Why all the smiles?

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PHILADELPHIA – “A win is a win is a win” – that was the message on Twitter from young Capitals defenseman John Carlson. He’s right – and the fact that he and his teammates clinched a playoff berth Tuesday night with a 5-4 shootout win at the Flyers is something worth celebrating for the team and its fans.

But what was curious after the game was just how generally positive the Caps were about blowing a three-goal lead. There was talk about “character” and how Washington showed something by bouncing back to tie the score late.

“The character has never been questioned I don’t think about our group,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Added forward Jason Chimera: “I think it’s a good mental victory for us as a group.”

Is it really? Sure, if the end justifies the means the Caps escaped with two points and are guaranteed to play at least four first-round playoff games as a result of this victory. But pardon some glass-half-empty thinking here: Is it good mentally to cough up a 3-0 lead on the road to a team you could very likely meet in the playoffs and possibly the Eastern Conference finals?

Consider for a second that if this were a playoff game, the Caps probably would have lost. There’s room for argument there after Marcus Johansson’s tying goal with 3:19 left, but the Flyers still got more chances the rest of the way and likely would have continued to dominate 5-on-5 had the game gone on like that instead of 4-on-4 and then a shootout. (For the record, 5-on-5 the Caps were outshot 32-19.)

The talk from Caps players and Boudreau was optimistic because of the end result. One more save by Brian Boucher and a goal by Claude Giroux would have a lot of feelings around – that’s simply the nature of sports. Still, looking at the body of work that was this game, it wasn’t pretty – even in bursting out to a lead Washington wasn’t exactly controlling the play.

But veterans like Mike Knuble understand that. Even he was pretty positive but made sure to note there were some important lessons to take from Tuesday night.

“I think you do wanna try to take something away from each game and it’s – get ’em down and you can’t take your foot off the accelerator, and we let ’em right back in the game and just kinda sat back and figured they’d just play it out,” Knuble said. “Then the momentum starts and you’re playing on the road – you work harder at that point when you’re up 3-0. You’ve gotta really play even better, even harder, even more deliberate and take care of the puck even better and that’s something we kinda took a step back from doing.”

Typically lessons like this are better learned in defeat. And while a win is a win, that can often mask flaws, in this case the inability to step on the throat of an evenly matched opponent on the road.

And if the Caps blow a similar lead in the playoffs by sitting back and getting outplayed, many might wish they had sacrificed these two points for something much more important – one of 16 victories necessary to capture a Stanley Cup.

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