TORONTO — Who knows how we’ll remember Wednesday night when the Washington Capitals’ run through the playoffs is done? That could still be as soon as Sunday. It also could be in mid-June.
Either way, they must show what they displayed in the first period of a 5-4 escape of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and dump the garbage from, say, the end of the second — or the first 12 minutes of the third. They must understand how good they are and how good they can be, revel in it, and perform that way. They must be able not only to handle prosperity, but also to thrive in it, for a moment and for a month — or more.
For now? Whew. Even after a win that toggled between exhilarating and exasperating, we just don’t know that they can.
To be clear, they did exactly what they needed to do Wednesday night, which was survive. The series is tied at two games apiece, and the Capitals will have two of the three remaining games — if they’re all necessary — back at Verizon Center. They have to be considered the favorites to advance — again.
But among their other accomplishments: 48 hours after wasting two two-goal leads in what became an overtime loss in Game 3, they took a 4-1 advantage in Game 4 — and nearly gave it all the way back. When Auston Matthews scored with eight minutes remaining, the Leafs were behind just 4-3.
Toronto had time. The 19,838 who filled Air Canada Centre thundered. Grab another Molson or Labatt, because the Leafs were right there.
Even after T.J. Oshie gave the Capitals breathing room just 59 seconds later, darned if the Leafs didn’t pull the goalie and stuff one home with less than half a minute left to put the Caps on edge again.
Yet they closed it out, so there is relief and joy in Washington again. But there’s also a curious feeling: Can this team handle an advantage?
“If I took one thing away from this game that we can improve on, it’d be that,” said Oshie, who scored twice. “When we play with the lead, we have to be better at shutting teams down.”
It was so odd — and yet, so expected — for a Washington team that’s so good. Why does a team so accomplished from October to March seem to run from its achievements come April and May?
There is another way to look at this issue of comfort with success. Apply it to two-goal leads in the playoffs, for sure. But apply it to the season-long thought process, too.
“I believe you want to win the Presidents’ Trophy and go on to win the Cup,” said Toronto Coach Mike Babcock, who did both as the coach of the Detroit Red Wings in 2008. “What happens is: expectations.”
Expectations, with the Capitals in the playoffs, have almost invariably become an adversary. Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, who has Stanley Cup-winning experience with Pittsburgh on his résumé, was asked Wednesday if the men in the Washington dressing room have embraced their status as Cup favorites.
“Embraced?” Orpik said. “Uhhhh . . .”
He had to think. He shouldn’t. Where else would you want to be?
Take Alex Ovechkin. He’s the captain, the best player in the history of his franchise, a generational talent. After the Capitals finished their morning skate Wednesday, a huge throng of media surrounded him, most of it from Canada.
“It’s time for you guys to take pressure off us and let us do our job,” Ovechkin said.
It’s time for what, exactly?
Whatever they might want, the Capitals cannot set up a situation this year where they’re the underdog. Okay, maybe if they play Pittsburgh in the next round, and the Penguins are rested and the Caps aren’t. But still, they can’t just pretend they didn’t win a league-high 55 games and post a league-best 118 points. Their status merits expectations. Learn to love it.
So, back to Babcock. Listen up, Caps.
“I think, in life, you want expectations, because expectations simply mean you have a chance,” Babcock said. “When you go to an Olympic Games and you’re rated 30th, you have no chance. There’s no pressure on you. I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for in life.”
That’s a great way to frame what the Capitals have been through over the past decade. In a lot of ways, it has seemed they haven’t really known what they’re looking for in life. Their goal is clear, and they can restate it time and again.
“We know our aspirations,” said veteran forward Justin Williams, a Cup-winner himself. “Our aspirations are certainly as big as they get.”
To reach such aspirations, then, there must be an understanding that they’re going to have to take three-goal leads — and bury teams. They can’t be up 4-2 in the final minute of the second, and then completely lose their heads, drawing a silly delay of game penalty from Lars Eller on a faceoff with 6.4 seconds remaining, and three seconds later enduring an equally mindless slashing penalty from Orpik.
Hey, Leafs. We feel like we’re up by too much. Let’s make this more interesting. Here’s a five-on-three to start the third.
“Mentally, everything has to get out” of your head, Oshie said. “And even if there’s a bounce here or there, you still got to find a way to keep the puck out of your net.”
Wouldn’t you know: When the Caps faced that steep deficit in personnel, they stopped the Leafs. Goaltender Braden Holtby, who has frankly fought the puck for much of this series, was at his best, stopping five shots.
Wednesday could well be remembered as the night the Caps turned the series, and their spring, back in their favor. But a truly deep run, the kind this group hasn’t yet enjoyed, probably won’t come unless each and every player learns to love what’s being expected of them — which is excellent hockey for close to 60 minutes every time they take the ice.
Enjoy that status, Caps. Not every team has it. You’ve earned it. Play like you want to be the hunted, and we’ll see you for more than the next month.