With the Washington Capitals facing a 3-1 deficit in their series against the New York Rangers, Alex Ovechkin allowed himself a little time to peruse some Internet message boards. What he found was a fan base on the brink of panic with the team on the brink of elimination.
“I go to our fan club message boards, and they say, ‘OK, what’s next? What do we have to do? Trade him. Build a new team,’ ” Ovechkin said. “It’s kind of an interesting situation.”
It’s a tenuous situation, too, but the Caps aren’t letting panic pervade the locker room going into their first real must-win situation of the season Friday night against the New York Rangers. And while the majority of these players know what it’s like to battle back from a 3-1 deficit after last year’s series against the Philadelphia Flyers, what they don’t know is what it’s like to complete the comeback and win the series.
That’s the challenge facing this team - to overcome the odds, history and a sputtering offense and force a return trip Sunday to Madison Square Garden for Game 6.
“We were in this position last year. We seem like we’re a team when our backs are up against the wall, we come to play,” defenseman Mike Green said. “Hopefully that’s the case come [Friday], and hopefully it’s a different outcome at the end of the season.”
Of the 229 teams that have fallen behind 3-1 in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series, only 20 have emerged victorious. Washington has done it once in franchise history, in the 1988 Patrick Division semifinals against the Flyers.
But neither that series victory 21 years ago nor the 9 percent comeback rate is much of a help or hindrance to the Caps.
“Yeah, you can believe in statistics, but I also believe that the impossible can be done,” left wing Donald Brashear said. “It’s possible. You never know what’s gonna happen. What if it’s now?”
Despite the numbers, the Caps can ponder forcing a Game 7 after doing so last year.
In Game 4 last season, the Caps dealt with a stomach punch of a loss - a double-overtime goal by the Flyers’ Mike Knuble. Wednesday night’s defeat in New York didn’t end with the same devastating blow, but the letdown of outplaying the Rangers and coming up short has forced the Caps to look at last year as a road map.
“Like in life, you have to do what you have to do. We’re one game away from elimination, so we have to play with a sense of urgency that we’ve never played before,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “But if we dwell on last year, then we’ll end up where we were last year. We gotta dwell on what’s in front of us.”
Where the Caps were at the end of last season was on the losing end of a Game 7 in overtime. Players can draw hope from their ability to get back in that series, but that image of seeing their season end in sudden death is serving as extra motivation, even with Game 7 seeming so distant.
“It’s such a long season [and] it’s such a lot of hard work that it would be a shame to have that happen,” Green said. “We’re gonna do everything in our will and power to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
To make that happen, Boudreau and his players said, the Caps don’t need to overhaul their system. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has been dominant, and the Caps have outshot the Rangers 149-99 and carried the play for most of the series.
Boudreau called coming back against Lundqvist a “daunting task,” but defenseman Brian Pothier said the Caps just have to commit fewer mistakes to open up more offensive opportunities.
“I think it’s encouraging how many chances we’re getting,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before we get some goals and get some results.”
A lot of results were expected of the Caps this season. Whereas last year Washington made an improbable run just to make the playoffs, this time the team finished the regular season with the fourth-best record in the league.
But even with a different set of circumstances - a more defensive-minded series, a hot opposing goaltender - the Caps are drawing a lot from last year’s experience to prevent their season from ending Friday night.
“If you look at last year’s series, it wasn’t until Game 5 that we really started to play. When we were facing elimination, we just almost played carefree,” forward Brooks Laich said. “This year I think the same sort of thing’s gonna happen. We know if we don’t play our best game [Friday] that we’re going home.”