By Barry Svrluga,
Where the Washington Capitals are concerned, it’s an old crutch to look back to figure out what’s ahead. That dreadful cycle has played out over so many springs because even when the Capitals were in an advantageous position, there was an analogous example in which something horrifying happened. The entire exercise was exhausting.
Now, maybe it’s over. On the eve of the first conference final for a Washington team in two decades, cleanse yourself of it all. The opponent in this opportunity, the Tampa Bay Lightning, won more games than any other during the regular season. It blitzed through the first two rounds of the playoffs, winning eight of 10 games. It is the favorite in the Eastern Conference final, perhaps even a heavy one.
When was the last time the Capitals entered a playoff series with this much house money, skating free and easy because — for once — their entire professional reputation won’t be attached to the result?
Must be 2008, right? That first-round series against Philadelphia resulted only because those Caps, under then-interim coach Bruce Boudreau, ripped off 11 wins in their final 12 games to clinch a division title on the season’s final night.
That series against the Flyers represented the playoff debut of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and — assuming Backstrom is able to overcome his hand injury that has his status in question — they’re the only holdovers who will face the Lightning a decade later. The feeling in the moment when Philadelphia’s Joffrey Lupul beat Washington goalie Cristobal Huet in overtime at Verizon Center, it was pain, for sure.
[Capitals’ Tom Wilson tries to adapt his tactics after a suspension he still disputes]
But the sense as that season ended was that it was a beginning. Washington’s goal scorers in that seventh game were Ovechkin and Backstrom, centerpieces on the rise. The gruesome springtime results to come — and we’re beyond listing them here, because we have listed them so many times before — hadn’t yet happened. There was optimism about those Capitals.
Now, a loss to the Lightning wouldn’t bring those same exact feelings, because Ovechkin is 32 and Backstrom is 30, and there isn’t quite the core of “Young Guns” the Capitals had assembled a decade ago. But what’s the same: For once, the Capitals are unburdened.
“That pressure of being the No. 1 seed the last couple years,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said, “I think weighed on us a little bit.”
One thing we have to be wary about in all of this, of course, is assigning meaning to events that are actually kind of random. I mean, in overtime of the sixth game of Washington’s second-round series, Pittsburgh’s Tom Kuhnhackl pinged a shot off the post behind Braden Holtby. Three inches to the right, and there would have been a Game 7 on Wednesday night, and who knows what the discussion might be now?
But I’m buying in that these Capitals are freer of mind, and therefore freer of body. The hiccup of this postseason — blowing two-goal leads in back-to-back home losses to Columbus to open the playoffs — is over. These Capitals have won eight of 10 since. They have vanquished the Penguins when they could have seized up. And with five rookies in the lineup for the clinching Game 6, they have some contributors who aren’t burdened by all the stuff we dredge up over and over again.
“I was sitting on the plane after the game with T.J. the other night,” veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik said, speaking of key forward T.J. Oshie, a 10-year veteran who had never been past the second round of the playoffs. Oshie started talking to Orpik about all the young guys.
“He was like, ‘These damn young guys,’” Orpik said. “‘They just walk right into this and they probably think this is going to happen every single year.’”
The lineup won’t contain all of those players for Friday’s series opener in Tampa, because Tom Wilson will be back from suspension and Backstrom might be back from his Game 6 absence and even Andre Burakovsky could return during this series. But in Orpik’s view, the presence not only of a rookie such as Jakub Vrana, who scored the game-winner in Game 5 against the Penguins, but of new-to-the-organization players such as Devonte Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson helped, too.
Why? Frankly, they were “guys that had no connection to past failures,” Orpik said. “I think that definitely relaxed us.”
[Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky progressing from injuries, questionable for Game 1]
It’s easy to be relaxed when the next series hasn’t started yet, when the glow of the victory over the Penguins is still fresh. But think ahead, and imagine a few scenarios. What if the Lightning plays a version of its best game Friday night? Say the Caps lose something like 4-1.
It’s just hard to imagine there would be the sense of panic there has been after, say – oh, forget it. We’re done ticking off those series openers that have ratcheted up the angst around here. Free and easy. Easy and free. Whee!
Think about how this series could play out, though. The Capitals have opened on the road in only one of their previous seven playoff series: 2015 second round against the New York Rangers. Remember how liberating their win in the opener felt? Just 60 minutes into the series, they already tilted things in their favor, made Game 2 gravy, and put themselves in position to win — a position they enhanced by taking Games 3 and 4 at home. (For the purposes of this piece, we’ll ignore what happened in Games 5, 6 and 7. So . . . yeah. The past.)
Think about what might possibly cause uneasiness over the weekend. Maybe the only answer would be two dominant Tampa wins, wins in which the Lightning bottled up the Caps and, maybe, got Holtby to look shaky rather than secure. Maybe.
But if the Caps split? They sail back to the District, confident and under control. If they, somehow, took two? Okay, maybe don’t allow that to enter your brain. But even if they lost a pair of evenly played contests, well, they themselves stormed back from a two-game deficit in the first round, so they not only know it can be done in theory but have done it themselves in reality.
So let’s shelve all we have learned in the decade since the “Young Guns” faced the Flyers. These Capitals, in this series, are underdogs, and unencumbered by all the baggage we have assigned to their predecessors. They can, of all things, just play. And to this point, just playing has brought out the best version of themselves.