- - Tuesday, April 25, 2017

So, as the Washington Capitals prepare to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs, what can we conclude from their difficult six-game series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Apparently, the message is that the Stanley Cup playoffs are hard.

Who knew?

Do observers really think that Capitals fans didn’t get that message last year, or the year before, or the year before that, or, I don’t know, pick a season since Washington fans were first introduced to the playoffs in 1983?

I think Capitals fans know the playoffs are hard by now.

I think they also know that it appears to be harder for some teams rather than others — like the Penguins, for instance, the Capitals opponent in game one Thursday night at the Verizon Center.

It’s not as hard for them as it is for the Capitals.

Washington, a 55-win team with 118 points, the winner of the President’s Trophy for the best record during the regular season, struggled to defeat the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs, a team that had won 40 games, with 95 points.

By the end of the series, Toronto was the “gritty” Maple Leafs.

The Capitals? Desperate.

“It was a tough series,” Marcus Johansson, who scored the game-winning goal, told reporters after the game. “It’s never going to be an easy ride, and you know, I think it’s good for us where we kind of got a start where everything didn’t just go smoothly.”

Five of the six games went to overtime, and at one point during the series, Capitals coaches were considering pulling their star goalie, Braden Holtby.

I don’t think anyone really believes being tested by an eighth seed in the first-round of the playoffs is good for anyone.

That was hard.

Not so much for the Penguins. They won their first-round series in five games last week against the Columbus Blue Jackets — a team that had won 50 games during the regular season, with 108 points.

Pittsburgh had won 50 games as well during the regular season, with 111 points.

You would think two teams with 50 wins facing each other in the playoffs would be a tough series. But, like Capitals fans, Penguins fans, after four Stanley Cups — two of them in the Sidney Crosby era, defending last year’s championship — have learned that the playoffs are tougher for some teams than others.

By the way, the Penguins have won just one President’s Trophy — Washington has won three.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan briefly acknowledged how tough the playoffs are after his team’s Game 5 series-clinching 5-2 win over Columbus. “It’s never perfect out there by any stretch,” Sullivan told reporters.

But then he spoke in a language unfamiliar to Capitals fans.

“We love their compete level,” Sullivan said of his players. “We love their ability to respond to the adversity we face or the challenges we face throughout the course of a game, throughout the course of a series.”

This “compete” level is something that has eluded Washington. No one loves the Capitals’ ability to respond to adversity or challenges throughout the course of a series.

“I just, for whatever reason I knew that if they could have a big game we could really win tonight,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said after his team’s 2-1 overtime win in Game 6.

“For whatever reason” might be the best way to describe the notion that his team would step up in Game 6, because they had never really given him or Capitals fans any particularly specific reason to believe they are capable of having big games in big moments.

This is the task for the Washington Capitals — to have reasons to believe in their ability in their “compete” level.

“I think we could’ve had a little more killer instinct,” John Carlson told reporters after Washington went out in six games in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals to Pittsburgh.

The series against Toronto gave no one a reason to believe the Capitals have found that “killer instinct” yet – their “compete” level.

If they want to see what it looks like, just look across the ice Thursday night at the opponent.

• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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