Thursday, May 07, 2015

Washington Capitals -- The Strangeness of Familiar Territory

Well, here we are.  The Washington Capitals hold a three-games-to-one lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the New York Rangers.  It is the 11th time in team history that the Caps have held such a lead in games in a post season series.  To the surprise of no Capitals fan, no team has lost more series when holding a 3-1 lead in games (four times).

This is the haunting context of the next 36 hours as the Caps prepare for Game 5 in New York on Friday.  Can the Caps close the deal where they have failed so many times before?

Ah, but Caps fans, take heart.  This really is different, and here is why.  Of the 10 previous times in which the Caps took a 3-1 lead in games in a seven-game series, seven times they held home ice advantage.  In those seven series, Washington lost the series three times – 1987 to the New York Islanders, 1992 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and 2010 to the Montreal Canadiens. 

This will be the fourth time that the Caps have taken a 3-1 lead in games into a Game 5 as the lower-seeded team, starting the series on the road.  In the previous three instances they won the series twice.  In 1990 the Caps took a 3-1 lead on the Rangers in the Patrick Division final, closing out the Rangers by a 2-1 margin in Game 5 in New York on an goal by John Druce 6:48 into overtime at Madison Square Garden.  In 1994 the Caps took a 3-1 lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins after starting their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series in Pittsburgh.  The Caps lost Game 5 in Steel City, but they won Game 6 in Washington, 6-3, to take the series. 

It was only in 1995 in which the Caps lost a series after taking a 3-1 lead in games, and it took an extraordinary event to allow the Penguins to avoid being ushered to the exits in Game 5.  The Penguins rallied from behind four times to eventually take a 6-5 overtime win over the Caps to force a Game 6.  The Caps lost that game, 7-1, then were shutout, 3-0, in Game 7 for their only series loss when taking a 3-1 lead in games as the lower seed.

There is a quote from that Game 5 by then Capitals forward (now television analyst) Keith Jones that serves as a caution to the Capitals as they head to New York in an attempt to finish off the Rangers:
"Backs against the wall, they came out with pride.  We didn't bury that pride…”
No one doubts that the New York Rangers will take the ice on Friday nice as a prideful squad.  The Capitals will have a chance to bury that pride and move on.  They will not want to have to try to throw another shovelful of dirt on the Rangers in a Game 7 in that arena.