Nothing good ever happens to the Washington Capitals after midnight. That’s been pretty well established over the decades, hasn’t it? The four-overtime game against the New York Islanders in 1987, the quadruple-OT game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in ‘96, the triple-OT game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2003 (if, indeed, it reached the witching hour) — all crushing losses, two of them season-enders.
And now we have Wednesday night/Thursday morning’s 2-1 heartbreaker against the New York Rangers to add to the list. It was great while it lasted, all 114 minutes, 41 seconds of it, but in the end it became just another painful memory, another reminder that it’s always the Other Guys who win marathons like this.
When you play hockey for six periods, as the two teams did at deafening Verizon Center, “it becomes a mental game,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “I thought the longer it went, the more our team had an advantage. We have a tough group mentally.”
One of these days, the clock will strike 12, and the Capitals will be the tougher group mentally — and then maybe their postseason luck will change. In fact, it looked for much of overtime like that time might have come. In the first OT, especially, they swarmed the New York end, and Troy Brouwer and Alex Ovechkin had to-die-for scoring chances, right on Henrik Lundqvist’s doorstep. But Brouwer fired wide, and Ovie clanged one off the post, and the teams skated on … and on.
Then Martin Gaborik, hunkering down in the slot, whipped the puck past a defenseless Braden Holtby two periods later, and the series swung back to the Rangers. They now lead 2-1, with Game 4 set for 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Verizon Center. That one, at least, should end before midnight, though we can’t be 100 percent sure.
“It’s just one game” was a common refrain afterward — on both sides. But it wasn’t, of course. It was nearly two games. A twinbill. And so the question for the Caps is: How long does it linger? Can they clear their heads of it in the next two days and keep themselves in the series? Or is Game 3 destined to be one of those beginning-of-the-end-type games that foretells the final result?
It probably won’t take long to find out Saturday, but we may already know the answer. This Capitals club, after all, has proved remarkably resilient in the playoffs — uncharacteristically so. They’ve yet to drop two in a row, even after losing twice to Boston in overtime. And more than one player made a point of mentioning the Game 3 loss to the Bruins, on the very same ice, that put the team in a similar 2-1 hole.
“We were in this position in the last series,” Brouwer said. “We have confidence in ourselves. … We just held them to one goal for almost two full hockey games. If we keep playing patient hockey, we’ll be successful.”
Besides, it’s hard to place too much importance on any of these games, win or lose, because they tend to be so indistinguishable from one another. It was the same in the first round. One club would get the “W,” but nobody was dominating anybody. Heck, in nine of Capitals’ 10 playoff games, the margin of victory has been a single goal.
But this will be the Caps’ biggest test yet, not just because it’s such a downer to lose the longest game you’ve ever played, but also because they easily could have won and, with a third straight victory Saturday, taken control of the series.
In one sense, though, nothing has changed. As Brooks Laich said, “Dale [Hunter] told us beforehand that it was going to be a grinding game, and it was — to great lengths.” And Game 4 — and any subsequent games — figure to be the same. This is the way the Capitals play now, the way they’ve reinvented themselves. You just don’t get the sense they’re as easily deterred as they’ve been in the past (e.g. a year ago, when they were swept by Tampa Bay).
Asked about his missed opportunity in the first OT, Brouwer said you can’t dwell on it, “you’ve got to move on. You can’t be thinking about what might have been.”
The Caps would be wise to take a similar approach to Game 4. They’re only down 2-1 in the series. The only lost one game. Even though it felt like more.