When last seen, the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, a phrase we may as well use as much as possible while it is still true, were in a funk of a grumpy sulk at Carolina on Monday night after losing to the Hurricanes, 5-2, in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series.
The twin infuriating causes? A close call erased an apparent game-tying Alex Ovechkin goal, and a brilliant deflection that Hurricanes captain Justin Williams couldn’t duplicate in a decade went between Braden Holtby’s skates 94 seconds later to give Carolina a two-goal lead. Such an ominous turn of fortune will shake any team. Ovechkin was sent to the dressing room early, still cussing at officials.
When next seen, on Wednesday night in Game 7 at Capital One Arena, the Capitals will make history.
They will either end a brutally disappointing season in the first round, beaten for the 11th time in their history after holding a two-game lead in a playoff series, by a humble franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs in 10 years.
Or they will be smashing their way into the second round of an NHL postseason that’s so wide open — with no teams left that are even an iota better than the Caps, and perhaps no team quite as good as Washington — that talk of back-to-back Stanley Cup titles will be on every hockey tongue.
Such a second-round matchup — against the New York Islanders, who are led by last season’s Capitals coach, Barry Trotz — might turn out to be the most fun and the longest-remembered battle of this entire NHL season.
So, not much riding on this one. Just the sound of ripe fruit being dropped on cement from a great height vs. joy in the streets and watch parties to plan.
On Wednesday night, we will be living a retroactively rewritten history of the 2018-19 Capitals season — one version humiliating, the other an omen that these new Caps are tempered-in-fire champs. And watch out Islanders, well-rested or not.
“We’re excited to have it back at home where we’ve been able to find the right type of matchups [on line changes] and the right energy that we’ve gotten from our fans,” Coach Todd Reirden said Tuesday of a series in which the home team has won every game. “We seem to have played with a lot more possession, a lot more swagger and intensity [at home]. That’s what I look forward to seeing . . . the most heightened sense of urgency and desperation.”
The Caps look back on their poise last season for reassurance. Each of the team’s four series wins carried a different form of adversity — all of it overcome.
“We still know we have more. That’s the thing,” said Holtby, who like many Caps has seemed perplexed that, except for a 6-0 Washington win in Game 5, the Hurricanes have often had the better of the play. “The consistency hasn’t been there through the series. It doesn’t matter now. It’s one game. We’d take our team in any one-game series, so the confidence doesn’t waver that way.”
The thrill, and the anxiety, of Game 7 in the NHL — more so than in any other sport — is that the final score will mean everything. Even if, because puck luck rules so often in playoff hockey, one game may not prove a great deal.
Somebody will win. And they will be glorious, either as underdog winners like the star-challenged Hurricanes or, if it’s the Caps, as defending champs showing their grit and proving that a new coach can lead them in rough waters.
Somebody will lose. If it’s the Hurricanes, nice try. If it’s the Caps, why didn’t they pay Trotz whatever he wanted to stay in D.C.? And who is this Reirden milquetoast?
The final score — of one game — will become the truth. That’s why teams in the Capitals’ spot never want to hear “Game 7.” You can do a lot right and lose.
And it is why low seeds such as the wild-card Hurricanes echo the words of Williams, the former Capital who said Tuesday: “If they’re going to knock us out, we’re not going to let it be easy on them. Let’s go play another game.”
“You learn a lot about people when it’s win or go home, when it’s us or them. It was us, and now it’s them, too,” added Williams, who, as usual, said exactly what you’d expect of someone known as “Mr. Game 7” from his play on three Stanley Cup winners. “Anything can happen next game, and we’re happy to be playing it.”
Usually, by Game 7, you seldom hear anything new from either side about strategy or why the series has played out as it has. But Holtby gave a novel, and logical, reason that this series and several others this spring have been so dominated by the home team.
“The rinks are a lot different — not crowd or anything, but the actual rink — the ice, the boards, size, everything is different. You’re more comfortable in the arena you play in a lot,” Holtby said.
So what is different about the rinks in this series?
“The ice there is different. It’s bouncy. We play a more skilled kind of game, puck-moving, and sometimes you have to simplify a lot more there,” said Holtby, implying, though not quite saying, that the Capitals’ problems with clearing their own zone and starting rushes — and generally escaping from intense Carolina pressure — may be caused by bouncy ice. Which would be . . . ahem . . . kind of lousy ice.
“The boards there are inconsistent. Every rink is different in that way. You try to test that out . . . If we’re in this situation again, you’ve just got to do some more homework on it,” Holtby added. If lack of advance study on road rink conditions proves a factor in this series, this could be a long summer of remedial education.
Caps history has been so full of disappointments, lost Game 7s at home and blown series leads, such as their 2-0 series lead against the Hurricanes, that it is easy to let distant, irrelevant history distort more recent and meaningful history.
Step back and look at the past four seasons. In 2015-16 and 2016-17, the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy but lost to the eventual Stanley Cup winners — the Pittsburgh Penguins — in tough, close series. Those were not Stanley Cup finals. But they felt like it. Then, last year, the Caps won the Cup. If the Caps get past the Hurricanes in this Game 7, they will face a decimated field in which every other division winner has been eliminated — including the 128-point Tampa Bay Lightning juggernaut.
Once the Capitals are past Carolina, if they can just get there, this whole Capitals period may be in the process of being evaluated differently. There will be many weeks to go. But almost every Stanley Cup champion, including the Caps last year, feels as if it survived a half-dozen hockey heart games to get the job done. It’s always a glorious, terrifying nightmare.
In a matter of hours, the Capitals’ season could be over. But in all pro sports, champions don’t focus on such fears or obstacles. Fans and media can. Champions can’t afford it. They must always find a way to see opportunity — even if it is the opportunity to prove they can stomp the obstacles in front of them, such as injuries to T.J. Oshie and Michal Kempny, or a poor playoff so far by Evgeny Kuznetsov, or a rookie coach. And, somehow, they must make it all a joyous battle.
Last year, the Capitals did. They say the second time is harder.
Normal people, those of us watching, may find that daunting. The Caps must love it — again.