Six games aren’t enough for Washington Capitals and New York Rangers, just as six weren’t enough for the Caps and Boston Bruins in the first round. And why should they be? Some series are just destined — required, almost — to go the distance. Anything less would shortchange the players, the fans and maybe even history.
We saw the latter in Round 1 — seven one-goal games, a playoffs first. And there’s no telling what we’ll see Saturday night in New York, when the clubs convene to settle this thing once and for all. Let’s hope the Rangers have paid their electricity bill, because Game 7 could last until wee hours.
Game 6 didn’t, though. The Capitals saw to that with their most wall-to-wall effort yet against the New Yorkers. They jumped in front in the first 88 seconds on Alex Ovechkin’s power-play one-timer from the slot, took the Rangers‘ best punches the rest of the way and emerged on the right side of a 2-1 score amid the usual delirium at Verizon Center.
So now the Caps are 60 minutes away from doing what the Los Angeles Kings have already done in the West — knocking off the top two seeds in the conference. How many times has that happened on both sides of the bracket (this early in the proceedings, anyway)?
And as draining as this series has been, Karl Alzner said, “As soon as you hear ‘Game 7,’ you automatically start drawing on that emergency tank. The adrenaline starts to flow, the bumps and bruises stop hurting, the lungs stop hurting. You just want to make sure you push harder than the other team.”
Maybe this is how it has to be for the Capitals. Maybe the only way to shoo all the ghosts out of their attic, all the skeletons in their closet, is by going into Madison Square Garden — as they went into TD Garden two weeks ago — and beating the home team in a winner-take-all game. Maybe that’s how you change the course of a franchise, make the past disappear. If you can win a Game 7 in Boston and another in New York, what can’t you do?
That’s what’s at stake for the Caps — as much as the series itself: the confidence that comes from winning games like that, a confidence all the best teams have … and a confidence they’ve never really known. Survive seventh game No. 2, come out the other side, and perhaps everything changes for them.
Barring some freak galactic occurrence, it’s hard to imagine the next game being much different from the first six. There was no changing the close-checking, low-scoring fingerprint of the Boston series, and this matchup seems to have that same quality about it. When two clubs are playing this responsibly, this disciplined, it’s so hard for one to put the other away.
“These are the games you live to play,” Matt Hendricks said of the finale. “We’re just gonna try to play the same game we’ve been playing: very composed and under control.”
By under control, he meant not being suckered into penalties — the way Jason Chimera, who scored the second Washington goal Wednesday night, refrained from retaliating against the Rangers‘ Brandon Prust late in the second period. Prust was sent to the box for roughing, and the Capitals went on the power play.
“Those are the kind of things that are hard to do — taking punches,” Hendricks said. “But when you do it for the other guys in the [locker] room, it means a lot.”
Once again Wednesday night, young Braden Holtby matched his more illustrious counterpart, Henrik Lundqvist, save for save — and then some. How much more can you say about the kid? In the biggest game of the season (so far), he came within 50.5 seconds of pitching his first playoff shutout, frustrating the Rangers time and again with his gyrations and general refusal to blink.
Not that his teammates have been any sloughing off any. The consistency of their effort, game in and game out, continues to astound — and is what sets this Capitals club apart from its ancestors. These Caps haven’t forgotten to “show up” for any playoff games. These Caps don’t have any “passengers” — empty jerseys just along for the ride. Everybody’s ready to play every night. Everybody’s contributing something to the cause.
That wasn’t the case in seasons past, when they repeatedly made life difficult for themselves by either (a.) getting off to slow starts in series or (b.) being unable to bounce back from defeats — and turning one loss into two losses … and then three losses … and once four losses. Those Capitals teams had no equilibrium. It was almost like they had a multiple-personality disorder, like they couldn’t decide who they were.
The Dale Hunter Capitals have been nothing like that. There were some bumps during the regular season, sure, but once the playoffs began, the Caps knew exactly who they were and what they needed to do: play better no-frills, shot-blocking hockey than their opponents. Not once have they lost consecutive games in this postseason. And only briefly — late in the opener against the Rangers — have they been out of any game.
“It’s hard to get down on yourself when you lose in triple overtime,” Chimera said. “It’s hard to feel bad when you’re playing such good games. It makes it easy to get up for the next game.” And Game 7s are easier still, he added, because “you know you’re going to remember them for the rest of your life.”
The Capitals have finally found a formula that works — after decades of laboratory explosions, billowing clouds of smoke, broken windows and fire alarms. If they’re still standing after Saturday night, there may be no stopping them.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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