- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 28, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

What makes the Stanley Cup playoffs so different from other tournaments is its unpredictability, and now the Capitals face an uncertain future after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the eighth-seeded Canadiens.

This year’s bracket is no different. In the Eastern Conference, fourth-seeded Pittsburgh is the only team with home-ice advantage to advance so far, with Atlantic Division champion New Jersey and Northeast Division champ Buffalo getting bounced by teams that had to scrap just to qualify for the postseason.

Now the team that outpaced the entire conference is facing its own ordinary end, as the Capitals face their first true must-win game of the season Wednesday night at Verizon Center.

During the last few weeks of the regular season, Washington turned in some of its worst efforts against teams playing for their playoff lives, unable to match their opponent’s intensity.

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That trend carried over into their first-round series against Montreal, as the Caps surrendered two early goals in both Games 5 and 6, allowing the desperate Canadiens to dictate the style of play and letting goaltender Jaroslav Halak carry the load. When the Capitals have kept the games close, they have been able to use their speed to overmatch Montreal, but the leads have allowed the Habs to hang back and dare the Caps to break through the neutral zone.

Now, there is no more room for error for the Capitals if they want to keep their Stanley Cup hopes alive, as they must turn in a good 60-minute effort on Wednesday, or head home as victims of one of the largest upsets in Stanley Cup playoff history.

Certainly, in Washington’s checkered playoff past, there have been some stunning upsets.

The 1985-86 edition of the Caps — the top regular-season squad in team history until last year’s club — blew a 2-1 series lead and a lead in Game 4 against the New York Rangers before falling in six games in that year’s Patrick Division Finals.

The next year, Washington lost a 3-1 series edge against the New York Islanders in the first round, falling in four overtimes in the deciding seventh game.

In the 1992 playoffs, the Caps lost another 3-1 edge in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, falling at the Capital Centre in Game 7.

And even last year, the Capitals lost a 2-0 series lead in the second round against the Pens and fell in an ugly performance in Game 7.

But a loss to Montreal — a team that finished 33 points behind Washington during the regular season — at a time where the Capitals perhaps have never had a more prominent place in the local sports scene would seemingly trump them all.

For this year’s team, the sudden change of momentum has left the Caps looking for answers before the deciding contest, especially with Halak seemingly engrained in the team’s head.

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