If you’re one of those fans that always looks on the bright side of things, that wants to see the positive, that hopes for the best… you might want to stop reading now. I’m not going to go on about how the Washington Capitals franchise is cursed (it’s not) or that the league wants the team from the bigger television market to win (it might, but that doesn’t influence games). But I am going to lay down some pretty harsh thoughts about the boys in red.
They simply don’t play hard enough for long enough stretches to win.
That’s a harsh thing to say, I know. But until the Caps finally do win and change the script, that’s going to stick with them as long as they play the game.
Throughout this season, the Caps have adopted coach Barry Trotz’ idea of “heavy hockey.” It took until the last week of the season to qualify for the playoffs, and the last day of the season to clinch anything but a last-seed in. Only through an utter collapse by the New York Islanders and the fluke of losing a shootout on the last day of the season did the Caps “earn” first round home ice.
The Caps obviously have some talent on the roster. But there’s not enough to outplay similarly skilled teams, they have to outwork them as well.
The Caps played that heavy hockey successfully in the first round, wearing down the smaller Islanders until they were finally able to deliver the knockout punch, but any honest Caps fan knows that their favorite team was outplayed much of that series and if the Islanders were a little more composed or had a little more experience, it easily could have gone the other way.
Then onto the current series with the Rangers, where again despite being outplayed for long periods of time the Caps were finally on the right side of a couple of lucky bounces and found themselves up three games to one. For once, folks were starting to believe maybe, just maybe, it was going to be the Caps that came from a lower seed to upset a heavily favored President’s Trophy winner.
So what happened to change the mood so much in three days? It’s not curse, conspiracy or choke.
When Curtis Glencross scored midway through the third period of Game 5, the Caps were nine minutes, six seconds away from advancing to their first Eastern Conference Finals since 1998.
Instead of playing the final minutes of Game 5 like their hair was on fire, taking their game to the Rangers and dictating play the way they got the 3-1 series advantage, they took their foot off the gas. With no margin of error, the Caps played back — “turtled” — hoping to survive the Rangers heroic onslaught.
They were not successful.
It came as a shock to no one that once Chris Kreider tied it with 1:51 left, the air was let out of their sails. The Rangers didn’t need overtime to beat the Caps, they’d already done it to themselves.
It’s cliché to say you play “to win the game.” But every cliché is written with history as a guide. Greatness isn’t forged by trying to not lose. You have to take it for yourself. When have you seen a champion — in any sport or athletic feat — win by playing conservatively or cautiously?
Simply put, after Glencross’ goal in Game 5, the Caps didn’t start playing aggressively again until midway through the third period of Game 6 when they were already down 4-1. They were trying not to lose instead of trying to win.
What we saw from that point forward was absolute domination from the Caps, in effort, intensity and skill. Were the Rangers a bit relaxed with their gift-wrapped three-goal lead? Sure. Did they weather the just over 15-minute storm. Just barely.
But the rules still apply. The Rangers took their foot off the gas and only because they had a three-goal cushion and happen to roster the best goalie in the world (for my money) were they able to withstand the barrage the Caps unleashed at them.
The point is this: the Caps must finally find a killer instinct in Game 7. They’re capable of it — we witnessed it Sunday night. But they have to sustain it for the entire 60 minutes, and whatever overtime may come too. Despite where the Caps sit, with the ability still to advance to a conference final, it’s shocking we still haven’t seen that complete effort — even in the games they’ve won, as long as we’re being honest about it.
It’s remarkable at this point and time in this franchise’s history — and the tenure of their best players — that we’re still having this conversation. Yet, here we are. The Capitals must have better, consistent and thorough effort in Game 7 or we’ll simply be watching history repeat itself. Again.