Are we having fun yet?
The Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins haven’t provided much merriment through six games of the tightest playoff series in NHL history. There have been few laughs or light-hearted moments. Instances of glee have been fleeting, followed by more high anxiety and tense nerves.
I have never gone whitewater rafting, but I imagine this series is comparable to that sort of “fun,” the thrill of maneuvering through rapids while on the edge of your seat, the threat of danger never far away. This ride comes to an end Wednesday night for whichever team makes the crucial mistakes at inopportune times, crashing and capsizing and catapulting into the offseason.
Capitals coach Dale Hunter said his team should enjoy Game 7 at TD Garden. Judging by the Caps’ demeanor Tuesday at the Kettler Ice Complex, the players have bought in.
“This has been a blast so far,” defenseman Karl Alzner said after practice. “It’s one of the more fun series I’ve ever played in … Everything’s been so tough all the way through, it really keeps you into the series, and I think everybody’s enjoying themselves quite a bit.”
Everybody except the fans. Games 2, 4 and 5 resulted in Caps victories, but they were draining affairs that produced relief more than anything. There weren’t many happy emotions in Games 1, 3 and 6, either, delivering the same drama without the payoff. The pain was only deepened when two of the losses occurred in overtime.
So the Caps have to excuse those of us who don’t believe this experience is particularly pleasant. Yes, it has been entertaining and thrilling. But we’re not amused. We’d prefer a couple of easy victories along the way, like from the Caps of yore.
“Close games are just the way it’s been,” center Brooks Laich said. “We played in a lot of tight games in the regular season, too. A couple of years ago, the way we played, we were looking for 5-2 wins and stuff like that. Now we’re comfortable with 2-1 games and 3-2 games.”
They’re also comfortable headed back to Boston, where they’re 2-1 this series after going 2-0 during the regular season. That success, along with home teams’ struggles in the first round this year (16-28 through Monday), gives Washington a calm confidence that’s impossible to miss.
Playing on the road could be a blessing in disguise. The Caps are 1-3 in Game 7s at Verizon Center since 2008. They won’t face the pressure that accompanies a high seed like the defending Stanley Cup champions. Washington wasn’t supposed to make the playoffs and it wasn’t supposed to advance. So let the Bruins worry about disappointing their raucous fans in a do-or-die scenario.
“Obviously, Boston’s a tough rink to play in,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “But I think it suits our team well because it brings us down to a level where we don’t try to do too much. We don’t try to be too fancy. I think we’ve been guilty of that in front of our home crowd a bit, letting our emotions get to us with the noise of the crowd.”
But how can players have fun, knowing that the entire season hangs in the balance? “You just try to tune people out and just play,” forward Joel Ward said. “Like you’re a little kid again. You just react.”
Laich said the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win. But the consequences can’t be at the forefront of players’ minds. “You can’t let yourself come unglued thinking it’s Game 7 and so much is on the line,” he said. “Just relax and play the best you can. Live for the shift ahead of you and really simplify your world that way.”
I guess that can be fun for them.
But it can be torture for the rest of us.