It’s never easy this time of year. It’s some combination of mesmerizing and nauseating, particularly around here. The out-of-town scoreboard from the Stanley Cup playoffs Thursday night showed Boston throttling Toronto, 5-1, Tampa Bay easing past New Jersey, 5-2. A night earlier, Pittsburgh showed its disdain for Philadelphia, 7-0.
What must that be like? Why can’t we live that way, in a world in which turning your eyes from the ice doesn’t feel like it might be life-changing? Can’t the Capitals, for once, allow those who file into Capital One Arena each spring to exhale, sip a beer, smile and enjoy a laugher?
No. Not here. Here, we have to endure everything that Thursday night’s 4-3 loss to Columbus represents. Here, leads of 2-0 and 3-2 evaporate like water on sauna coals. Here, we open the playoffs with overtime and Tums. Here, April doesn’t mean ogling the cherry blossoms as much as it means booing the between-the-third-period-and-OT announcement that Metro will close at 11:30 p.m. — with an undetermined amount of hockey still to play.
11:30 p.m.? What makes you think it will be over by then?
“It’s not going to be easy,” Caps star Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s not going to be right away.”
(Wait. Is he talking about the series or Metro? Either way, the game ended at 10:36. Run. Gallery Place is still open.)
If what played out in this playoff lid-lifter felt familiar, it’s because it is. Remember last year’s first-round series, when the heavily favored Capitals — they won the Presidents’ Trophy, if you recall — tangled with an agitating and youthful bunch from Toronto. The result: six straight one-goal games.
When the Caps managed to move past the Maple Leafs, they were presented with the Penguins, who make this city just about fold in on itself at the very mention of their name. What amounted to breathing easy in that series? A 2-1 third-period deficit facing elimination in Game 5 — when Washington ripped off three straight goals to stay alive.
Yeah, fine, in 2016 the Caps opened the postseason by thumping the Flyers three straight times, and even when Philadelphia won the next two all seemed well. But that just led to the Pittsburgh series, six games of absolute angst, five of them decided by one goal, and the total tally of goals read Capitals 15, Penguins 15.
So it’s funny, then, to think I thought Game 1 turned in the first period.
The Caps have been in the playoffs 10 times in the past 11 years. A first-period turning point? Please.
But consider what happened in that moment when Washington defenseman Michal Kempny skated into the corner to dig out a puck, and Columbus forward Josh Anderson thundered in behind him. The immediate aftermath of Anderson’s hit — which was high, for sure — was scary because Kempny was left on all fours on the ice.
The hockey element, though, came down as an avalanche favoring the Caps. Kempny was helped off the ice, and he didn’t return. But the referees not only called boarding on Anderson, they determined the hit warranted a five-minute major. That’s debatable. What’s not: If the refs determine a penalty deserves to be labeled a major and it involves an injury to the head or face, the violator receives a game misconduct. He’s booted.
So here, the Caps had a somewhat questionable call that became an opportunity. And then Evgeny Kuznetsov scored once, and then 29 seconds later he scored again, and Washington had a 2-0 lead, and for a few minutes you could trick yourself into thinking the following story line would carry the day: Caps get un-Caps-like break, take full advantage and ease their way to a playoff-opening victory.
Yeah, not so much. A minute-and-a-half into the third, Tom Wilson was in the penalty box for the Caps, and Thomas Vanek tied it for Columbus.
“That’s playoff hockey,” Wilson said. “That’s what it’s all about is momentum and not giving the other team life at crucial moments of the game.”
The Caps gave the other team life at a crucial moment of the game. Seems like their way.
Do hockey people in other hockey cities go through all this hockey hell?
Now, let’s not fall into the trap of using Thursday’s developments to make any grand, sweeping statements about this series and where it’s headed. In either dressing room, say, “Seems like it’ll be a long series,” and heads will bob up and down in agreement. These guys are programmed that way. The Caps were down two games to one to Toronto last year and won three straight. They lost the 2015 playoff opener at home to the Islanders and took the series in seven. In 2012, they lost in overtime at Boston in Game 1 and again took the series in seven. Nothing has been determined.
But we also know that blowouts and series runaways aren’t the Caps’ way. And we know that, almost without fail, there will be a moment that leaves all those red-clad people racing to those last few Metro trains muttering on the ride home.
That moment Thursday night: After Devante Smith-Pelly’s goal put the Caps back up 3-2, Columbus defenseman Seth Jones began to skate the puck from his own end. There, he was approached by Washington forward Andre Burakovsky.
What Burakovsky was doing near Jones at the moment was anybody’s guess. Either way, it looked to me as if Jones started slipping. That’s not how it looked to the refs. Their assessment: tripping on Burakovsky. Two more minutes on the penalty kill.
“We had 200 feet up the ice,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “. . . There’s no sense chasing Jonesy behind the net there.”
Nope. No sense at all. And darned if Jones didn’t score the equalizer with 4:26 remaining — in regulation.
In regulation. We always have to say that this time of year. Last spring began with Tom Wilson’s overtime heroics against the Maple Leafs. This spring began with . . . something else. This spring began with Columbus’s Artemi Panarin beating Washington goaltender Philipp Grubauer, with the Caps slumping their way off the ice and with the crowd settling in for all the anxiety the next week — or more — might bring.
“Not ideal,” Grubauer said. It was just his second playoff start. Seems like he gets it.
Not five minutes after the game ended, the giant scoreboard above showed a smiling picture of T.J. Oshie, the massive words “Next Home Game,” and mentioned Sunday’s Game 2. Inescapable, though, was the final score: Columbus 4, Washington 3. The public address system blared to a crowd that had all but sprinted to the exits. The song choice: The Eagles’ “Take It Easy.”
Take it easy. Yeah, whatever. It’s April. The Caps are playing. The playoffs have begun. And easy just ain’t in their vocabulary.
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