Zombie Capitals aren't dead yet in conference semifinals vs. Pittsburgh

Sunday May 7th, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Plastered on to the door entering the home locker room at Verizon Center, the welcome message for visitors coming across the carpet, is a sign depicting two Washington Capitals as bug-eyed, bare-boned zombies. Their red jerseys have been shredded, their skin is glowing and overhead the team slogan for the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs drips from the Goosebumps-green sky: “NEXT LEVEL.” Stick in hand, one of the zombies slashes through a graveyard of tattered headstones inscribed, in order, with the following: Round 1, Round 2, Round 3, Round 4. Both look like they’re might charge straight out of the frame and feast on the flesh of some helpless reporters. And yet, the zombies are still smiling.

See where all this is headed?

Saturday night, in a 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, these once-damned Capitals rose from the dead. Seventeen minutes and 11 seconds separated them from an early summer—and who knows what manner of roster upheaval given the bevy of contracts coming off the books—when the resurrection began. 

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The new-look top line emerged from the ground first, thanks to Nicklas Backstrom’s wrister from the left faceoff dot that whizzed underneath goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s glove. Next came Evgeny Kuznetsov, forgoing his usual arm-flapping, avian celebration, and instead simply beckoning for more noise from the crowd after whipping the go-ahead goal from an angle sharper than a skate blade. “We live for those type of games,” Kuznetsov said later. “That’s why we practice all summer, that’s why we play 82 games, for those moments.”

And finally, 27 seconds later, the captain came steaming through the slot. In an effort to better balance his team’s offensive weaponry, coach Barry Trotz had plunked Alex Ovechkin on to the third line. Message received—and answered loudly. With defenseman Ron Hainsey smarting from a puck that Ovechkin had just blasted into his chest, No. 8 collected the rebound, cut to his right and clubbed the puck over Fleury’s shoulder. It was Ovechkin’s 10th goal and 20th point in 19 career playoff elimination games, one more pile of dirt shoveled on to the tired narrative that he disappears at the most pressurized times. 

“Be honest with you,” Ovechkin told reporters, “I don't think it matters who going to play together and who we going to play against. It’s not a good time to talk about I’m going to play less or I’m going to play more. We’re here to get results and we’re here to get successful as a team, not as individual. That’s a big part of the success.” 

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Now, the Capitals must confront a delicious slice of narrative symmetry. This time last spring, they also fell behind 3-1, to the same team in the same round, before snatching Game 5 at Verizon Center. It was a momentary gasp of fresh air, at least until their season ended in Pittsburgh three days later. Sense any similarities between the scenarios, Mr. Trotz? “I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday,” he said, “and you’re asking me what happened last year.”

Ever since Trotz rolled into Washington nearly three years ago, he has tried to help his players—and, by extension, a fan base perpetually stricken with Game 7-induced gastroenteritis—forget. Forget the postseason collapses and early exits. Forget, in a word, history.

Entering Saturday’s final 20 minutes, this seemed entirely unavoidable. The cursors were blinking on the obituaries. Chants of “Holt-by, Holt-by” came from the surprisingly loud swaths of Penguins fans in the upper deck, serenading the Washington goaltender who until then had allowed two goals on 10 shots. Thanks to tallies from Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel—not to mention any emotional lift provided by the simultaneous returns of Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary from concussions—Pittsburgh simply needed to do what it had previously done six other times without fail this postseason: take a lead into the third period, keep it, and celebrate.

Yet, behind the door with the neon-green zombies, the Capitals were very much breathing. "We still have a chance," was how Backstrom described the message. "No panic,” Ovechkin said. “Everybody concentrate. That’s what we need.” 

Of course, they now need it twice more against the defending Stanley Cup champions, starting Monday at PPG Paints Arena. They will need the same kind of punch that surfaced in the third period, when all three top-nine trios scored at even strength. They will need their big guns—Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Holtby, who saved each of the dozen shots he faced in the final frame—firing on all cylinders. 

They need to keep clomping through the graveyard, clubbing ghosts along the way. 

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