TAMPA — Nicklas Backstrom, essential? Please. Who needs him? Not these Washington Capitals, apparently. Stick them with pins. Kick them in the shins. ’Tis but a flesh wound to this bunch.
Here are some factual things that have transpired since the Capitals began the Stanley Cup playoffs a month ago: They lost their first two games. At home. They lost one forward to injury for the end of their first-round series and the entirety of their second-round series. They lost another forward to suspension in the middle of that second-round series, and could have well lost their edge — and composure — as well. They closed out Pittsburgh anyway, on the road.
Oh, right. Keep going. Backstrom, their (supposedly) essential center, didn’t play in the clincher against the Penguins, either, which means 131 points watched that victory from the press box. And his next shift in the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning will be his first because of a hand injury.
One last fact: The Capitals played twice here over the weekend. They won twice.
What the bleep is going on?
“In past years, we might feel a different way,” said defenseman John Carlson, who has endured so many of those past years. “Maybe [we] had a different aura in the room. This year is just different.”
Sunday night’s 6-2 trouncing in Game 2 of the NHL’s semifinal round puts the Capitals in an extraordinary position: up two games to none before they have even hosted the Lightning at Capital One Arena.
We are required, at this point, to interject notes of caution. It’s a contractual thing. So:
This quest isn’t over, not close, and there’s no way the Lightning doesn’t play its best game of the series Tuesday night in Washington — in part because it would be hard to play worse, booed off the ice by a thinning crowd Sunday. The Capitals themselves lost those first two games of their opening series against Columbus at home — then ran off four straight to close out the series. The Lightning has the skill and the savvy to do precisely the same thing.
“It’s a long series,” said Brett Connolly, one of six Washington goal scorers Sunday.
Put caution aside for a second. Does it have to be a long series?
Consider the backbone this Capitals team is showing in views both granular and panoramic. No Backstrom yet in this series? Lars Eller, his replacement as the second-line center, scored for the second straight game, this time to give the Caps the lead for good. Jakub Vrana, benched earlier in the playoffs because the coaches didn’t trust him defensively? He created that goal by digging a puck out of the corner. Devante Smith-Pelly, who was briefly on the first line but is now on the fourth, netted the goal that changed the game. They are, right now, stepping on throats, and it doesn’t matter who is wearing the steel-toed boots.
“One of the things at playoff time is the team concept trumps everything,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a loaded team or trying to piece it together during the playoffs. It starts with your leadership. It starts with your core group. It starts with commitment. It starts with belief.”
Right now, the Capitals appear to have a core group dripping with leadership, commitment and belief. They have shown it in dealing with Backstrom’s absence and the losses of Andre Burakovsky (injury) and Tom Wilson (suspension) before that. But they may have shown it best in the moment Sunday night. They had one call go against them in the first period. They got absolutely jobbed on another. The response?
“We didn’t stop,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We didn’t panic.”
Walk through the particulars, because they show how this team is becoming more cohesive by the moment. Holding a 1-0 lead in the first period, Wilson charged toward the net. His greatest crime these days appears to be the fact that he goes through life being Tom Wilson, a walking misdemeanor in the eyes of the NHL. Wilson, for sure, crashed into Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, perhaps interference.
View the play through rock-the-red colored lenses, and didn’t Tampa Bay’s Chris Kunitz — an old annoyance from his Pittsburgh days — hook Wilson first?
“The refs are human,” Smith-Pelly said. “I mean, they’re going to make mistakes.”
The penalty went on Wilson, and it took the Lightning all of 30 seconds to score the power-play equalizer. If there was a time to get agitated, or even angry, this was it. Not even 90 seconds later, Washington forward T.J. Oshie raised his stick as a puck floated near him. Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman moved in on the play and crumbled to the ice when he was hit in the face — not by Oshie’s stick, but by the puck.
This, folks, is not a penalty. Except when it’s whistled as such. Oshie went to the box for high-sticking. The call led to Steven Stamkos’s go-ahead, power-play goal.
Whining would have been justified. The Capitals, apparently, were more concerned with winning.
“You can’t change it,” Connolly said. “That’s the thing. You’re not going to reverse it. . . . Sometimes you go up to the ref and say, ‘It’s okay. It’s fine. It happens.’”
The Capitals, as measured and mature? These playoffs are a month old, and it still takes some getting used to.
Hockey people like to say the drive to a Stanley Cup is the most difficult journey in sports, and when you watch it live, it’s hard to disagree. The challenge is extraordinary on a physical level. These guys subject their bodies to an absolute beatdown, rest and recover for a day, and then beat themselves down again 48 hours later. The Capitals are still six wins from what would be — don’t say it, don’t say it — a championship, and they have already compressed 14 games into 31 days since they began this trek.
Yet the harder thing to overcome is how to handle those moments when things don’t go your way. The Capitals were steaming on the bench about the Oshie call. They went to the dressing room after the first period obviously — and justifiably — miffed.
“We can only control what we can control,” Trotz said afterward. “. . . We refocused and we tried to stay on task. I think we did.”
There is a calm, professional vibe about this team. Beyond the moment, they did not gripe about the calls, or the goals that resulted from them. They buried them and they played hockey.
And when this group does that, they get a response. This was in the form of Smith-Pelly’s equalizer less than three minutes into the second, then Eller’s go-ahead goal with just over a minute to go, and then the kind of exchange that could, if you allow yourself, make you think that things really are different this year — a power play drawn with 10 seconds to go in the period, and Evgeny Kuznetsov’s subsequent goal with less than three seconds left.
That’s how they handled Game 2. That’s how they handled Backstrom’s absence, and those of Wilson and Burakovsky before him. That’s how they handled their trip to Tampa.
“We did our job here,” Connolly said.
More than that. They had a perfect spring weekend in Florida. That’s how these Capitals built an advantage in this series — because that’s how these Capitals are built.