On Saturday afternoon, we will find out exactly how much the Washington Capitals learned from last spring’s first-round ouster.
Now is the time for the Capitals to eliminate the New York Rangers, accomplish something they haven’t done in 13 years and prove that allowing the Montreal Canadiens to stagger back to their feet a year ago was a hard lesson learned, not just another premature exit for a franchise whose postseason history is defined by them.
Henrik Lundqvist and his teammates are exhausted, flustered and, judging from the vibe in the downcast home dressing room after Wednesday’s double-overtime 4-3 loss in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden, doubts have begun creeping into the Rangers’ collective psyche.
With one more win, the Capitals can wrap up a series in five games for the first time since beating Ottawa in the semifinals in 1998. They lost Game 3, but won the next two, closing out the Senators on home ice. Later that spring, they made the club’s only Stanley Cup finals appearance.
“I remember with [Muhammad] Ali, they would always say he had a great killer instinct when he got you in trouble,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Other guys would let you off the hook.”
Twelve months ago, the Capitals were the “other guys.” The similarities between the series, in fact, are striking.
Against the Canadiens, the Capitals seized a three-games-to-one lead with a 6-3 victory at Bell Centre and could have clinched two nights later on F Street. Instead, by the time Game 5 was seven minutes old, the visitors were ahead 2-0, Verizon Center had fallen silent and the momentum of the series had swung for good. The Capitals did not win another game and became the first top-seeded team to blow a 3-1 series lead to an eighth-seeded team.
It was an inexcusable collapse, despite the rationalizations offered afterward.
One excuse was that the Capitals got caught looking ahead while the determined Canadiens stayed in the moment. Another was that a lengthy delay on their return flight from Montreal following Game 4 caused a flat first period two days later.
I’m not buying either. The inexperienced Capitals simply didn’t know how to close out an opponent desperate to keep its season alive.
After that loss, Boudreau delivered a scathing rebuke of his team’s effort, saying famously that the Capitals “had five or six passengers” along for the ride.
The same thing could have been said after the first 40 minutes in New York on Wednesday.
Then, something unexpected happened in the third period. Instead of crumbling beneath the chorus of derisive chants directed at Boudreau and a 3-0 deficit that had started to resemble a 7-0 pasting they had absorbed in the same building on Dec. 12, the Capitals did something “out of character,” as their coach often implores them to do in times of turmoil.
Alexander Semin raced to the net with abandon and followed up his own shot while jamming away at a loose puck from the side of the crease. Rookie Marcus Johansson morphed into a veteran, notching the first and second playoff goals of his career, the first on a tap-in and the second on a redirection in front. Then Jason Chimera, a 10-goal scorer in the regular season and a healthy scratch only three weeks ago, notched the biggest goal of the season 32 minutes 36 seconds into extra time.
The Capitals went from looking like a team in trouble to the contender many believed them to be. The Rangers, meantime, took a devastating uppercut on the chin.
Those who lived last year’s collapse said Thursday they are confident there won’t be a repeat.
“It’s a different team, a different era,” Chimera said. “We have a different kind of resolve here this year. [The Montreal series] is always in the back of your mind. But we have a whole new leadership in here.”
Mike Knuble, who missed Wednesday’s game with a suspected right hand injury, said last season’s flameout humbled the Capitals in a good way.
“As a group, we were a little more high on ourselves than this group,” he said.
Added Eric Fehr: “Obviously, we have to prove it on the ice, that we learned our lesson. We had a real tough summer, and I think a lot of guys are bringing different stuff to the table this year.”
Wednesday’s comeback showed the Capitals are capable of closing this series in five games, but to do it they’ll also need to show they have the “killer instinct” required to pull it off.