- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.

Sorry, that’s the best I can do for you after this latest chapter in the continuing saga between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins. If you’ve survived the first six games — in one of the most closely contested series in NHL history — then maybe you can make it through one more. If not, I’ve got a number for you to call: 911.

The Bruins saw to it that the series would go the distance Sunday with a 4-3 overtime victory at Verizon Center. It was the third time the teams had battled into OT and the sixth — six for six — the winning margin had been a single goal. The latter, according to the league, has never happened in a seven-game series. So whatever else transpires Wednesday night in Boston, this postseason matchup is a Certified Classic.

Of course, if you’re a long-suffering Capitals fan, that probably isn’t much consolation. Indeed, it’s only natural if you’re feeling a bit queasy right now (coupled, perhaps, with an unsettling sense of deja vu). The Caps, after all, were hoping to rid themselves of an attic full of ghosts in Game 6. Not only were they trying to close out a series at the first opportunity, something they’ve struggled mightily with since returning to the playoffs four years ago, they were trying to do it by winning games on back-to-back days, something that also has been their undoing in recent seasons.

Troy Brouwer (20) of the Washington Capitals takes a shot against the Boston Bruins in the first period of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 6 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Sunday, April 22, 2012. (Rod Lamkey Jr/The Washington Times)
Troy Brouwer (20) of the Washington Capitals takes a shot against the ... more >

And when Alex Ovechkin scored on a one-timer off a faceoff with 4:52 left in regulation, tying it 3-3 and all but blowing the lid off the building, it looked like the Capitals might actually pull it off. As Joel Ward put it, “After Ovie scored that goal, we felt good about our chances. It just happened so quickly.”

“It” was a turnover by Nicklas Backstrom — terrific most of the afternoon — that led to Tyler Seguin’s break-in on a defenseless Braden Holtby. Sequin waited patiently for Holtby to go down and then slid the puck into the net. On to Boston.

Where — if we’re being honest here — who knows what lies in store? The series has defied prediction. Few foresaw the six tighter-than-tight games we’ve seen. Few envisioned that Holtby, the unknown 22-year-old, would, in his first playoff series, hold his own against veteran Tim Thomas. And few imagined the Capitals would win two of the first three at TD Garden, as hard as the Bruins are to beat there.

Thus my recommendation to breathe in, breathe out and repeat as necessary. Home ice, as we’ve seen, has meant little to these clubs.

“It’ll be nice to go into that building with a little less pressure on us and just a screw-you attitude,” Karl Alzner said.

It certainly worked out all right for the Caps in Games 2 and 5. And just remember: The Bruins‘ one home victory wasn’t accomplished in regulation. Even that could have gotten away from them if the puck had bounced a little differently.

Besides, it’s never easy to kill the king, and the B’s, I’ll just remind you, are the defending Stanley Cup champs. They skated furiously in the first period Sunday, jumping in front 2-1 and giving themselves several other chances to create a bigger cushion. But Capitals weathered some loose defensive play — the kind they’d mostly avoided in the first five games — and kept coming back (thanks to goals by Mike Green, Jason Chimera and finally Ovechkin). A lot of it was Holtby, who helped his teammates overome their early skittishness with some acrobatic stops.

Despite the kid’s brilliance, Game 7 appeared imminent when Andrew Ference flicked in a rebound with 8:03 to go in the third to put the Bruins ahead 3-2. Surely, the B’s could hang onto this lead and return the series to TD Garden. But then Ovie sent it to OT, and the Caps had new life.

“If we’d had another three or four minutes in that period,” Alzner said, “we probably could have scored another one” and wrapped up the series.

But enough with the woulda, coulda, shouldas. The Capitals now have another 60 minutes to undo the damage and finish what they started. Always, it seems, they have to do it the hard way … if, indeed, they do it at all. It’s time, long past time, for No. 8 and his mates to change that — and avoid going through another offseason like the past four, one filled with regret, soul searching and who knows what else.