Cap­i­tals to mea­sure im­prove­ment against de­fend­ing champs.

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - THOM LOVERRO

So, as the Washington Cap­i­tals pre­pare to face the Pittsburgh Pen­guins in the Eastern Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals of the Stan­ley Cup play­offs, what can we con­clude from their dif­fi­cult six-game series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Ap­par­ently, the mes­sage is that the Stan­ley Cup play­offs are hard.

Who knew?

Do ob­servers re­ally think that Cap­i­tals fans didn’t get that mes­sage last year, or the year be­fore, or the year be­fore that, or, I don’t know, pick a sea­son since Washington fans were first in­tro­duced to the play­offs in 1983?

I think Cap­i­tals fans know the play­offs are hard by now.

I think they also know that it ap­pears to be harder for some teams rather than oth­ers — like the Pen­guins, for in­stance, the Cap­i­tals’ op­po­nent on Thurs­day night.

It’s not as hard for them as it is for the Cap­i­tals.

Washington, a 55-win team with 118 points, the win­ner of the Pres­i­dent’s Tro­phy for the best record dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, strug­gled to de­feat the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs, a team that had won 40 games, with 95 points.

By the end of the series, Toronto was the “gritty” Maple Leafs. The Cap­i­tals? Des­per­ate.

“It was a tough series,” Mar­cus Jo­hans­son, who scored the gamewin­ning goal, told re­porters af­ter the game. “It’s never go­ing to be an easy ride, and you know, I think it’s good for us where we kind of got a start where ev­ery­thing didn’t just go smoothly.”

Five of the six games went to over­time, and at one point dur­ing the series, Cap­i­tals coaches were con­sid­er­ing pulling their star goalie, Braden Holtby.

I don’t think any­one re­ally be­lieves be­ing tested by an eight seed in the first round of the play­offs is good for any­one.

That was hard.

Not so much for the Pen­guins. They won their first-round series

in five games last week against the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets — a team that had won 50 games dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, with 108 points.

Pittsburgh had won 50 games as well dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, with 111 points.

You would think two teams with 50 wins fac­ing each other in the play­offs would be a tough series. But, like Cap­i­tals fans, Pen­guins fans, af­ter four Stan­ley Cups — two of them in the Sid­ney Crosby era, de­fend­ing last year’s cham­pi­onship — have learned that the play­offs are tougher for some teams than oth­ers.

By the way, the Pen­guins have won just one Pres­i­dent’s Tro­phy — Washington has won three.

Pen­guins coach Mike Sul­li­van briefly ac­knowl­edged how tough the play­offs are af­ter his team’s Game 5 series-clinch­ing 5-2 win over Colum­bus. “It’s never per­fect out there by any stretch,” Sul­li­van told re­porters.

But then he spoke in a lan­guage un­fa­mil­iar to Cap­i­tals fans.

“We love their com­pete level,” Sul­li­van said of his play­ers. “We love their abil­ity to re­spond to the ad­ver­sity we face or the chal­lenges we face through­out the course of a game, through­out the course of a series.”

This “com­pete” level is some­thing that has eluded Washington. No one loves the Cap­i­tals’ abil­ity to re­spond to ad­ver­sity or chal­lenges through­out the course of a series.

“I just, for what­ever rea­son I knew that if they could have a big game we could re­ally win tonight,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said af­ter his team’s 2-1 over­time win in Game 6.

“For what­ever rea­son” might be the best way to de­scribe the no­tion that his team would step up in Game 6, be­cause they had never re­ally given him or Cap­i­tals fans any par­tic­u­larly spe­cific rea­son to believe they are ca­pa­ble of hav­ing big games in big mo­ments.

This is the task for the Washington Cap­i­tals — to have rea­sons to believe in their abil­ity in their “com­pete” level.

“I think we could’ve had a lit­tle more killer in­stinct,” John Carl­son told re­porters af­ter Washington went out in six games in last year’s Eastern Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals to Pittsburgh.

The series against Toronto gave no one a rea­son to believe the Cap­i­tals have found that “killer in­stinct” yet — their “com­pete” level.

If they want to see what it looks like, just look across the ice Thurs­day night at the op­po­nent.


Since the Pittsburgh Pen­guins elim­i­nated them from the play­offs last sea­son, the Washington Cap­i­tals have fo­cused on the changes needed to make a deeper run.

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