All teams want to end every playoff series as soon as possible. For Game 6 against the Maple Leafs on Sunday night in Toronto, the Washington Capitals have a whole mittful of extra reasons they can, they should and they better.
In the past 15 postseasons, only two teams have gone on to win the Stanley Cup after being forced to a Game 7 in the first round. In fact, saving energy, avoiding winner-take-all games and shortening the length of as many series as possible is essential to postseason success.
Since 2001, the teams that won the Cup had to go to a Game 7 in either of the first two rounds only six times in 30 series. But in the conference finals and the Stanley Cup finals, they faced Game 7s in 14 of 30 series — almost half. That’s what you would expect — the further you advance, the tougher the foes. So in the early rounds, take care of business quickly. And win on the road because the teams you face can be beaten there, just as the Caps won Game 4 in Toronto.
With the excellent and troublesome Pittsburgh Penguins already waiting in the next round after a five-game drubbing of Columbus, the Caps would be wise to avoid the stress of Game 7.
Especially since their franchise record in such games is 2-7 on their home ice. The bigger the stakes in such a game and the higher the potential for mortification, the more likely the Caps have been to sink to the occasion.
Washington already has had its early case of the postseason terrors. The Caps, as if to test their own (and their fans’) nerves, fell behind 2-1 in the series to an eighth seed, then barely held on to win that Game 4, 5-4, in Toronto.
Even though every game has been decided by one goal and four have needed overtime, the Caps finally have shifted momentum in this series. By winning the past two games when a loss in either would have had the NHL on Code Red Caps Choke Alert, they flipped the story line to Nice Try, Leafs. Goodbye.
The Capitals’ most important player, especially in the postseason, is goalie Braden Holtby. For four games, the Maple Leafs followed the most popular theory of April upsets: Throw every puck at the net, get traffic in front of the star goalie, take away his eyes and then hope for luck.
You can’t get much luckier than the Leafs in the first four games. This is where it’s an advantage to enjoy the NHL but not so addicted to it that you ever think, “I wonder what Mike Milbury said about that?” In the NHL, half the goals are usually invisible unless you are on the ice or sit behind the net. And half of those are pure random Brownian motion on ice. People, pucks and sticks collide. A red light goes on and you say, “What a great greasy goal!”
In the case of the Leafs, about 10 of their 15 goals — instead of a more normal five, say — have been deflections off skates, caroms off Toronto sticks prayerfully extended in blind hope or shots that avoided multiple Leafs by inches, then found a corner of the cage. Holtby’s play wasn’t his best, but his luck was at its worst.
In Game 5, that changed. Holtby got into his flow, that mysterious goalie gift that allows a man to materialize magically on both sides of the net at once. And the Leafs stopped getting deflections off the rings of Saturn. In part, that change of fortune was due to Caps defensemen finally deciding to evacuate truants from their crease like pros and stop letting the Leafs take out monthly leases.
The result was just one Toronto goal, in line with the 21 other times this season that Holtby has allowed no more than one goal. His goals against average in this series has gone down to 2.65 — still astronomical for the recent Vezina Trophy winner but closer to his 2.07 regular season mark.
As the Leafs left Verizon Center after their 2-1 overtime loss Friday, certified genius, master strategist and pretty-darn-desperate-at-this-point Mike Babcock, coach of Toronto, made a point of telling various locker room personnel that he would “see them next week.”
In the NBA or baseball, this would get you the horse laugh for fake confidence. In the NHL, apparently it still plays. But, more to the point, what happens when the high-IQ Mr. Holtby hears about it? “I got ’em,” he may think.
The Caps also have 48 hours to fester about how much they don’t like Nazem Kadri, whom they disliked even before he scrunched a little lower and closer to Alex Ovechkin’s left knee on a check for which he was sent to the box for two minutes for tripping. It was a dirty play. Or it was a legal play that is, inherently, unsporting because it targets the knee. Either way, it’s pure Kadri.
To get a reputation for playing on the edge of decency in pro hockey, you have to work at it. This is the sport in which you say, “Oh, I didn’t mean it,” but omit the word “sorry” after you open a six-stitch gash with a high stick. Or you “wash” a foe’s eyes with your glove in a scrum because, well, he’s standing there, so why not go for the ol’ orbs. Kadri has put in the required effort.
If the Caps need motivation to give the Leafs the memory of ending their season in front of their Toronto fans, they shouldn’t need more than the image of Ovechkin lying on the ice in pain, unmoving for more than a minute Friday. It took 10 seconds for everyone to realize that they had never seen such a sight in the past 10 years. The Great Eight in pain? Perhaps badly injured because a human bumped him? It was like a nuclear submarine surfacing because the sea got chilly.
The Caps have what they need: momentum. The likelihood that luck will even out. A great goalie who seems back on track. A rival coach offering bluster for the bulletin board. The thought of the Penguins resting. Washington’s own evil history in Game 7s at home. A Leaf to pay back, deserving or not.
And perhaps most important, the realization that their captain is merely human after all. In his 12th season, Ovechkin just passed his 1,000th game of NHL abuse — 1,010, to be precise — counting 89 playoff games in which he has scored 85 points.
Ovi is not quite the goal scorer he used to be, especially five-on-five. But until this season ends and a fistful of unrestricted Caps free agents decide whether to stay or go, the cast around him is so much better than it has ever been.
Such a team, probably in its best maximum-strength playoff chance of the Ovechkin Era, should not invite the caprice of a Game 7 in any round, much less the first. In the past 30 seasons, almost as many Presidents’ Trophy winners have been knocked out in the first round (six) as have won the Cup (eight).
Ovechkin has earned a long run at a Stanley Cup. That doesn’t mean he will get it. Messing around with plucky, lucky No. 8 seeds in the first round, giving them a puncher’s chance at a knockout in Game 7, is a careless way to put it at risk.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.