PITTSBURGH – All the Washington Capitals needed was a little nihilism.
Game 4 of their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins was one of the most egregious missed opportunities in franchise history. The Capitals had won Game 3, after losing the first two games at home. The Penguins were missing captain Sidney Crosby and top-line winger Conor Sheary. If Washington was going to get back into the series, if they were finally going to defeat their tormenters in the playoffs, Game 4 was essential.
And then they lost, 3-2, to go down 3-1 in the series. It’s a deficit that’s only been overcome 28 times in the history of the National Hockey League.
The Washington Capitals, forever finding new and inventive ways to absolutely blow it in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the graveyard of postseason failures, “Couldn’t Beat Pittsburgh Without Crosby” was being engraved on a tombstone next to “Nick Bonino In OT” and “Jaroslav Halak.” Hell, there was a burgeoning cottage industry of “Trade Ovechkin” stories being written.
So here’s what they did, collectively, after Game 4 and after two periods of Game 5:
They stopped caring about losing.
Everyone was saying they had already lost. That Game 5 was going to be a funeral on their home ice, especially with Crosby back in the lineup. They they looked Death in the eye, and decided there were no stakes.
“We had absolutely nothing to lose. That’s what we’ve been telling ourselves lately. To just go out and have fun,” said center Nicklas Backstrom.
“We thought that was a game we should have had. But we didn’t play well in Game 4,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “We took a deep breath. We regrouped ourselves, and said let’s get after in in Game 5.”
They were patient in Game 5. Smarter in the neutral zone. Smarter with the puck, including with their shot selection against Marc-Andre Fleury. Like Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said after the game: Too many lazy, easily stopped shots can build a goalie’s wall and lead to your own frustration. But frustration was mostly what the Capitals had experienced in the series: Playing well, but without results.
“In parts of the first two games, we played really, really well and didn’t get rewarded for it,” said Niskanen.
But in the third period of Game 5, the rewards started arriving. They scored three goals, rallying for a 4-2 win, outplaying the Penguins in the final 20 minutes by a significant margin.
“That was one of those moments where we could have just wilted. We could have packed it in and said ‘man, this ain’t going well,’” said Niskanen.
“But we just kept playing and playing, and here we are, playing in a Game 7.”
The Capitals’ dominating 5-2 victory over the Penguins in Monday night’s Game 6 was the culmination of that attitude adjustment. The apprehension was gone. The reservations were gone. The debilitating “here we go again” nature of the Capitals’ playoff history was gone, because almost nothing went wrong. The only thing more silent than the Penguins’ offense in their meek 18-shot effort was the crowd at PPG Paints Arena, thanks to the Capitals’ overwhelming effort.
The Capitals forced a Game 7, after looking like they were going out in five.
But they needed that lowest point to reach these heights.
“There’s nothing more urgent than when you’ve got your backs against the wall, in any walk of life. It’s human nature,” said coach Barry Trotz. “[That] brought some focus to it. We’ve got good leadership.”
They needed to peer into the abyss to find their focus.
“I think obviously with the history in this locker room, what’s happened in the past, it can cause you to grip your stick a little bit tighter, cause you to just not make the normal plays that we’re capable of making. In my mind, we’ve seen that it hasn’t worked when we play like that. We’re a pretty loose group when we’re playing well,” said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk recently.
“We have a lot of guys here who, when they’re not thinking, they’re almost playing better.”
Game 7 is Wednesday night, and among the many mysteries surrounding it – such as what version of Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins in general we’re going to see in D.C. – is whether or not the Capitals are going to have their brains switched back on.
Because now they’re not a corpse that’s twitching. Now, they’re one win away from going farther in the playoffs than Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson and Alzner have ever gotten. They’re one win away from soothing the franchise’s painful Game 7 loss on home ice to the Penguins in 2009.
They’re no longer a team with nothing to lose because they’ve already lost.
They’re a team with everything to gain, even if it still feels like they’re on borrowed time.
“Anything can happen,” said Backstrom, “but it’s right where we want it right now.”
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