Well, here we are. Just about where we thought we would be at this point in the opening round series against the New York Rangers. The Washington Capitals hold a three-games-to-one lead over the Blueshirts off their stirring 4-3 double-overtime win at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
Now comes the hard part.
Any Capitals fan of any reasonable length of time recoils at the mention of the words, “Game Five.” For that Caps fan knows that many of the most spectacular collapses in team playoff history came when the Caps were but one game away from moving on with three chances to do so. And those Games 5 often were harbingers of agony to come.
The Capitals have held 3-1 leads in games nine times in team history and have a 2-7 record in those games. Frankly, it seems as if they have played more of them and, to the point, lost more of them. It all started way back in 1987. Caps fans might see the year and say, “yeah, sure…the four-overtime Game 7.” Well, the Caps had to play a Game 5 before they could experience that agony. In the 1987 opening round series against the New York Islanders, the Caps held a 3-1 lead in games heading into Game 5 on the strength of two consecutive wins – a 2-0 shutout and a 4-1 win, both on Long Island and both authored by goalie Bob Mason, who took over in goal for Pete Peeters. But Peeters got the call in Game 5. He started, but he did not finish. The Caps lost Game 5, 4-2, and would go on to lost Game 6, 5-4, on Long Island. Then they would lose the epic four-overtime Game 7 that ended on Easter morning on a ricochet off the post by Pat Lafontaine. The Caps’ Game 5 disasters started off with a bang, or more precisely, ended that series with a “clang.”
Three years later they would take a 3-1 lead into Game 5 in the second round matchup with the New York Rangers. This was the year of “Druce on the Loose,” and John Druce, the unlikely hero of the 1990 post-season for the Caps, already had three game-winning goals among the Caps seven wins heading into that Game 5 contest. With the chance to clinch this time, though, the Caps took advantage and ended the Rangers’ season in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden on an overtime goal by – who else – John Druce.
In 1992, however, the Caps found once more the secret to grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. Having abused the Pittsburgh Penguins to the tune of 20 goals in the first four games of their opening round series (one of them another game-winner by Druce), the Caps went dry on offense in Game 5, able to muster only a pair of goals against Penguin goalie Tom Barrasso in a 5-2 loss in Landover. It was all the opening the Penguins needed, and they started their two decades worth of punishment of the Caps with 6-4 and 3-1 wins in Games 6 and 7 to close out the series.
The Caps got a measure of revenge two years later, despite some bad luck in Game 5 of their first-round series against Pittsburgh. Unlike their meeting in 1992, the first four games were close, more defensive affairs, although the Caps did post a 4-1 win in Game 4 to push the Pens to the brink of elimination. In a curious twist to this series, the three games the Caps won leading up to Game 5 were won by goalie Don Beaupre, while the only loss was suffered by Byron Dafoe. So, who got the call in Game 5? Dafoe. The Penguins won that contest, 3-2. Beaupre returned to the nets for Game 6, and this time the Caps ended the series with a dominating 6-3 win in Landover.
The next year these teams met again, for the fourth time in five post-seasons. The Penguins took home bragging rights once more, despite the Caps running out to that 3-1 lead in games. The hook here was that the Caps featured rookie Jim Carey in goal, who posted an 18-6-3 record (2.13, .913, four shutouts) in the regular season. He also allowed only 10 goals in the first four games against a powerful Penguin offense (the Pens scored an empty netter in a 5-3 win in Game 2). But in what would begin one of the most stunning falls from playoff grace ever suffered by a goaltender, Carey allowed a shorthanded goal by Jaromir Jagr with the Caps on a power play and holding a lead in Game 5. Carey could not stop the flood as the Pens rallied for a 6-5 overtime win, then won games 6 and 7 by 7-1 (a game in which the Caps would actually use three goaltenders – Carey, Dafoe, and Olaf Kolzig) and 3-0 scores.
In 1998 the Caps had three three-games-to-one leads on their way to the Stanley Cup finals. Oddly enough, the Caps lost two of them. In the first round the Caps let Boston pry their way back into the series with a 4-0 win over the Caps in Washington. But the Caps would clinch with a 3-2 overtime win in Boston in Game 6. In the second round the Caps did not allow Ottawa such an opportunity, as Olaf Kolzig followed up a 2-0 shutout win in Ottawa in Game 4 with a 3-0 whitewashing of the Senators in Game 5. In the Eastern Conference finals, the Caps dropped a 2-0 decision to Buffalo in Game 1, then rode the goaltending of Kolzig to three straight wins in Games 2-4, two of the wins coming in overtime. Despite the Caps allowing only 16 shots on goal in Game 5, the Sabres squeaked out a 2-1 win to extend the series. One more is all it took, though, as Joe Juneau scored the overtime goal in Buffalo to give the Caps a 3-2 win and send them to their only Cup final.
Twelve years would pass before a new generation of Caps fans could experience the horror of Game 5. That came in last year’s first round matchup with the Montreal Canadiens. After winning in overtime in Game 2, then utterly dominating the Habs in Games 3 and 4 (winning all three games by a combined 17-9 score), the Caps ran into the dreaded “hot goaltender.” Jaroslav Halak stopped 37 of 38 shots in a 2-1 win in Washington to deny the Caps the clincher. Halak would go on to stop 131 of 134 shots in Games 5-7 (.978 save percentage) to shock the Presidents Trophy-winning Caps out of the playoffs before they had barely begun.
So, what do we have in Games 5 when the Caps have that 3-1 lead in games?...
-- The Caps have taken a 3-1 lead in games into a Game 5 nine times.
-- They are 2-7 all time in those Games 5.
-- Six times the Caps have played that Game 5 on home ice…five times they lost. Three times after those losses the Caps went on to lose the series.
-- In three of the nine instances, the Caps played the Penguins, the most frequent opponent in such games. The Caps lost all three Games 5 against the Penguins with a 3-1 lead in games, but they did manage to capture one of the series, in 1994, the only time the Caps beat the Penguins in a playoff series.
-- The Caps faced the Rangers once in this situation, beating the Blueshirts in a 2-1 overtime decision in 1990 to advance to the Wales Conference finals.
-- The Caps have averaged only two goals a game (18 total goals) in the nine Games 5, nine of them in three games against the Penguins (nine in the other six games against other opponents). Beware holding those sticks too tight.
- They have allowed three goals a game (27 total) in those Games 5, but 14 of them came in three games against the Penguins (13 allowed in six games against other opponents).
Game 5 has not been kind to the Capitals. But if there is a silver lining in all of this for the Caps, it is this. Most of the horror that has been Game 5 is a product of games against Pittsburgh. In the six other Game 5 played by the Caps, they do have two wins (hey, it’s something), and they have managed to win four of those series in the end (although three of them came in their 1998 Stanley Cup finals run). And there is this -- the Rangers have never recovered from a 1-3 deficit in games in a playoff series. The Caps need to end this…