The Washington Capitals now face a classic moment that defines the difference between how psychologically strong championship-winning franchises think about tense playoff moments and how choking-dog teams see the same situation.
Champions see every glass as half-full, even the ones that are three-quarters empty, and rip the throats out of lesser teams in crucial games. Adversity is an opportunity to prove your excellence.
Choking dogs see omens of doom yet refuse to admit they are being outplayed by a weaker foe until they are on the brink of elimination. Thus, they turn what could still be a manageable situation into a season-crushing disaster.
The Caps need to win one miserable stinking game in Toronto on Wednesday to tie their series at two games, reclaim home-ice advantage and put the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs in a spot almost as tough as they were in before Game 1. The Leafs would face a best-of-three series against the NHL’s best regular season team with two games in Washington.
All year the Caps have yammered about how they want to win a Stanley Cup, how they are good enough to win said Cup, how this is the best team they have ever had and that, without a doubt, they have the team character, depth of talent and lack of weaknesses to grab that Cup.
So, prove it. Beat a No. 8 seed in a big game. Stop being outplayed by a baby-faced bunch that barely won more games than it lost this season. Put your stars, who got extra rest all season, on the ice for major playing time. Live with the result.
Now, flip the script. Ask yourself, “What should the Caps realize right now?”
Champions look at the big picture and see what’s working out right for them. A team worthy of a Stanley Cup celebration would look at what’s happening in the Western Conference right now and say, “What a break! This really is our year!!”
The top two seeds in the Western Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Minnesota Wild, trail three games to none in their first-round series. Maybe one of ’em will win four in a row. But they’re both probably already dead.
That means the three-Cups-in-seven-years Blackhawks, the only team that started the playoffs with better Vegas odds than the Caps to win the Cup, may be knocked out immediately by eighth-seeded Nashville. You can’t get much luckier than that. The Wild may be the most talented team in the other conference since it has the second-best goal differential in hockey, behind only the Caps.
Now look at the Caps’ own Eastern Conference. The two best teams in the NHL by wins-in-regulation-or-overtime are the Caps and Columbus. The Blue Jackets were also third in the NHL in points. Take a guess which team also lost its first three playoff games before a win Tuesday night: Columbus.
So, another of the Caps’ primary Cup foes might be dead already because of a bizarre NHL schedule format that pit them against Pittsburgh in the first round.
Finally, what team looked like the toughest rival for the Caps in the Eastern Conference finals? Many experts thought it would be the New York Rangers because they have Henrik Lundqvist in goal. The Rangers only managed to pull even with Montreal with a win Tuesday.
The Caps can’t ask for the draw to break their way more than this. What luck!
What stands between the Caps and their dreams? First, get their heads straight and band together — now — with a sense of desperation to beat the fast, well-coached and scrappy Maple Leafs. Don’t wait until you lose Game 4 and then say, “Our backs are against the wall.” Good teams in all pro sports do that when they are down two to one, not when they are down three to one.
Second, beat Pittsburgh in the second round. That series, if the Caps get to it, would be a toss-up. But the Caps have home ice and are significantly healthier.
Maybe the Pens and Sidney Crosby really do own the Caps and Alex Ovechkin. But a team that thinks it’s a champion should want to find out the answer. They should love the idea of meeting the Pens, not avoiding them.
The Caps are one win in Toronto away from resuming their role as a favorite in the first round. Then it would look like the Caps’ path to a Stanley Cup might be the Maple Leafs, Penguins, Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers.
If the season had worked out just slightly different, if the Caps had the wrong injury at the wrong time and had not quite won the Presidents’ Trophy but, instead, had finished behind the Pens for best record, their postseason gantlet might have been the Blue Jackets, Penguins, Rangers and Blackhawks. Ouch.
The Caps can feel sorry for themselves that the Maple Leafs jelled so well late in the season (finishing 12-5-1) and seem to match up with them so comfortably. They can curse the puck luck of playing three straight overtime games and losing two of them — including Game 3, when they were less than three seconds away from killing a penalty when Toronto scored to end the game. And they can mutter that the Pens may be well-rested if they finish a quick drubbing of Columbus.
That’s how losers think. Or, to be blunt, it’s how the Capitals have thought all too often in their postseason disasters of the past 34 years.
Or they can look at the other side of the truth. They are one clutch road win away from being in a palatable situation — tied with Toronto and watching the Blackhawks, Wild, Blue Jackets and maybe the Rangers take the pipe in round one.
That ought to inspire any team as it faces a crucial Game 4 on the road. Of course, for decades, such challenges have brought out the worst in the Caps.
What’ll it be: a plausible championship run with the two best teams (on paper) in the Western Conference almost eliminated?
Or will the Caps wake up Thursday as the Presidents’ Trophy winner that is just one loss to a No. 8 seed away from being the choking dog’s choking dog?
The Caps could easily be in the same down three-games-to-none situation as Chicago, Minnesota and Columbus. Instead, they’re lucky, down only one game.
Do they realize good fortune — and opportunity — when they have it?
They never have before. The Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy then blew a three-games-to-one lead to eighth-seeded Montreal in the first round in 2010.
You never get to go back in time for a re-do of the worst of all your chokes. No two series are ever the same. But this season is now about as close to 2010 as it gets.
The Caps (those lucky, lucky Caps) get to try again.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.