Photo: Bruce Bennett
No one knows the agony of games seven like fans of the Washington Capitals. The Caps, we’ve been told, are a team uniquely terrible at playing Big Games, which are bigger than small games, which don’t even get uppercase letters. Washington, led– perhaps only nominally– by Alex Ovechkin, are choking dogs. Or maybe they’re cursed. Basically, they’re cursed, choking dogs who are also lazy and don’t care about team accomplishments and they’re probably all going to go to Russia soon anyw—
The past is not always prologue. Sometimes the past is just trivia. Maybe it’s just painful trivia that provides writers a convenient angle from which to cover hockey, but it’s still trivia.
Tonight is game seven, gay sev to us in the know. It’s not the culmination of a franchise or some grand denouement for a city that needs a winner. It’s just an hour of hockey with one winner and one loser, an hour of hockey to determine if this is the end or not. That’s all.
Once upon a time, in the halcyon days of last week, the Capitals led this series 3-1. To hear it, the Caps were cruising to the conference finals, but to say that would require ignoring how the Caps got that two-game lead in the first place.
This is how the Caps got that two-game lead in the first place.
Braden Holtby had at that point played quite literally the best playoff performance by a goalie in NHL history. Now, after a staggering four goals surrendered in game six, Holtby’s save percentage has fallen to the pathetic depths of being .002 off the best playoff performance by a goalie in NHL history.
The Capitals couldn’t score, but they had the best backstop in the game pulling out wins for them. When Washington would get deluged early by that motivated Rangers squad, Braden would bail them out, keeping them afloat just long enough for puck possession to show up. And show up it did. Check out how Washington dominated the final ten minutes of game six, courtesy of hockeystats.ca:
After Boyle’s backbreaking goal, the Rangers had no more offense. Sure, they were playing back, but Washington was playing ferocious hockey– enough to belie any talk of the Caps being outmatched in this series. Sure, they’ve been way too sleepy in the first ten minutes of games, pretty much since the beginning of April, but the Capitals have not been appreciably outplayed by the Rangers overall during 5v5: 49.4 to 50.6 percent, a difference of 8 shot attempts and just 3 shots on goal.
This was always a close series between two well-matched teams. It’s just that Holtby stole a couple games early. Then Lundqvist stole a couple late. And now we’re at game seven. That’s parity, not a lack of killer instinct. It’s certainly not evidence of any fatal flaw deep within the marrow of this organization. Hell, it’s not even the same organization as it used to be.
Let’s go back to 2010, because that series against Montreal is the Enchantment Under the Sea dance of the Washington Capitals– the precipitating moment for everything that happened since. The Caps had the puck on a string for the final games of that series, but one hot goalie stonewalled them– ending their season and setting off a series of events that frankly ruined the franchise until just last summer.
If someone wants to say that team was a team of chokers, well, first, they’re wrong, but more importantly: it does not matter. It just doesn’t freaking matter.
Half of the Caps defense from 2010 is gone (only Green, Carlson and Alzner remain). Among the forwards, only four of twelve from 2010 will play in game seven tonight: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Laich, and Chimera. That old coach is gone (assuming you define gone as waiting for the Conference Finals to start). That old general manager is still waiting for the laughter to die down regarding that one trade he made that we don’t talk about anymore. The goalie coach is gone, the PR guy is gone, the Capstronaut is gone, 95 percent of the blogosphere is gone, and about one quarter of the owner’s weight is gone.
That team is not this team. The past really and truly does not matter here. All that matters is the sixty minutes (or more) of hockey to be played tonight. Until puck drop, it’s just a bunch of ifs.
Alex Ovechkin is shooting six percentage points below his season average. He’s not Alex-Semin-in-2010/43-shots-without-a-single-freaking-goal cold, but he’s cold nonetheless– despite convincingly outmaneuvering whatever match-ups Alain Vigneault has put in his way. If Ovechkin can continue to play like the greatest player in the world and get just a little lucky, the Caps will win.
Braden Holtby is one of the greatest goalies in hockey, and no one’s talking about it. That’s fine by him. Already sporting a .954, it would be unfair to ask Braden to keep up his rampage, but if he can, the Caps will win.
Joel Ward played one of the most impressive games of his eight-year career on Sunday night. With one goal, two assists, and an insane 88-percent possession score during 5v5, he was incanfuckindescent. We expect no less from a player signed– inconceivably– for his playoff performance who then somehow– even more inconceivably– actually delivered on it. If Joel Ward can repeat game six, the Caps will win.
Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov have made stellar debuts on the international hockey scene this postseason. One is a Swedish dynamo with a deceptively deep offensive arsenal. The other is a Russian wizard with astonishing playmaking skills, provided he can get near the opponent’s net. If Burracuda or Kuzy take another sip of the Druce juice, the Caps will win.
Mike Green is one of the best puck-movers in the sport, though you won’t hear the press singing his praises. After years of debilitating head injuries, Green seems to have finally got his groove back– along with some discontinued sticks gifted to him by the loyalest of fans. If Green can regain one last thing, his spot on the power play from which he loads the most dangerous weapon in hockey, the Caps will win.
Troy Brouwer will never score again, but if he does, the Caps will win.
It’s just an hour of hockey. What a win might mean and what a loss might mean– those are questions for Thursday. The long, anguished history of Capitals elimination games– that has literally no bearing on what happens in this hour of hockey. It’s wasted breath, and I won’t waste anymore.
Washington spent five years walking away from good hockey, but now they’re back. They’re a damn good team right now– and there’s nothing wrong with being damn good. But they’re one hour of hockey away from being great. Just one hour. Not five years or forty, not one season or two, not Ovi’s career or Ted’s lifetime, just sixty minutes of hockey. Crash the net.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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