To those who believe that once the Stanley Cup playoffs start the Washington Capitals have no luck at all except buzzard luck, there are now several big, fat exhibits to the contrary.
It’s far too early to declare a change of trend. A few nice breaks, along with some good clutch play, are not enough to reverse a decades-long sense of ill fortune and black clouds.
But in Game 5 of their first-round series against the Blue Jackets at Capital One Arena on Saturday, as in Game 3 in Columbus on Tuesday, the Caps got plain, old, wonderful puck-luck of the kind they have seldom received in the past.
And they have seldom needed it more. Suddenly, with three straight wins, including a 4-3 overtime triumph in Game 5, they have turned a brutal two-games-to-none deficit — after consecutive confidence-eroding overtime losses at home — into a three-games-to-two lead.
Now it is Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, who scored two goals Saturday, including the overtime winner on a deflection, who can say, “We got a little lucky today. We’ll take it. . . . It happens in the playoffs. It’s nice.”
And it is Blue Jackets Coach John Tortorella who was left to vow, twice, “I won’t have to say a damn word to my team. We’ll be back here for Game 7.”
Not if your luck doesn’t improve, Torts.
How many decades has it taken for the Caps to get to say that to anybody?
What makes this turn of events so piquant is that the list of things that have gone the Caps’ way, when they were in dire hockey circumstances, is getting quite long with both Game 3 and Game 5 now feeling like pivotal games. In the first, the chasm of a 3-0 series deficit was avoided, and now a comeback series win is just one victory from completion.
“In the past, sometimes we would sag, sit back,” Caps Coach Barry Trotz said, remembering tough times in recent unmentionable springs. “Now we don’t sag. Now they get ticked off and go after it.”
Then Trotz, in a back stairway, allowed himself a tiny smile. “We’ll take a little luck, too,” he said. And about time.
The true crisis game of this postseason, if the Caps do advance, will be Game 3, which they escaped in double overtime. For over an hour, any Blue Jackets shot that got past goaltender Braden Holtby might have created a three-game deficit that is seldom escaped in the NHL.
In fact, four shots got past Holtby — and all hit a post with a loud “clang.” One came late in the third period, and another — palpitations — in the first overtime.
When the Caps won in double overtime, the goal was “scored” by Lars Eller, in the sense that Eller was the only Capitals player in the vicinity as the puck seemed to hit everybody in the mayhem in the crease on every part of their equipment — except Eller’s stick. Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, marvelous at stopping real shots, may never know what part of what man from what team dealt him an “L.”
The Caps’ next huge break was escaping an incredibly awful third period Saturday in which they were outshot 16-1 in a game that was tied at 3 for the final 17:30 with Columbus utterly dominating play. The Caps could neither clear the crease in front of Holtby (a year-long flaw) nor clear the puck from their zone.
“We didn’t play well in the third period. We sat back,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said in an understatement. “It’s been a crazy series. Probably pretty rocky for everybody watching. It’s been all over the place and nerve-racking. But we find a way. It’s been fun.”
Backstrom scored the game-winner after he stuck out his stick and “got a tip on” Dmitry Orlov’s blast from the point, but nothing has been more fun than Backstrom’s first-period goal, which may haunt Bobrovsky even more.
Backstrom’s first goal was truly remarkable, and without it the Caps would never have made it to the extra period. Backstrom, flying in from the right of the goal, thought for an instant that “I saw someone going backdoor. So I tried to pass [across the crease].”
Instead, the puck hit the stick of Columbus defenseman David Savard and popped several feet into the air — in a perfect fluke of an arc so that it barely cleared the shoulder of Bobrovsky, who never saw it. Savard desperately reached over Bobrovsky’s shoulder, as if he were trying to pick something out of the goalie’s hip pocket, and almost snagged the puck in midair. But he was a blink too late.
“Just got lucky,” Backstrom said with a shrug. Had he ever scored or seen a goal quite like that — one that almost looked like Savard had redirected the puck, hacky-sack style, off his toe and over his goalie’s shoulder?
“No,” Backstrom said, “but those are usually the ones that feel the best.”
In playoff hockey there are so many weird bounces, deflections, battles with several sticks tangled and general delightful chaos that “justice” is often just getting an even shake on the dumb breaks.
“The hockey gods [gave] us something back from the second game here when we had  shots,” Trotz said.
Past Caps teams that entered the playoffs as a division winner and a favorite over Columbus might have folded after starting this series with two straight overtime defeats at home. When that happens against a good team that, as Backstrom says, “has always played us tough — one-goal games almost all of the last 10 or 15 times we’ve met,” it’s natural to have doubts. To wonder. Or in the case of the Caps and their fans, to listen to hear whether the girders holding up the building are buckling.
With the Caps, that crash can always come. Winning three important games in a row is fine work, but it’s also against a Columbus franchise that has never won a playoff series. Set expectations — any expectations more optimistic than “the sun will probably rise tomorrow” — at your peril.
Nevertheless, it is always amusing to watch Tortorella go into his tough guy act when a series is escaping him, such as the one against the Caps in 2009 when he coached the New York Rangers, won the first two games in Washington and then lost the series here in a Game 7. At least he got back to D.C. And he may again.
But something may be slightly different now. So far, it is the Caps who are benefiting from shots off the post, from goals that bounce off rival players but end up in the net for a double-overtime win and even, in Backstrom’s case, from a pass that hits a skate, then flips, like a cruel joke, right over the goalie’s shoulder.
Sounds extremely familiar. Except this time it is happening for the Caps, not to them.
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