Cap­i­tal up­ris­ing:

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Kevin Allen USA TO­DAY

Wash­ing­ton is ris­ing from its spotty NHL play­off his­tory and be­liev­ing it can win it all.

TAMPA – A run­ning joke for Wash­ing­ton area sports fans for many years has been that ev­ery spring, in our na­tion’s cap­i­tal, cherry blos­soms bloom and the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals wilt.

But this sea­son’s Cap­i­tals ap­pear de­ter­mined to break the cy­cle of post­sea­son fail­ures. The Cap­i­tals turned in an­other strong over­all game to down the Tampa Bay Light­ning 6-2 and claim a 2-0 lead in the best-of­seven East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal.

Two weeks ago, the story was the Cap­i­tals hadn’t been to the con­fer­ence fi­nals in the Alex Ovechkin era. Now, at press time, the Cap­i­tals were two wins from reach­ing the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal for the first time in 20 years.

“We are play­ing good,” said Brett Con­nolly, who scored one of Wash­ing­ton’s goals in Game 2. “They look like they are frus­trated a lit­tle over there, and we have to con­tinue to play hard, keep play­ing fast, and stay on them.”

For­give Wash­ing­ton fans if they don’t know how to act as the se­ries shifts to D.C. for Games 3 and 4.

The Cap­i­tals aren’t just squeak­ing by against the Light­ning. De­spite miss­ing key cen­ter Nick­las Back­strom be­cause of an in­jury, the Cap­i­tals outscored the Light­ning 10-4 in the two games in Tampa. This is a Light­ning team that boasted the league’s No. 1 of­fense in the reg­u­lar sea­son. The Light­ning had one even-strength goal against Wash­ing­ton in two games.

En­thu­si­asm abounds for the Cap­i­tals. It’s as if the Wash­ing­ton play­ers, now with a huge weight lifted off their shoul­ders by escaping the sec­ond round, are play­ing with un­bri­dled con­fi­dence. The Cap­i­tals were 3-0 with­out Back­strom, who is among the NHL’s best cen­ters. They were 7-1 on the road. They over­came a blown of­fi­ci­at­ing call that led to a Light­ning power-play goal.

“A lot of our guys have learned tough lessons,” Wash­ing­ton coach Barry Trotz said.

It’s still un­de­cided what will hap­pen from this point, but the Cap­i­tals, at the very least, are play­ing strong enough to be­lieve they can win it all.

Ovechkin scored his 10th goal of this post­sea­son, and Evgeny Kuznetsov had a goal and two as­sists. But Wash­ing­ton’s suc­cess thus far hasn’t only been about the stars. The Cap- itals had six dif­fer­ent scor­ers in Game 2.

“Ev­ery­one is step­ping up,” Ovechkin said. “We played hard, we played smart and you can see all the four lines did their job. We didn’t force it. We just did our job.”

Af­ter the Game 1 loss, the Light­ning talk was all about how poorly they played. Af­ter Game 2, there was more recog­ni­tion about how sharply the Cap­i­tals are play­ing.

“They’re play­ing re­ally well, tak­ing away a lot of our op­tions and tak­ing away a lot of our speed with their phys­i­cal­ity and de­fen­sive play,” Light­ning de­fense­man Ryan McDon­agh said. “We’ve got to con­tinue to make good de­ci­sions with the puck, play high per­cent­age a lit­tle bit more, and ob­vi­ously spend more time in their end.”

On the morn­ing of Game 2, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper was asked to de­scribe Kuznetsov’s im­por­tance with Back­strom out, and he de­tailed Kuznetsov’s skill pack­age be­fore of­fer­ing un­so­licited that he was most im­pressed by Lars Eller’s per­for­mance in Back­strom’s ab­sence. That seemed prophetic when Eller gen­er­ated a goal and two as­sists in the Game 2 win.

“He’s got all of the qual­i­ties of a play­off-type player,” Trotz said of Eller. “He’s big, he’s strong and he’s got ex­pe­ri­ence. He’s very com­pet­i­tive. He’s got a good skill level and he’s play­ing that way. He’s play­ing to his abil­ity right now. We’ve had peo­ple step up, but he’s one of the guys that has stepped up in a ma­jor way for us. The guys in the room they know how valu­able he is.”


Alex Ovechkin has al­ways been known as the best player to never get to the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal. With the Cap­i­tals in the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals, he has a chance to get there.

The Cap­i­tals are try­ing to make the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal for the first time in 20 years.

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