The Washington Capitals aren't as photogenic as they used to be. We may never, for instance, see Alexander Ovechkin score another goal while lying on his back. But what they've evolved into is much more pleasing to the eyes. They've become, in baseball parlance, a tough out.
And let's face it, until you become a tough out – in any sport – you're never going to accomplish a whole lot. You're never going to win the biggest games. You're never going to come away with the grand prize. Individual awards will be within your reach, but after a while those become almost monuments to your Greater Inadequacy.
A year ago, the Capitals weren't a tough out. Once Tampa Bay took a 2-0 series lead in Round 2, it was timberrrrrr! It was the same the season before, when Montreal ran off three straight wins – two of them at Verizon Center – to knock them out of the playoffs. In boxing, this is known as having a glass chin.
But these Capitals aren't those Capitals. We've been reminded of that time and again in these playoffs. We were reminded of it in the Boston series, when the Caps kept coming back from potentially demoralizing losses and ultimately out-gutted the defending champs – on the road, in overtime – in Game 7. And we were reminded of it again Saturday, when they rebounded from a triple-overtime defeat to nip the New York Rangers 3-2 and pull even at two games apiece.
"I don't think there was a doubt in anybody's mind that that game would have any effect on this game," Braden Holtby said after stopping 18 of 20 Rangers shots and keeping the visitors off the scoreboard in the third period. "[That Game 3 loss] wasn't the end of the world. We had two days off [to regroup]."
The Capitals of the recent past might not have been able to shake off the hangover from Game 3. They might have been too busy feeling sorry for themselves . . . or cursing their fate . . . or forgetting there was still much hockey to be played. The current Caps, it seems, aren't susceptible to such self-defeatism, which is what has made them – all together now – a tough out.
Their tough-outness could be measured Saturday in their 26 blocked shots – to seven for their opponents – and in the fact that, even though they had a couple of defensive lapses, they never trailed, not for a single second. Ovechkin got them started with a blast off the usually reliable glove of Henrik Lundqvist, and scores by Nicky Backstrom and Mike Green, who had the game-winner on the power play with 5:48 left, kept the Rangers from ever getting the upper hand.
"It just shows the heart a lot of these guys are playing with, " Jay Beagle said, "– blocking shots and putting everything on the line. That's the way we win."
To which Backstrom added, "This really a step in the right direction. After that long game the other night, to be able to find a way to win . . . ."
This is what a Tough Out does: It finds a way. And finding a way against the Rangers – like the Bruins before them – is no easy matter. John Tortorella's team grinded its way to the best record in the conference this season, and you're not going to beat them with picturesque, made-for-"SportsCenter" tic-tac-toe goals. You're only going to beat them with hard work and harder hits and a simple refusal to give in.
The Capitals of '08, '09, '10 and '11 would have had a hard time winning that kind of series. Those Caps were appealing, in their youthfully exuberant way, but they also were maddeningly irresponsible, and it invariably cost them. These Caps, the Dale Hunter Caps, have traded "appealing" for "admirable"; they're doing whatever's required, especially the unglamorous stuff like taking an occasional slapshot in the abdomen. And look where it's gotten them. They've eliminated the second seed and now find themselves in a three-game series against the top seed.
They might have to play the first of those three games without Ovechkin, who could face a suspension for demolishing the Rangers' Dan Girardi in the second period. Of course, they faced the same situation in Game 4 against the Bruins, which Backstrom had to sit out after an ill-timed crosscheck. They persevered minus Nicky, winning 2-1, and it would be a mistake to think they can't do the same in Ovie's absence. They are, after all, a Tough Out now, as the NHL is discovering.
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