great eventually learns: how to make it easy on themselves.
The Caps have forever been the team climbing from a hole before playing Adversity’s Kids to the hilt — barely getting into the postseason, forcing a Game 7 after being counted out in Game 5 or 6, putting undue worry and pressure on their fanbase and their sapped bodies.
But the way they responded against Winnipeg in the second and third periods after they were challenged Tuesday night, ensuring the sixth straight postseason in Washington and locking up the third seed in the Eastern Conference for the Stanley Cup playoffs with two games to spare, well, that’s a clear sign that Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and the boys are gradually maturing into Prosperity’s Grown-ups.
Except for a soft goal let in by Braden Holtby in the final 10 minutes, they handled their success.
“At the start of the year we knew we had it in here, but we just didn’t know how to bring it out,” Holtby said after his teammates had cleared the locker room. “But the last little while you can see the confidence is what’s winning us games. We gave up that tying goal and after that Nicki [scores]. That’s who we are now.
“We’ve had a lot of games where we’ve given up leads. We’ve learned that being able to hold those leads is a big thing.”
For teams who dream of lifting the grail on the last night of the season, that’s actually bigger than overcoming adversity.
The determined penalty kill in the final minutes, John Erskine saving goals behind Holtby in the first period, Ovi-to-Backie for a beauty in the second period — all of it — that wasn’t about another Southeast Division championship. Winning the NHL’s meekest division five of the past six years, after all, is a little like passing the written portion of your driver’s test; you have permission to get on the road but it doesn’t mean you can actually drive.
No, Tuesday night before a highly charged mob at Verizon was about putting their foot down and not making the lead-up to the playoffs any more difficult than it has to be after such a pendulum-swinging regular season when the Caps alternated between awful in the beginning and awesome at the end.
Believe it or not bigger games have been played this season, more important games against even these Winnipeg Jets, who at times were scrappy and others looked completely outclassed.
If the Caps didn’t beat Winnipeg twice in a row during their lowest moments of early March — after what the players refer to as a show of season-defining grit in a loss to Pittsburgh — the expected communal glass-pounding euphoria of Tuesday night never happens.
But now that no one is ruing the red or looking for the manufacture warranty on the Russian Machine like they were a month and a half ago, it’s time to salute the Caps for much more than turning their inaugural season under Adam Oates around:
It feels like they’re almost all growed up. If they can finish the job in May and, who knows, June as proficiently as they have the past six weeks — if they have weaned themselves from needing to be counted out before they respond — the last piece of the puzzle is about to fall in place.
Few NHL franchises have mastered the art of back-to-the-wall hockey like the Capitals the past six years, especially under first-year coaches. They had to win eight straight in 2008 just to make the playoffs under Bruce Boudreau, whose lasting image in Washington will still be that of a rotund man with a receding hairline jumping up and down gleefully as his team won out to get in. They needed a massive late-season rush under Dale Hunter last year to finish second in the division and get in as the seventh seed.
They took on the same identity for the first part of this season. Since 2006, no Eastern Conference playoff team has come from more than four points out of playoff contention with 35 games to play to make the postseason. The Caps were five points out with 35 to play this season, a plodding mess of injuries and low self-esteem from all the losing.
In a crapshoot of a lockout season, they bulldozed their way in at the end.
They not only flipped the script under Oates and behind the rejuvenation of Ovechkin but in the process they may have found a new way to be in the NHL: proactive about their own success.
That’s the next step for any team that really envisions winning the Cup; to be good when things are going good. To put away teams down 0-2 in a playoff series. To give the players with the most ice time and nagging injuries fewer shifts before the postseason begins. To actually get to a point where you believe you deserve to be happy and champion, instead of needing to fall and be humbled before another climb.
Going into the postseason with the Caps lately is like taking one last stab at an on-again, off-again relationship. You keep thinking your partner will change. Yet each May — usually when hope is ramped up to a fever pitch before a Game 7 — the heart is once more disemboweled and the trust level hits new lows.
After a while you don’t believe your team will win the Cup anymore, even though they keep telling you otherwise, that things have changed. As the longtime loyalists know, it goes much further back than the Ovechkin era. From an Associated Press story from 1996: “The Washington Capitals might not get a chance to perform their annual playoff collapse. This season they might not make the playoffs altogether. The Capitals have built a reputation for getting to the playoffs and hanging around just long enough to get bumped out in some unorthodox fashion.”
Cardiac Caps is part of the DNA of this franchise. It’s a thrill ride every April lately, a shot at the moon no matter how well or terrible they’re playing. And they always stop your heart. But a team of quietly confident Caps unafraid of their own prosperity has the real ingredients to sustain a relationship with a fan base and make the fantasy come true.
If that team enters this postseason, anything is possible.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.