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