Monday, July 30, 2018

Washington Capitals: Conquering Adversity

“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”
-- Moliere

It’s time to close the book on the 2017-2018 season, but in doing so we cannot help but think that a lot of effort goes into the winning of a Stanley Cup, and that the journey is both long and full of obstacles. In one sense, the journey for the Washington Capitals was 44 years long and the obstacles included teams that seemed to have their number – the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins come to mind. Add to that the team’s propensity, regardless of who was wearing the sweater, to give up the good fortune they earned in the postseason in the form of letting so many 2-0 and 3-1 leads in series get away.

The 2017-2018 Capitals were not a team into whose lap good fortune fell. More than most teams in recent history it was quite the opposite. Stanley Cup champions often have to face adversity, a dark night of the soul that they must conquer to win the prize. No team in recent history overcame more than these Capitals in their march to the Stanley Cup. From the opponents faced to the circumstances of each of the four individual series to the injuries fought through, this club was uncommon in its resolve and tenacity. Let’s take one last walk back.

Conference Quarterfinal -- The Coach

The Capitals have had their issues with teams, but rarely with individual coaches. One coach who seemed to be an especially difficult obstacle was John Tortorella. Washington won two of the first three series in which they faced Tortorella, losing to his Tampa Bay Lightning in six games in 2003 before beating his New York Rangers in 2009 in seven games and in five games in 2011. But starting in 2012, Tortorella would inflict particular pain on the Caps, his Rangers winning a seven-game series in that postseason and following that up with a seven-game win against the Caps in 2013.

In 2018 the Caps had their first chance to face Tortorella as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets. And when the Caps went down to the Blue Jackets in excruciating fashion in Games 1 and 2 – both games settled in overtime – it looked as though Tortorella would extend his winning streak against the Caps without much pushback. That view would be wrong. The Caps stormed back to win the last four games of the series to advance to the second round.

This was the first time since the NHL went to a best-of-seven for all four playoff rounds (since the 1987 postseason) that a team lost Games 1 and 2 in overtime, won the series, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Conference Semi-Final -- “The Demons Have Been Exorcised”

From 1991 through 2017, the Capitals faced the Pittsburgh Penguins ten times. They won once, in 1994, when the number one song on the Billboard charts was “Bump n’ Grind” by R. Kelly, the number one book of fiction on the New York Times’ best seller list was “The Celestine Prophecy” by James Redfield, and Apple was introducing its “Power Mac” personal computer.

The Caps lost to the Penguins in the playoffs nine times in that span, sometimes in horrific ways. There was 1992, when the Caps won Games 1 and 2, and then after losing Game 3, pounded the Pens, 7-2, in Pittsburgh to take a commanding 3-1 lead in games against the defending Stanley Cup champs. They dropped the last three games, two of them on home ice, by a combined 14-7 margin.

There was 1995, when the Caps went out to a 3-1 lead in games again and had the series in their hands when Game 5 went to overtime. The Caps lost. They went quick and quiet after that, outscored by the Pens, 10-1, in the last two games.

There was 1996, and the Caps had a chance to go up, 3-1, again. But Game 4 went to overtime…and then another…and then another… and then another. The teams almost went to a fifth overtime, but late in the fourth extra session on a power play, Petr Nedved scored to even the series. Pittsburgh closed it out by winning the next two games.

There was 2001, when the Caps had a chance to bring the series home for a Game 7. But in overtime, Sergei Gonchar was the victim of some bad ice at his own blue line, lost the puck, and looked on as Martin Straka picked it up, skated in alone on goalie Olaf Kolzig, and won the game and the series.

There was 2009, when the Caps and Pens renewed their rivalry in the first meeting of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. In Game 7, Ovechkin had a chance to put the Caps up early on a breakaway. He was foiled by Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Pens steamrolled the Caps after that, 6-2, to take the series.

There was 2016, in some ways a replay of 2001, the Caps having a chance to bring a series back to Washington for a Game 7, but Nick Bonino scored in overtime of Game 6 to sink the Caps again.

And there was 2017, when the Caps gamely came back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the series in Game 6 in Pittsburgh. Then, they didn’t show up for Game 7, falling by a 2-0 margin.

