More than any other long postseason, the Stanley Cup playoffs have this mystical ability to skew. Good or bad, you rarely get what you deserve. Scrunch quality teams into a bracket, drop an always high-strung puck, and that’s just the nature of high-level, small-margin hockey. It never gets old to watch because it never gets easy to play, especially under these jumpy conditions.
On Saturday afternoon, after a 4-3 sudden-death triumph at Capital One Arena that gave you all the feels, the Washington Capitals found themselves leading the Carolina Hurricanes 2-0 in this best-of-seven series. It seems like a tenuous 2-0. It seems more like 1-1. But this sport has no tolerance for illusion. The Capitals aren’t dominating this series, and despite taking significant first-period leads in both games, they aren’t exactly controlling it, either. Nonetheless, they are playing from ahead.
They should feel fortunate. And while Carolina, truly playing like it has nothing to lose, is such a challenge that the Capitals shouldn’t avert their eyes for too long, it’s only human nature to glance at their side of the bracket and realize this tournament is showing major signs of breaking favorably for the defending champions.
The playoff nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins are already down two games to the New York Islanders. Even crazier, the Tampa Bay Lightning find their Greatest Team Ever status in jeopardy as they’ve fallen behind 0-2 to the same Columbus Blue Jackets — okay, this one is better because of trade-deadline enhancements — that had the Capitals in the same first-round predicament last year.
In most other sports, you could trust the road has widened. In the NHL, well, you should sense opportunity building, for now, and leave it at that. As Washington knows, situations can change dramatically at this time of year. But if the Capitals have it in them, and if the hockey playoff gods will bless them, they have a sweet chance to finish this series early and, at the very least, watch a couple of other prime contenders get pushed to the limit.
They’ll stay in the moment, however. As the series shifts to Raleigh for Games 3 and 4, the Capitals leave home needing to put together a more complete game. So far, their first punch has been incredible, but the rest of their game hasn’t been clean. Put all 122 minutes together, and the Hurricanes have been better at playing their game for longer stretches.
Still, the series is 2-0. So what does that mean? The Hurricanes shouldn’t feel desperate. They have a pathway to staying in this thing. But the Capitals are one good game from putting their season at death’s door.
“I expect them to stick with their game,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “There’s a lot of desperation whether you’re down two or starting the series.”
Game 2 illuminated that point. It was strange and disjointed even for the Stanley Cup playoffs. As the most unstable postseason tournament in sports, there is a high standard for kooky, and this game qualified. It featured another sizzling Capitals start, with goals by Nicklas Backstrom (again) and Oshie during a six-minute stretch within the first half of the first period. And similar to Game 1, Carolina immediately followed it by hogging possession and challenging the Washington defense with its volume-shooting style.
But unlike that first game, when the Capitals led 3-0 and spent 2½ periods essentially fending off the opponent, the rest of this contest would turn into a back-and-forth exchange, with so many momentum swings, questionable calls, missed opportunities and late theatrics that it could have caused rampant hyperventilation.
The Hurricanes tied it at 2 late in the second period when Sebastian Aho rebounded a Justin Williams shot that went wide off the end boards and slipped the puck into the side of the net, past Braden Holtby. It came after a wild period in which Carolina’s Micheal Ferland received a rather weak five-minute match penalty for a high hit on Washington center Nic Dowd. But the Capitals failed to capitalize. The Carolina special teams also couldn’t convert a wonderful opportunity despite a five-on-three advantage for 67 seconds of the second period. For the game, the teams were a combined 1 of 9 on power plays.
As the play seesawed, the Capitals were more aggressive, taking 33 shots to the Hurricanes’ 28. Ovechkin dominated, collecting two assists and seven hits, lifting the Capitals with his effort. In obvious and subtle ways, he showed his complete game. Afterward, his teammates raved about his passing.
“A lot of people and a lot of players expect him to shoot all the time,” said Backstrom, whose goal came after Ovechkin faked out the defense and slipped a beautiful assist to him. “He’s not just a great goal scorer. He’s a great setup man, too.”
About midway through the third period, Ovechkin had an even niftier assist to set up Tom Wilson for a goal that gave Washington a 3-2 lead. It held until Jordan Staal tied the game with five minutes remaining. The Capitals almost won the game in regulation, but Petr Mrazek made two brilliant saves in the final 97 seconds. On the final one, he stretched his left pad as far as he could to stop a John Carlson attempt from the high slot.
It felt like Carolina was about to steal a road victory. But nothing is ever as it appears during these playoffs. Less than two minutes into overtime, Brooks Orpik won the game. Of course, it was Orpik.
Asked what Orpik means to this team, Wilson kept it simple.
“Everything,” he said.
Said Holtby: “If you asked anyone on our team who you would be the happiest to see score an overtime goal, it’s probably Brooks Orpik.”
And so, the Capitals, at 2-0, are squeaking by. Carolina Coach Rod Brind’Amour was disappointed about opportunities missed, but ultimately he indicated some satisfaction with how his team has played.
“I hope we get a good lift,” Brind’Amour said.
An uplifting 2-0 deficit? Why not?
“It’s tough right now,” he said. “The loss obviously stings.”
But it’s not over. Unless it is. The Capitals have yet to play their best, but perhaps that makes them dangerous. They still have a chance to make this a quick series. Sometimes, surviving is thriving.
“We’ve got a lot of experience handling those emotions,” Oshie said. “Those momentum swings are something we want to get away from, though.”
Despite feeling out of control at times, the Capitals have taken control. Now they need a killer instinct to combat the zany nature of this sport. Before they can take advantage of playoff volatility, they have to survive it.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.