What makes the Stanley Cup playoffs so different from other tournaments is its unpredictability, and now the Capitals face an uncertain future after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the eighth-seeded Canadiens.
This year’s bracket is no different. In the Eastern Conference, fourth-seeded Pittsburgh is the only team with home-ice advantage to advance so far, with Atlantic Division champion New Jersey and Northeast Division champ Buffalo getting bounced by teams that had to scrap just to qualify for the postseason.
Now the team that outpaced the entire conference is facing its own ordinary end, as the Capitals face their first true must-win game of the season Wednesday night at Verizon Center.
During the last few weeks of the regular season, Washington turned in some of its worst efforts against teams playing for their playoff lives, unable to match their opponent’s intensity.
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That trend carried over into their first-round series against Montreal, as the Caps surrendered two early goals in both Games 5 and 6, allowing the desperate Canadiens to dictate the style of play and letting goaltender Jaroslav Halak carry the load. When the Capitals have kept the games close, they have been able to use their speed to overmatch Montreal, but the leads have allowed the Habs to hang back and dare the Caps to break through the neutral zone.
Now, there is no more room for error for the Capitals if they want to keep their Stanley Cup hopes alive, as they must turn in a good 60-minute effort on Wednesday, or head home as victims of one of the largest upsets in Stanley Cup playoff history.
Certainly, in Washington’s checkered playoff past, there have been some stunning upsets.
The 1985-86 edition of the Caps — the top regular-season squad in team history until last year’s club — blew a 2-1 series lead and a lead in Game 4 against the New York Rangers before falling in six games in that year’s Patrick Division Finals.
The next year, Washington lost a 3-1 series edge against the New York Islanders in the first round, falling in four overtimes in the deciding seventh game.
In the 1992 playoffs, the Caps lost another 3-1 edge in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, falling at the Capital Centre in Game 7.
And even last year, the Capitals lost a 2-0 series lead in the second round against the Pens and fell in an ugly performance in Game 7.
But a loss to Montreal — a team that finished 33 points behind Washington during the regular season — at a time where the Capitals perhaps have never had a more prominent place in the local sports scene would seemingly trump them all.
For this year’s team, the sudden change of momentum has left the Caps looking for answers before the deciding contest, especially with Halak seemingly engrained in the team’s head.
In his postgame remarks Monday, captain Alexander Ovechkin said the Caps always seem to create a monster in the opposing net.
“We make goalies feel unbelievable,” he told reporters. “When we played against Philly [in 2008], [Martin] Biron was good. [Henrik] Lundqvist was good [in 2009]. And this year we just made Halak feel good. It’s always this team being good and we’ll find a way to break it and win it. No panic, nothing.”
Of course, some of Ovechkin’s teammates were still talking about Halak’s efforts.
“We’re just going to keep going and we’ll see if he’s able to keep that up,” Eric Fehr told the Associated Press. “We’re going to go home and we’re going to try and put even more pucks on him and see if he can keep them in it.”
But in order to extend their season into the second round, the Capitals will need to make some basic adjustments.
First of all, Washington cannot afford to give up two goals early, which completely takes the Caps out of their style of play and forces them to try and beat a goaltender that clearly is in their psyche. Montreal is quite content to hang back and let the Capitals take shots at their netminder, but not allowing many odd-man breaks the Caps have cashed in on early in the series.
The Caps also need to simplify their struggling power play, taking more shots and less passing, as the team has on several occasions has been accused by coach Bruce Boudreau of being too “cute” with the puck. When the league’s top-scoring team has connected just once on nearly a complete game’s worth of play with the man-advantage, the team needs to just create traffic and front and take shots instead of looking to set up the perfect pass.
And, perhaps just as important, the Caps have to deal with an opponent that has been playing desperate hockey for several weeks now, as Montreal did not secure a postseason berth until its final regular season game of the year.
“Everybody picked [the Capitals] to win and they’re supposed to win,” Montreal forward Michael Cammalleri told reporters. “The pressure’s on them but at the same time we don’t feel any moral victories. We’re going to go to Washington excited about playing a hockey game and we’re going to play our best game and let the results take care of themselves.”
So, after eight months of work, 82 regular-season games and six more postseason contests, the Caps’ playoff hopes have been boiled down to just 60 minutes of hockey Wednesday. Game 7 will determine if Washington advances to the second round for the second straight season, or face an offseason filled with questions and perhaps a lost opportunity to capture the team’s first Stanley Cup.