- - Tuesday, May 22, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Washington has only played in the Stanley Cup Final once, in 1998. And to get there, the Capitals needed someone to step up and plant the franchise’s flag in virgin territory; To claim something that to that point had exceeded their grasp. The Eastern Conference championship.

With the Capitals and Buffalo Sabres tied, 2-2, in overtime of Game 6, Joe Juneau told coach Ron Wilson before the extra period started, “I’ll be Neil Armstrong.”

Then, the college graduate with the aeronautical degree went out and scored the winning goal.

Juneau was the Capitals’ first and only player to walk on the moon, so to speak.

Now the Capitals need someone to be Buzz Aldrin — the second man to take that legendary “one giant leap.” The Capitals need someone to write a new name into the history books Wednesday night and lead the team past the tenacious Tampa Bay Lightning and into a showdown with the fairy tale Vegas Golden Knights.

Who will be Buzz Aldrin?

As always — just as it was for Washington’s 3-0 Game 6 victory Monday night — the Capitals’ hopes and dreams rest on the play of goaltender Braden Holtby.

His shutout performance Monday came with the pressure and weight on his shoulders of a franchise dogged by decades of disappointment.

But if Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy bounces back to the form that enabled the Lightning to win three straight after the Capitals took a 2-0 lead in the series, Holtby and his teammates will need someone to take the step.
Someone will have to take the shot — the shot that propels the Capitals to just their second Stanley Cup appearance, or make the play that forever becomes part of Washington sports lore.

If Washington folds in Game 7, as has been its tradition in the playoffs (3-7 in the Alex Ovechkin era), and falls behind early with no signs of life or fight, then the Capitals will only be stepping on the hearts of their fans one more time.

But it’s hard to believe that the team that intimidated Tampa Monday night — outhitting them 39-19 and outshooting them 34-24 — will fail to put up their best effort in Game 7. They’ve come too far, the moon is too close — right there for someone to take the step.

So who will be Buzz Aldrin?

Will it be the star cosmonaut, Alex Ovechkin? It would be appropriate if it was Ovechkin, who clearly feels the burden of past playoff failures, who took the step that brings his team to the Stanley Cup Final. He seems to finally understand what it takes for such a step forward. “We believe in each other,” he has said several times during the playoffs.

Will it be the young stud flying around the ice Monday night bouncing off bodies, Devante Smith-Pelly? Unburdened by the ghosts of Capitals past, he may simply have the quickest step necessary. “If you saw my face, I was yelling,” he told reporters Monday night after scoring in the 3-0 win. “It was pretty exciting. Any time you score in the playoffs, it’s huge.”

Or Chandler Stephenson, another young, unencumbered talent who is part of the group that has energized this team?

“It was a do-or-die game and we don’t want our season to end,” he told reporters, a simple answer anyplace else, perhaps, except Washington, where, when the choice has been do or die, keep playing or go home, the Capitals were usually packing their bags.

Stephenson and his teammates may come to that same conclusion again Wednesday night.

Will it be the veteran who arrived here from St. Louis three years ago, T.J. Oshie? “I think both teams for the most part figured out what works against the other team,” he said. “It’s just a matter of who’s going to play longer, harder and do more of it.”

Whoever it is, the timing feels right for someone to follow in the footsteps Juneau left behind 20 years ago, as Aldrin followed Armstrong.

“Timing has always been a key element in my life,” Aldrin once said. “I have been blessed to have been in the right place at the right time.”

Right place. Right time. Who will be the Capitals’ Buzz Aldrin?

⦁ Thom Loverro’s “Cigars & Curveballs” podcast is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.


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