TAMPA — Alex Ovechkin’s beard has never been fuller, his hair never grayer. He arrived at the Washington Capitals’ Tampa hotel in a bright blue suit, less than 24 hours removed from a bruising 3-0 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Capital One Arena to extend his team’s season at least one more game. How is he feeling after throwing four hits and also taking a couple?
“Great,” he said with a smile and a shrug.
This is the deepest Ovechkin has ever been in the postseason, one win away from a trip to the Stanley Cup finals, and getting this close again isn’t guaranteed. What stands in his way is a nerve-racking 60 minutes he and the Capitals are all too familiar with: a Game 7. These deciding games have mostly ended in heartbreak for Washington and its captain, and it’s fitting the Capitals would have to endure one to reach their goal of a championship. It was a Game 7 loss a year ago that started this season’s story.
“Of course you have dreams, you have thoughts, you have all different stuff before the year or before the playoffs, and right now, you’re in this position and you just don’t want to give up this opportunity,” Ovechkin said. “[Wednesday night] is going to be the biggest game in our life, maybe.”
This wasn’t supposed to be the Capitals’ year, but maybe that’s why it has been. Salary cap constraints weakened the roster before the season, and defenseman Matt Niskanen told his wife that this rendition of the team wasn’t as good “on paper.” But, “watch,” Niskanen recalled telling her, “this will be the year that we do something.”
It’s a reminder that a long run this season doesn’t ensure another one, even if the group is kept mostly intact. Hockey is random and “funny,” as Niskanen put it, and the window for the Capitals’ aging core with Ovechkin (32) and Nicklas Backstrom (30) is still steadily closing. Veteran center Jay Beagle says for all the talent he has played with in Washington for the past decade, he would have expected to reach this point much sooner.
“It was something that you thought we were going to get to the last three or four years, and before that five, six years ago,” Beagle said.
This will be the 11th Game 7 for Ovechkin and Backstrom, and 41-year-old Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is the only active player with more (12). Since 2008, no team has played in more Game 7s than the Capitals — and they are 3-7 in them during the past decade of the Ovechkin era. There was the 2-1 overtime win over Boston in 2012 and also the 2-1 win over the New York Islanders three years ago, when Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game-winning goal felt like the breakout for a rising star. But then there were stinkers like the 6-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 on home ice, as well as the 5-0 loss to the New York Rangers in 2013.
Ovechkin’s first Game 7 was a 3-2 overtime loss to Philadelphia in 2008, and he still remembers a questionable tripping call that led to the Flyers’ game-winning goal. “Make mistake and it cost us the game. Nothing you can do with that,” Ovechkin said Tuesday. A lesson he has learned about Game 7s: “You just don’t have to be frustrated if something happen not your way. I think you have to stay the same course and play the right way. It doesn’t matter what happened until the last second.”
The Capitals’ most recent Game 7 was one of their more frustrating, last season’s 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh in the second round. Washington started like a “bat out of hell,” Niskanen said, but when the Penguins scored the first goal, the Capitals deflated.
“That Game 7 is a big question mark for me: Like, why [did] that happen?” Kuznetsov said last May. “For me, I feel like it’s totally different team played that game.”
The Capitals played their best in Game 6 of that series, staving off elimination in much the same way they did in this Eastern Conference finals against the Lightning. But current players believe the resolve of this team is stronger after a season with more struggles. Niskanen sensed it during Washington’s second-round series against Pittsburgh earlier this month. “I just think our ability to respond, our ability to stay with it, is so much better this spring,” he said. Just to get to the Penguins, the Capitals had to overcome a two-games-to-none deficit against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round.
“I don’t think anybody thought we’re going to be fighting against Tampa Bay Lightning for the Stanley Cup final in Game 7,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t think you [reporters] felt like you’re going to be here. Probably thought you’re going to be on vacation somewhere. But we’re here and we’re excited.”
Coach Barry Trotz said there isn’t a team he’d want in a Game 7 more than this one. And the Capitals have already shown him more than they could in any one game.
“One game, one moment in time, doesn’t define you,” Trotz said. “The longevity of stuff that you have to battle through. Toughness is not the one moment. Toughness is getting up from many moments that maybe don’t go your way. That’s, to me, mental toughness, grinding through stuff. This team has done that all year.”
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