TAMPA, Fla. — There are two ways of looking at how the Eastern Conference final came to be tied heading into Game 5: either the Tampa Bay Lightning stole back two games on the road or the Washington Capitals gave away an opportunity to close out a series.
For most onlookers, it’s the latter.
And so, here we are talking about choking again. Will this be another post-season where the Capitals failed to finish off an opponent on the ropes, failed to come up with the key play at the key time, and failed to advance despite being the better team? Will it be another missed opportunity for Alex Ovechkin?
From here, it’s starting to look that way. Whatever momentum the Capitals gained from winning Games 1 and 2 on the road has now swung back to the Lightning after winning Games 3 and 4. Now, it’s Washington with its backs against the ropes and once again having to face the ghosts of the franchise’s past.
This is starting to look familiar.
Three years ago, the Capitals had a 3-1 series lead and were one minute and 41 seconds away from advancing to the conference final when they gave up the tying goal and then lost in overtime. They ended up losing the series 4-3. In 2010, the Presidents’ Trophy winners led 3-1 against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, before dropping three straight in a heartbreaking collapse.
So the image of Ovechkin skating over to his own net after Thursday night’s loss and breaking his stick over the crossbar wasn’t a good look. That is, unless you’re a Lightning fan.
“I mean, let’s be honest. Being down 0-2 at home, you’re on life support,” said Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper. “That’s basically what it was. The guys found a way to claw themselves out.”
Another way of looking at it is that the Capitals didn’t pull the plug. Instead, they kept a dangerous team alive. A Lightning team that hasn’t probably hasn’t played its best hockey this series, but which now has confidence going into Game 5 as well as home-ice advantage for the rest of the series — not that it’s been an advantage so far.
“The series is tied at 2-2, doesn’t matter how you got there,” said Cooper. “Pretty sure everybody knows how pivotal Game 5 is. I’m sure it’s going to be no different in this series. I just know we’re a different group coming into Game 5 mentally than we were in Game 1.”
Mentally, the Capitals have to know that they’ve been the better team by far in the conference final. That a can be a source of strength. But it can also be a source of frustration.
“I don’t think we necessarily played poorly,” said Washington defenceman Brooks Orpik. “We just didn’t get the result we wanted. I don’t think we were uncomfortable at all. We were frustrated that we didn’t find a way to win.”
In the last two games, Washington combined to outshoot Tampa Bay 76-43. The Capitals played well enough to win at least one of them. But they didn’t do the things necessary to ensure the win. While the Lightning’s power play connected on 4-of-7 power play opportunities, the Capitals went 0-for-7.
You can partially blame Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy for the lack of success on the power play. But from taking foolish penalties that directly resulted in goals to questionable plays, such as the no-look pass that defenceman Michal Kempny attempted on the Lightning’s first goal, the Capitals really shouldn’t be in this position.
“Going into Washington, not knowing what was going to happen, the series could have been over by now,” said Alex Killorn, who scored the winning goal in Game 4 as Washington’s Lars Eller was leaving the penalty box for the second time that night. “We’ve given ourselves some new life. But there’s still a long way to go.”
Maybe this series is far from over. Maybe the Capitals will pull out of this in the same way that they did against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round after going down 2-0 at home. After all, this has been a different team than in it has been in the past.
For the first time in the Ovechkin era, the Capitals advanced past the second round and got the better of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. They got over that hump, silenced their critics, and have made it farther than they had in the past 20 years.
With that comes confidence, too. So perhaps a team that is 7-1 on the road will find a way to swing back the momentum in its favour. If so, it could make a great story.
“I don’t think anybody thought the series would go four straight or anything like that,” said Washington head coach Barry Trotz. “It’s just another layer of adversity. This group has taken on any adversity that has been thrown its way all years, hasn’t shied away from it. I think we’ve played three out of the four games pretty well. I’m not disappointed at all … we’re excited to get on the ice (on Saturday) and get it on.
At the same time, keep that glass of water on hand. You never know when the Capitals are going to need it.
BACKSTROM ‘EXCITED TO PLAY’
According to Washington head coach Barry Trotz, it might not have been a coincidence that Nicklas Backstrom returned from a hand injury only after the Capitals lost for the first time in four games without him in the lineup.
“He was excited to play,” said Trotz. “He played very well. If we hadn’t won the first two games, would Nick come to me and say, I’m in? Probably 100 per cent. That’s kind of the player, kind of person, that’s sort of the hockey mentality with these extreme athletes.”
Backstrom, who had missed the previous four games after blocking a shot in the second round, played wing on Washington’s third line in Game 4. He did not record a point in close to 19 minutes of ice time, but could see a bigger role in Game 5.
“He came in and he did a great job for us,” said Trotz. “I played him almost 20 minutes. That’s a lot for a forward. He’s used to that. When you have a little bit of a time off, you wonder if you’ll be right there. I didn’t doubt that. … he’s one of the best two-way forwards in the National Hockey League.”
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