That brought us to 2018. The Caps were facing the two-time defending champions, and when they dropped Game 1 at home, it had the look of a too-often watched episode of a bad TV series from the 1990’s. But the Caps tied the series in Game 2 in a dominating 4-1 performance. Then they went to Pittsburgh and won in a fashion not seen by a Caps team – a goal in the last 90 seconds of regulation, swatted out of mid-air from the top of the Penguin crease by Alex Ovechkin to give the Caps a 4-3 win. Washington lost Game 4, 4-3, to tie the series, setting up another of those moments such as those in the past in which the Caps wilted and the Penguins moved forward. This time – Game 5 – was different. The Caps, adding bizarre to the unusual, stormed back from a 3-2 deficit after two periods to score four unanswered goals in the final frame to win and put the Caps on the brink of victory in a 6-3 win.

The Caps were not through the woods yet, though. The Penguins were two-time champions for a reason, and they played like it in Game 6. Washington opened the scoring early in the second period, but the Pens tied it mid-way through the same frame. That would be the extent of the scoring in regulation. The teams fought through five minutes of overtime when the Caps finally drove a stake through the heart of their demon...

Conference Final – The Better Team

Back in October, many in the hockey media had the Capitals as perhaps a wild-card qualifier for the playoffs, but few if any had the Tampa Bay Lightning as anything other than an Atlantic Division winner or contender. The Lightning did not disappoint, finishing the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference, five wins and eight points better than the Caps.

There was the history of these teams, too. They met twice before in the postseason , in 2003 and in 2011. Tampa Bay won both series, besting the Caps in six games after dropping Games 1 and 2 in 2003 and sweeping them in four games in 2011. The Caps had eight straight postseason losses to Tampa Bay and had yet to defeat the Lightning in a playoff game on home ice.

For the first time in this postseason the Caps got out to a series lead. In fact, they won both Games 1 and 2 in Tampa to put the Lightning in a deep hole. But that was how the 2003 series started, too, and the Caps went out in six games. The 2003 memories became much too clear for comfort when the Lightning came to Washington and evened the series with wins in Games 3 and 4, denying for at least a while longer the Caps first postseason win on home ice against this team. When Tampa Bay won Game 5 in Florida to put the Caps on the brink of elimination, fans might have been forgiven for at least taking a peek toward the summer and next season.

And then, a funny thing happened. No one scored in the first period of Game 6. And then a funnier thing happened. Jay Beagle took a penalty in the first minute of the second period to put the Lightning on a power play. This was the sort of opening the Caps have given teams in the past in the postseason and lived to regret it. But the Caps killed off the penalty, and then they scored on their own power play late in the period to take a lead to the third. The Caps got an insurance goal by Devante Smith-Pelly mid-way through the period, and T.J. Oshie scored an empty netter, his second goal of the game, to complement Braden Holtby’s 24-save shutout in a 3-0 win, the Caps’ first against the Lightning in the postseason on home ice.

It was the sort of win that in the past served only to make what followed more disappointing for Caps fans. In the past, the Caps might lose on a strange play or by not rising to the occasion, but what was in common was that they lost in Games 7. The Caps served notice early in this edition of Game 7 that this was a different year with a different team intent on writing a different ending. Alex Ovechkin scored just 62 seconds into the game, Andre Burakovsky scored a pair of goals seven minutes apart in the second period, and Nicklas Backstrom added an empty-netter to seal the win, Braden Holtby stopping 29 shots to become the first goaltender in more than 80 years to pitch consecutive shutouts in elimination games in the postseason after not having had a shutout in the regular season (Earl Robertson did for the Detroit Red Wings in 1937).

Stanley Cup Final -- “The Words That D.C. Fans Have Been Waiting to Hear Since 1974...”

Plucky expansion team of cast-offs reach Stanley Cup final. Rooting against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup final, even with the parallel story of Alex Ovechkin playing for his first Stanley Cup, was the rooting equivalent of kicking a puppy. Never mind that the Caps, in 44 years, had never won a game in a Stanley Cup final, either (they were swept in four games in their only previous appearance in the final, in 1998 against the Detroit Red Wings).

The Caps would have to wait a bit longer for that first win, Vegas taking the series opener by a typically Vegas 6-4 margin. By this time, though, the Caps had proven themselves a team made of stronger stuff than their predecessors. They won Game 2 to split the games out west, a game punctuated by what might be the single most important play in the playoff history of the Capitals, a play that will be known henceforth as "The Save"...

