The Washington Capitals had a singular focus after putting the Bruins on the brink of an early exit from the playoffs: Don’t go back to Boston and let the defending Stanley Cup champions up off the mat.
Home-ice advantage at Verizon Center for a potential elimination game was all the Caps could have asked for. But Sunday’s 4-3 overtime loss in Game 6 left them to ponder a golden opportunity blown.
“The losses like that are deflating. It’s tough. But you never would have thought that we’d win the series against Boston in six games,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You’d think it’d go to the end anyways. We weren’t getting too far ahead of ourselves. We knew that it was going to be tough.”
It’s exponentially tougher now than it was after an emotional victory in Game 5 in Boston had the champs on the brink. Sure, the Bruins have been here before, but the Caps acknowledged they put themselves in a great spot with the chance to clinch.
Again Sunday, they showed the ability to hang with the Bruins, even if it was more “free-wheeling” according to forward Matt Hendricks. It’s the first time in NHL history that the first six games of a playoff series have been decided by one goal, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
But the Caps were far from the most desperate team. In desperate moments, such as two clutch penalty kills and Alex Ovechkin’s tying goal late in the third, the potential was there. Boston, though, was playing for its season. It was exactly what everyone expected out of the Bruins.
“It was do-or-die for them, so they came out hard,” Hendricks said. “Stanley Cup champs last year. They’re not gonna die easy.”
Tyler Seguin gave the Bruins life not only with the overtime winner, taking advantage of a turnover by Nicklas Backstrom, but with the play to set up Boston’s go-ahead goal in the third.
Coach Dale Hunter credited Seguin for capitalizing with his speed, but this was a painful case of the Caps killing themselves with an ill-timed error.
“I was trying to hit Marcus [Johansson] there but I missed the pass, so bad turnover by me,” Backstrom said. “We’ve got new chance on Wednesday, just got to refocus and make sure we play our best game.”
Judging by the somber mood in the home locker room at Verizon Center, the stunned Caps want to move forward from this loss as quickly as possible. Game 7 isn’t until Wednesday, but it would almost be better for Washington to play it seconds after Seguin’s goal, fatigue be damned.
“It’s tough. We lost the game,” Hendricks said. “But it’s a best of seven, so it’s do-or-die now.”
Needing until the second-to-last game of the regular season to clinch a playoff spot, the Caps learned all about must-win nights, even comparing regular-season games in February to Game 7.
“The players, we’ve been grinding it out every night down the stretch,” Hunter said. “Game 7 is a grinding kind of game. We’re used to playing it. Every game here has been a tough game.”
The Caps and Bruins each had chances to turn the tide of the series. Ovechkin’s goal looked to be one of those moments, but Seguin’s heroics after Backstrom’s turnover flipped things back in Boston’s favor moving forward.
“I don’t think it’s going to be hard or it’s going to be easy. It’s gonna be a 50-50 game, 50-50 chances,” Ovechkin said. “You can see how we play: Every game it’s one goal, and this going to be game that win the series, so we just have to play. Right now, we’re sad, but tomorrow’s a new day.”
And Wednesday’s a new chance to advance to the second round. It seems only fitting that in a series this tight that one winner-take-all game is needed.
“We knew it was going to go long series,” Alzner said. “It’s our turn to win it now.”
• Stephen Whyno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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