Ah, the comfort of an arena where no one wears red. Bring on the blue and the white, the noisemakers and the light-up bracelets. Walk past the “Go Bolts!” banners that line the waterfront. It all creates what is kind of an intimidating environment. The Washington Capitals might want to schedule the rest of their series there.
It’s time for all the home-cooking jokes you can muster — Crab cake give you food poisoning? — because the Capitals have a crisis on their hands. On paper, even after their 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night, the Eastern Conference finals are tied at two games apiece, and a week ago that would have seemed just fine.
A best-of-three for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup? Nobody at Capital One Arena — player or fan, coach or concessionaire — wouldn’t have taken that when the season began.
The crisis, though, is that the Capitals can’t deliver in their own building. They came here looking like — get this — a favorite to win the big trophy, up two games and having wounded the Lightning’s psyche. They leave here having injected the Lightning with confidence and instilled — I’m sorry, but it’s true — some of the same old questions in their own fan base, which can’t help but be jittery based on 44 years of crumbles.
The facts of these playoffs:
On the road, the Capitals are 7-1.
On home ice, the Capitals are now 3-5.
Maybe they can issue Steven Stamkos T-shirts before Game 6?
“We’re comfortable going on the road,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said late Thursday. “We would have loved to have gotten this one tonight. We didn’t. We’re going to go to Tampa. Our intention is to go win a game in Tampa. We’ve already done that twice.”
For now, that’s what has to amount to swagger. The reality is they came home with an opportunity, and they squandered it. I don’t want to hear how they played their game, how the puck simply didn’t find the back of the net, how they had 38 shots to just 20 for Tampa Bay.
All that’s true, but whatever. Those are the things old Washington teams used to say. And old Washington teams haven’t won the Cup.
Still, there has to be some dissection of what’s going on here.
“I know when we go on the road, I think maybe we feel a bit more relaxed, and when we do make mistakes, maybe we don’t let the groaning affect us or whatnot,” veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik said even before Game 4. “I mean, that being said, I think we should be probably mentally stronger to not let that affect us.”
Oooh, boy. Talk, in May, of the need for mental strength, of the groans affecting them. And groaning’s no longer the half of it. How about booing? Because that’s what happened at the end of the first period, by which time the Capitals had frittered away their 1-0 lead because they allowed the mighty Lightning power play even one chance, and they had failed on all three of their own power plays.
About that first penalty: It was on Lars Eller. In the two games in Tampa, he was a savior. Fellow center Nicklas Backstrom was out, and Eller scored twice and assisted twice more. Here at home, he was terrible, taking five — count ’em, five — penalties, including the lazy hooking call that set up Alex Killorn’s game-winner in the third, just six seconds after the Caps had completed the kill.
Did a change of Zip code completely alter Eller’s judgment and ability?
This should make no sense, of course. Not a single team that made the playoffs had a losing record at home. Home is where your head hits your own pillow, where your routine doesn’t change, where the support system is in place. And yet, here’s Braden Holtby, quietly emphatic: “It’s easier to play on the road.”
“It’s always that way on the road,” he said. “Any team would say that.”
Any team? Really? Why?
“Because you’re not focused on the excitement of your fans and all that,” Holtby said. “They bring you energy in good ways, but at the same time, you need to stay realistic and play your game.”
Soooooo, then. Let’s just go back to “this makes no sense.”
And we have to be fair, too: The Capitals’ loss on Thursday means that home teams are now 34-39 in these playoffs.
“It’s the million-dollar question right now,” Tampa Bay forward Ryan Callahan said.
The Capitals aren’t answering it. They’re adding to it. In the second round against Pittsburgh, when the Capitals took the lead in the series by grinding out a home win in the fifth game, it was my strong belief that Washington needed to close the thing out in Pittsburgh in Game 6. Tie the Penguins’ building up in knots. Feed not off the noise at home, but off the silence on the road. And for goodness sake, don’t leave it to a seventh game on F Street, because seventh games on F Street are nothing if not nauseating.
And so the Caps won in Pittsburgh. And no one had to find out what it would have been like in an all-or-nothing affair.
Still, it’s a problem the Capitals acknowledge. In the second round last year against Pittsburgh, they lost Games 1, 2 and 7 in this building. This year, they dropped their first two against Columbus here. There’s a reason Backstrom, who returned to the lineup Thursday, assessed his time watching from afar thusly: “The first two games, I wasn’t too nervous. These home games, I was so [much] more nervous.”
Thus, the advice of Trotz, to his own team: “Just play the way we do on the road.”
“We’re invested there,” Trotz continued. “We’re playing with real good focus. I don’t think we’re as focused as we have been normally on the road. So just pretend you’re on the road. All the buildings are pretty well the same these days.”
Um, Barry. All the buildings aren’t filled with 18,506 people wearing red sweaters with “Backstrom” and “Ovechkin” and “Holtby” emblazoned across their backs. All the buildings don’t unleash the fury late in the third period. All the buildings don’t have your own cars in your own spots in the garage deck below.
The Caps treat their opponents, at this point, like invited houseguests. They vacuum the floors and wipe down the counters, fluff the pillows, pour some cold drinks and smile upon entry.
And when the Caps go on the road? They are rude and belligerent. They knock stuff over.
“It’s ‘us against the world’ when we’re on the road,” Trotz said.
At home, it’s more “us against ourselves.”
When the Lightning iced this game by scoring an empty-netter with one second on the clock, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin shattered his stick on the crossbar of the Washington goal. There is at least one more hockey game to be played here, Game 6 on Monday night. If you asked Ovechkin, in that moment, “Hey, want to play it in Tampa instead?” the answer would have been obvious.
This series is now a best-of-three. Thank goodness only one of them is here.
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