Buoyed by that save and that win, the Caps returned to Washington and swept two games to put the Golden Knights on the edge of elimination.

It would be typical of this postseason for the Caps to face adversity once more and prevail, and this is just what they did. Twice they took a lead in Game 5, only to see the Golden Knights tie the game. And then, Vegas took a lead in the last minute of the second period. The Caps would have to come from behind on enemy ice, trying to close out a 3-1 series lead of the sort they failed so often to do in the past.

Gradually, the Caps took command of the action, and mid-way through the third period they got the equalizer. The oft-denigrated Brooks Orpik kept a loose puck on the offensive side of the blue line and fed the unsung Devante Smith-Pelly for a shot that he would take while being tripped to the ice, the shot eluding long-time nemesis Marc-Andre Fleury to tie the game. Less than three minutes later, Fleury could not squeeze his pads tightly enough to keep a loose puck from trickling behind him, and Lars Eller darted in to snap the puck into the net. All that was left was to skate off the last 7:37 to hear the call every Caps fan has wanted to hear...

What an eight weeks it was, especially when you think about all that the Caps had to overcome to have their names on the Stanley Cup…
  • Fighting through losses in overtime in Games 1 and 2 against Columbus and their difficult coach, becoming the first team in the era of 16 wins needed to win a Cup to lose their first two games in overtime and win the trophy.
  • Fighting past their most bitter rival – the Pittsburgh Penguins – on their ice in Game 6 despite not having a third of their top-six forwards in the lineup (Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson).
  • Fighting past a solid favorite in the conference final who they had not beaten in previous postseason meetings and against whom they had never won a playoff game on home ice.
  • Fighting past the darlings of hockey in the final, a team that beat the Caps twice in two meetings in the regular season and doing it against a goaltender who played a big role in crushing dreams of Caps fans in the past when he was a Penguin.
  • Fighting through an injury to Nicklas Backstrom when he blocked a shot in Game 5 of the Pittsburgh series (later revealed to be two fractures to his right index finger) that caused him to miss four games.
  • Fighting through a three-game suspension to winger Tom Wilson that caused him to miss the last three games of the Pittsburgh series.
  • They finished the postseason as the fifth team in NHL history to win ten games on the road.
  • They became the first team in almost 30 years to win a Stanley Cup having trailed at some point in every series (Pittsburgh did it in 1991).
  • They became only the third team in NHL history to clinch all four series on the road and the first since Pittsburgh in 2009.

And as much as what they overcame, it was how they did it. There was Lars Eller scoring the game-winning goal in Game 3 in the second overtime to get the Caps off the mat against Columbus after dropping those first two games in overtime. There was Eller again, going 2-3-5 in the first three games of the series against Tampa Bay with Backstrom out of the lineup. And there was Eller again scoring the Cup-clinching goal against Vegas, finishing with a team-high three game-winning goals for the postseason.
  • There were the nine different Capitals sharing the 16 game-winning goals.
  • There was Devante Smith-Pelly, equaling the seven goals he scored in 75 regular season games with seven in 24 postseason games, the last six of them in Caps wins, including the game-tying goal in the Cup-clinching game.
  • There was Brooks Orpik, keeping the puck in at the edge of the blue line in the Cup-clinching win to set up Smith-Pelly’s goal, but more than that going plus-17 in 24 postseason games to lead the league.
  • There was Evgeny Kuznetsov, casting off recent underwhelming postseason performances with a Conn Smythe-quality level of play in this postseason.
  • There were Nathan Walker, Shane Gersich, and Travis Boyd getting their first taste of a deep Stanley Cup run. Gersich skated in a Game 5 win that put the Caps on the brink of a series win against Pittsburgh; Walker and Boyd skated in the series-clinching win over the Penguins. No demons for them.

Any team that wins a Stanley Cup gets contributions from up and down the roster, stars and no-names alike. But few, if any teams in recent memory overcame more than the Caps did to win the Cup. Every series had its hook, something that the Caps dealt with unsuccessfully in the past that had to be overcome. They had to overcome injuries to key pieces at key moments of the postseason. They had to overcome their own history and the perennial narrative that they just didn’t play the right way or have what it takes to win.

You can attach a lot of adjectives to the Caps’ performance this spring: determined, tenacious, resolute, dogged, focused. It all comes down to one word to describe them.


Now… do it again.