- The stakes are high for the Washington Capitals in what has become a best-of-three series, but their confidence remains high.
WASHINGTON — With all the force and form of an axeman chopping wood for the long winter, Alex Ovechkin took out his anger with a two-handed swing. The stick cracked against the crossbar and snapped at the heel, sending its taped blade airborne and Capitals fans toward the exits. One second still remained on the clock, but there was nothing more to see.
A half-hour or so later, wearing the same expressionless mask as when he went all Paul Bunyan on that poor (possibly now dented) goalpost, Ovechkin emerged from the dressing room showers in his traditional interview attire: two red bath towels and nothing underneath. The Washington captain’s emotions were equally as concealed.
“Just frustration,” Ovechkin said. “Yeah, of course it’s missed opportunity.”
Four days ago, the Capitals flew home with duffle bags of house money crammed into the cargo hold, hard-earned spoils for stealing Games 1-2 of the Eastern Conference Final from Tampa Bay. But these are the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, after all, a nose-licking, ear-tickling bizarro world where road-ice advantage suddenly wields magic powers. And so Washington must now return south again, consecutive 4-2 losses to the Lightning at its back, a best-of-three series ahead.
“We’ll battle through it,” coach Barry Trotz said, uncapping a bottle of water and taking a nonchalant sip, as though to further prove his point. “This group has been resilient as hell all year. Nothing’s come easy for this team. Everybody knows that. This team is used to that. We’re going to go to Tampa and expect us to respond the way we have all year.”
Indeed, a heavy tension might’ve hovered over previous versions of the Capitals, the same anxiety expressed by their fan base when scattered boos greeted an indolent power play at the end of the first period. (Seriously, owner Ted Leonsis might want to consider offering concourse meditation classes during intermission for Game 6.) But this team entered the season with few legitimate expectations and then proceeded to win its third straight Metro Division title, overcame Columbus’ 2-0 lead in the first round and then ended decades of torment with a six-game elimination of Pittsburgh. How, pray tell, do the Capitals respond after Thursday night?
“Pretty easily,” defenseman John Carlson said. “I feel good about the way we played.”
As well he should. The Capitals hammered 38 shots toward the Lightning’s lanky goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stands at 6-foot-3 whether upright or on his head. For 20 straight minutes they dominated possession, keeping Tampa Bay without a shot during that span, and held roughly 90 seconds of uninterrupted zone time in the dying moments of the third at 6-on-5 … until Anthony Cirelli found an empty net and Ovechkin found catharsis in some smashed fiberglass. “It’d be more frustrating if we had 18 shots and they had 40 and we were scrambling to get things done,” winger Tom Wilson said. “We’re confident in our game.”
The obvious difference was Vasilevskiy, whose rap sheet of gloved robberies was headlined by an off-balance snag of Brett Connolly’s netfront redirection early in the third period. “When you don’t have your A game, you need your goalie to have his A game,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And he did.” But the Lightning, nice hockey fellas that they are, should also send thank you cards to the home penalty box, c/o Lars Eller. After taking three minors in Tuesday night’s loss, the Capitals center was serving a first-period holding minor when Steven Stamkos cranked his trademark one-timer for a 2-1 lead. Later, six seconds after Eller finished serving a hooking infraction midway through the third period, Tampa winger Alex Killorn found a soft spot in some scrambled coverage and slid the eventual winner past goalie Braden Holtby.
“I thought we took the game over after that,” Cooper said.
If these Capitals are truly reformed, if their playoff demons are dead and gone, the ultimate test awaits them Saturday evening by the bay. “Sometimes the road where you want to get to is not always straight,” Trotz said. “It’s a little adversity.” Lose and return to the District facing elimination. Win and receive a chance to advance on home ice. The stakes could not be higher. And yet the Capitals could not seem more confident, all the way up to their captain.
“It’s a huge task,” Ovechkin said. “We’re still going to have fun, still going to enjoy it and we’ll see what happens."