- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

They were two heavily outnumbered Flyers fans in a Metro car filled with red, and one greeted the other — just imagining here — the way Stanley greeted Dr. Livingstone deep in the African jungle.

“I’m hoping there are a few more of us at the game today,” one said. “I went to Game 1, and there was hardly anybody rooting for Philly. Maybe some of the Caps fans will be discouraged about being down 3-1 [in the playoff series] and sell their tickets.”

Not a chance, Cheesesteak Breath. For the Capitals faithful, it was just another elimination game in a month filled with them, another opportunity to dress up in Caps Carmine and pledge allegiance to their team.

The Capitals refused to be discouraged either, going into Game 5 — no doubt because they, too, have a lot of experience in these situations. They don’t have experience in much else, being so young, but they are familiar, all too familiar, with these no-tomorrow scenarios. In fact, they’ve gotten quite good at them.

Such was the case again yesterday, when the Caps not only beat the Flyers 3-2 to send the series back to Philadelphia and also (1) led from start to finish; (2) enjoyed the lightheaded feeling, albeit briefly, of being ahead by two goals; and (3) didn’t muck it up at the end by, oh, forgetting that they’re only allowed six men on the ice.

Had it not been for that gaffe late in Game 4, the Capitals would be returning to Broad Street looking to close things out rather than to just stay alive. But hey, that’s what makes them the Cardiac Caps, right? Or should we call them the Washington Arrhythmia Section?

As Brooks Laich put it, “As long as we have a pulse, you just can’t count us out. … We live to play another day. We figured going into this series we’d have to win at least one on the road. In the playoffs, you have to be able to do that.”

The Capitals nearly did that Thursday night at Wachovia Center, only to let it get away in double overtime. Give them credit, though: They learned from their mistake — as they’ve been doing throughout the series. This is, after all, the first time in the playoffs for many of them, an excuse that has been offered after each of the last three losses.

But while the Caps’ youth has certainly been a factor in this first-round matchup, it might not be the most important factor. Indeed, if you’re wondering why they seemed back on their heels for much of the first few games — surprised that “Philly came out so hard at us,” in the words of Matt Cooke — the answer may well be that they hadn’t played a team as good as the Flyers in a while.

Consider: In that miraculous 11-1 streak at the end of the regular season, they played nine games against clubs that didn’t qualify for the playoffs (Atlanta 2, Carolina 2, Florida 2, Tampa Bay 2, Chicago). The other three were against a seven-seed (Calgary) and two eight-seeds (Boston, Nashville).

In other words, the Capitals might have thought they were playing at a high enough level entering the postseason because they’d been winning every night — a natural assumption. But they hadn’t been beating opponents of Philly’s ilk. The Flyers finished with 95 points in the Atlantic Division, the strongest division in the league and the only one to produce four playoff clubs. The Caps finished with 94 points in the Southeast, the weakest division in the league and the only one to produce a single playoff club.

You don’t think that matters — a bunch — at Stanley Cup time? You don’t think it has been a shock to the Capitals’ systems to have to deal, night after night, not just with Philly’s physicality but also with its talent and steely determination?

Only now, in these past two games, have the Caps come to grips with the task at hand. They won Game 1 almost on muscle memory, rallying for three goals in the last period after being decidedly outplayed, and their two efforts after that were sorely lacking. But they’ve turned it up several notches since, beating the Flyers to the puck more often than not and, just as significant, beating them to the check.

“We played better today than we did [in Philadelphia],” said Cristobal Huet, sharp again in goal with 30 stops. “If we can just keep climbing, we have a chance.”

They have a chance, all right, but only that — a chance. Philly will be at its murderous best tomorrow night, not wanting to make another trip to Washington, and Kimmo Timonen will try, one last time, to cast his spell over Alex Ovechkin (much as Esa Tikkanen used to do to the great goal scorers of yesteryear).

That’s the other reason the Capitals have a chance — they have the best player in the league on their side. Ovechkin has been uncharacteristically quiet since scoring the game-winner in the opener, but he’s still Alexander the Great, capable of going on a tear at any moment. The Caps are hoping that tear starts tomorrow, in a building awash in orange.

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