Nate Schmidt let out a drawn-out, guttural, reactionary groan when reminded that the Washington Capitals could have ended their first-round playoff series with the Philadelphia Flyers by winning on Wednesday.
“Would we have liked to close it out in four or five or whatever it may be?” Schmidt asked. “Yeah, you want to win the series when you can win the series.”
That first opportunity passed by in Game 4, when the Capitals held the three-game lead in the best-of-seven series yet lost, 2-1. The second opportunity evaporated on Friday, when a fluke goal and an empty-netter led to a 2-0 loss.
Such a task now leads Washington back to Philadelphia, where the Flyers, following a pair of victories, remain confident they will eventually find first-round success.
So, too, are the Capitals, who believe they’re a play away from tilting the series in their favor.
“You’ve got to go out and win a hockey game,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol told reporters on Saturday. “Our group’s been confident all year. We know what we are, we know what we’re about. Along the way, we can make a few adjustments here and there, but at the core, we know exactly what we are and we believe in that.”
What the Flyers have been, at least, is opportunistic. They dictated the tone and tenor of their first elimination game, countering a lethargic opponent with a power-play goal and sound play at even strength.
Michal Neuvirth, who replaced Steve Mason in net for Game 4, allowed one goal on 31 shots. He responded by making 44 saves, a team record for the most in a regulation playoff game, in Friday’s shutout.
They have also been fortunate. The go-ahead goal in Game 5 was scored when a pass by Ryan White deflected off the inside of Capitals defenseman Taylor Chorney’s left skate and into an open net. Had it not, the game appeared destined for an untold number of overtimes; with the Flyers only accounting for 11 shots on goal, it would have simply been a matter of when Neuvirth finally broke.
“He played a great game,” said Capitals right wing Justin Williams. “Sometimes, you tip your cap and say, ‘Great game.’ We know in the long run that if we play the way that we can, if we play the way that we did last night, for the most part, something right is going to go in our direction, and we can’t get frustrated if it doesn’t.”
Hakstol remained vigilantly supportive of his players, noting earlier in the series, even as the losses compounded, that he was pleased with their effort. Only after Game 3, a 6-1 loss that included five power-play goals by the Capitals, did he show a slight crack, acknowledging that the “formula hasn’t been too successful, so we’ll look at it.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz has shown equal resolve in his team’s approach. He said on Saturday that the performance a day earlier was its most complete postseason effort since Game 7 of the first-round series against the New York Islanders last season despite the outcome.
“Systematically, you have to break teams down shift after shift after shift after shift,” Trotz said. “If we’re able to do that and continue what we’ve done over the last four periods, then I think our chances of success are pretty good.”
Washington had never claimed a 3-0 lead in a playoff series until this one, but has had a two-game series lead five times since Alex Ovechkin joined the team in 2005. It eventually lost four of them, including the second-round series with the New York Rangers a year ago.
After Wednesday’s loss, Trotz told his players that he wished he could have congratulated them and told him he’d see them on Saturday. With an extra night jammed between Game 6 and Game 7, Trotz’s hope for Sunday is that he’s not telling them he’ll see them again three days later.
“It’s coming down to just getting the job done,” right wing Tom Wilson said on Friday night. “We’ve talked about just about everything, and I’m pretty sick and tired of talking about Philly, so let’s just get the job done.”