Never a doubt, Caps fans, they had it all along

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BARRY SVRLUGA barry.svrluga@wash­post.com For more by Barry Svrluga, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/svrluga.

You had hope? Really? With 20 min­utes to go, you found faith?

No, you did not. You’re ly­ing. Or you’re un­fa­mil­iar with the ma­te­rial. What­ever. I don’t be­lieve you.

Be­tween the sec­ond and third pe­ri­ods Satur­day night, the 18,506 who filled Ver­i­zon Cen­ter turned into monks on a silent re­treat. The Washington Cap­i­tals trailed by a just a goal against the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins. And yet, a fu­ne­real feel.

“We were still in the game,” Nick­las Back­strom said. “It was only a one-goal game.”

This is fac­tu­ally ac­cu­rate, con­firmed by a score­sheet and a cal­cu­la­tor. But in this in­stance — fac­ing elim­i­na­tion with what could very well have been a fran­chise-al­ter­ing loss — there’s no such thing as “just a goal” for the Caps against the Pens. A goal, with all of hockey able to sniff the Caps’ sum­mer, is a gulf as wide as

At­lantic, stretch­ing across Europe — heck, all the way to, say, Moscow.

From where would you draw hope? From the fact that the Cap­i­tals had out­shot the Pen­guins 18-10? Please. That movie shows around here in the spring more than “It’s a Won­der­ful Life” plays at the hol­i­days.

“No panic,” Alex Ovechkin said of the mood be­tween pe­ri­ods. And at that point, any­one watch­ing may have won­dered whether Ovechkin was ca­pa­ble of any emo­tion — panic or oth­er­wise.

We know now, of course, that a one-goal deficit en­ter­ing the third pe­riod some­how be­came a 4-2 vic­tory that ex­tended the Cap­i­tals’ sea­son, that forced a sixth game Mon­day night in Pitts­burgh. Yes, the Caps still trail in the se­ries 3-2. Yes, they did this ex­act thing a year ago — staving off elim­i­na­tion with a home vic­tory over the Pen­guins in Game 5, then los­ing in over­time at PPG Paints Arena in the sixth game to get a jump start on their sum­mer.

“Ob­vi­ously,” Back­strom said, “we’re not think­ing about the sum­mer right now.”

This was after the game, so that’s be­liev­able. But come on, Caps fans. Be­tween the sec­ond and third pe­riod, it would have been rea­son­able to in­quire about week­end rates for ho­tels at the beach, to dou­ble-check what time the Preak­ness goes off in two weeks, to see whether you could get tick­ets for that Nats se­ries in Septem­ber when Ryan Zim­mer­man might top­ple Barry Bonds’s sin­gle-sea­son home run record. (Kid­ding.)

At that point, trail­ing 2-1, so many of the Cap­i­tals’ key cogs had been — how to put this? — ter­ri­ble. There was lit­tle ev­i­dence that Ovechkin — the cap­tain, whose “C” looked hol­low in both Game 4 and the first two pe­ri­ods of Game 5 — would wake up and par­tic­i­pate in push­ing his team’s sea­son beyond Satur­day. Goal­tender Braden Holtby hadn’t been par­tic­u­larly bad, but he also hadn’t made the kind of save that a des­per­ate, tee-times-are-wait­ing team needs from its goalie. Worse, the black-andthe gold-clad pa­trons at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter — and there were more than a few — had ser­e­naded the home goal­tender with mock­ing, sing-songy chants of, “Holt-by! Holt-by!”

The coach had jug­gled his lines. And yet Ver­i­zon Cen­ter, for long stretches, felt still, quiet.

Let’s be hon­est: The end felt near.

“I think we kind of knew,” said Lars Eller, and he was speak­ing about what was at stake.

The crowd knew, too, of course, and while we can ar­gue all we want about the play­ers in th­ese Cap­i­tals sweaters not be­ing bur­dened by his­tory, the fans cer­tainly are. The build­ing was not go­ing to change the mo­men­tum. The Cap­i­tals them­selves had to do that.

And then, less than three min­utes into the third, Back­strom scored.

Here’s where you al­lowed your­self to re­place dread with hope, didn’t you? You weren’t alone.

“It turns our mind around,” Ovechkin said. “We start be­liev­ing, and we start to play the way we’re ca­pa­ble.”

That’s all we’re asking, really. Play the way they’re ca­pa­ble. Fin­ish the way they’re ca­pa­ble. For­get about out­shoot­ing the op­po­nent. Outscore them.

This en­tire play­off run has been up­hill for Washington. The Cap­i­tals have played five games against Pitts­burgh — 15 reg­u­la­tion pe­ri­ods — and led after three of them: the first and sec­ond pe­ri­ods of Game 3, and . . .

We’ll get to that. On Holtby: He has been, in th­ese play­offs, a mini-ver­sion of the Cap­i­tals as a fran­chise. He was, ar­guably, the best goalie over the course of the reg­u­lar sea­son, just as his team was, inar­guably, the best over 82 games. And yet in th­ese play­offs, he has not quite of­ten enough come up with the save you don’t ex­pect. Take Pitts­burgh’s first goal Satur­day night, from Carl Hagelin. Was it Holtby’s fault en­tirely? Prob­a­bly not. Did it hit off his glove? Yes.

Yet just more than a minute after Back­strom tied the score, Pitts­burgh cen­ter Nick Bonino — a Cap­i­tals killer of the first or­der — broke open and had a clean look.

Here, Holtby came up with the save. “Huge,” Back­strom said. “Mo­men­tum shifts are big,” Holtby said.

Now you could be­lieve. Now you could have faith. After al­low­ing two goals on the first 10 shots he saw, Holtby saved all 12 he faced in the third pe­riod.

And then some things that hadn’t hap­pened — all se­ries, it seemed — started hap­pen­ing. A few min­utes after Holtby stoned Bonino, Washington de­fense­man John Carl­son worked, and worked hard, to keep a puck in the Pitts­burgh zone when the Pens were close to clear­ing it. This was a fight, the kind of 50-50 bat­tle hockey play­ers — who love cliches more than they love their moth­ers — al­ways say they have to win this time of year.

Carl­son won this one. He set­tled the puck, found Mar­cus Jo­hans­son, who found Evgeny Kuznetsov, who beat Pitts­burgh goalie Marc-An­dre Fleury from a silly an­gle. Ver­i­zon Cen­ter not only felt like Ver­i­zon Cen­ter again — thun­der­ing — but when Ovechkin flew into the zone not half a minute later, when he fired one shot and then fol­lowed it, bury­ing the re­bound past Fleury, hope was re­placed by straight-up knowl­edge that the Caps could win this thing.

“We got re­warded,” Eller said. “That felt good.”

Fi­nally, they got re­warded com­pletely across the board. Holtby was re­warded for keep­ing his head in the game. Coach Barry Trotz was re­warded for the risky move of shak­ing up his lineup, drop­ping Ovechkin to Eller’s third line and mov­ing An­dre Bu­rakovsky — who scored Washington’s first goal — up to play with Back­strom. The Caps were re­warded for not cruis­ing into sum­mer. And the fans were re­warded for stick­ing around.

So, here we are again. None of this means any­thing about ul­ti­mately win­ning the se­ries. Still . . .

See you back here Wed­nes­day night? Right now, if you tell me you have hope for that, I’ll be­lieve you.

Barry Svrluga

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