- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

If you’ve followed the Capitals for very long, you’re familiar with the sense of dread that can well up whenever a playoff game goes into overtime. This dread has been known by many names over the years — Pat LaFontaine, Petr Nedved, Martin St. Louis, Ray Ferraro. All of them have broken the Caps’ hearts in OT (sometimes in quadruple OT), and there are plenty more where they came from.

No, overtime hasn’t been overly kind to the Capitals. That, as much as anything, is why their five-game smackdown of the Rangers in the first round was so impressive. Two of the games, after all, went into OT, and the Caps won both.

More than that, though, they clearly had the upper hand in the extra periods. There was little of the nail-nibbling and breath-holding Capitals fans have come to associate with overtime. In Game 1, Alexander Semin finished off the New Yorkers with a one-time blast past Henrik Lundqvist, and in Game 4, Jason Chimera did the honors by tapping in a loose puck in the crease. In each instance, it was the Rangers who blinked, the Rangers who didn’t take care of business in their own end.

“I can’t think of any glaring chances they had in overtime to score,” Chimera said after practice the other day.” They had some shots, but they were always from the outside. There really weren’t any mad scrambles around our net, either.

“The calmness we had in overtime was great. I thought we controlled the play in both overtimes. It wasn’t like: ‘Holy smokes, this game could go either way.’ We felt we were going to win both.”

How do we explain this miraculous transformation? Consider it another benefit of the Capitals’ new defense-first philosophy. As we’re seeing, their commitment to the grittier aspects of the game doesn’t just make them better at Playoff Hockey, it makes them better at Overtime Hockey.

Think about it: When a game goes into OT, it’s all about hunkering down on ‘D’ and waiting for your opponent to make a mistake. In recent years, though, the Caps’ playing style has been the antithesis of that. They tried to beat you, as often as not, by outscoring you. That doesn’t work too well in sudden death, though. If you give up a goal in overtime, you’re dead. There are no comebacks.

Besides, even when the Caps played responsibly in OT — or attempted to — it was something that was out of character for them, something they weren’t especially good at. They were forcing themselves to become a totally different team. That’s not the case anymore. Now when overtime comes, they just keep doing what they’ve been doing all game.

As Matt Bradley put it: “What we’ve been playing the last half of the year [since the strategy shift] has basically been overtime hockey. And we’ve usually been successful.”

They were successful enough to earn, with a late rush, the first seed in the Eastern Conference. And they were successful enough to beat the Rangers twice in overtime, games that essentially decided the series.

But that’s the playoffs for you. If you don’t win more often than you lose in OT, it’s going to be hard to get a grip on the Stanley Cup. The Chicago Blackhawks, last year’s champs, were 3-1 in overtime in the postseason. The season before, the victorious Pittsburgh Penguins also were also 3-1 in OT in the playoffs. Heck, in ‘06, the Carolina Hurricanes played seven overtime games, winning four, en route to the title.

So the early returns for the Capitals are encouraging. Not only did they make quick work of the Rangers, they out-toughed them in OT. The early returns are particularly encouraging because the two times the Caps have made a deep run in the playoffs — in 1990 (conference finals) and ‘98 (Stanley Cup Final) — they were exceptional in overtime, going a combined 8-2 (3-0 the first year, 5-2 the second).

“The way we play now, it’s so kind of in-your-face,” Jeff Schultz said. “You just can’t take a second off, because anything can happen. It must be frustrating to opposing teams not to be able to get much going [offensively]. We collapse in front of our net and eliminate a lot of scoring chances.”

For so long, the Caps have experienced that frustration themselves. Now they’re doling it out to their opponents. Against the Rangers, overtime was Their Time. The trick, of course, will be to keep winning these games as the competition gets tougher.

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