Capitals’ ghosts of collapses past have suddenly sprung to life

Published May 19 2018

TAMPA – Somewhere between the time Alex Ovechkin smashed his stick against the crossbar of the Capitals' net and his postgame, post-shower meeting with reporters, he tried to channel the joy with which he started the Eastern Conference final.

Even Ovechkin's teammates had noticed how relieved and relaxed he seemed after finally advancing past the second round for the first time in his career. The Capitals and their captain were playing without any pressure for a change, and boy, were they dangerous that way.

Washington took a 2-0 series lead with two wins in Tampa, and the games weren't that close.

But perhaps the Capitals became victims of their own success. The way they improbably breezed past the Lightning in those first two games of the series made them sudden Stanley Cup favorites – the gambling website Bovada gave Washington 8-5 odds – and though the team returned to Chinatown with a comfortable cushion, needing to win just one home game to push Tampa Bay to the brink of elimination, the Capitals dropped both contests.

The series is now essentially a best-of-three duel, with two of those games in the Lightning's Amalie Arena, the first Saturday night, Game 5.

"If before the series you said it's going to be 2-2 after four games, both teams are going to be happy," center Evgeny Kuznetsov said.

He's right, but the order in which things happened, with the Capitals blowing the series lead in front of their fans, has revived the narratives about Washington and its playoff ineptitude. The pressure and spotlight are back on the Capitals for the first time in these playoffs since they fell into a 2-0 series deficit to the Blue Jackets in the first round.

Twenty-one teams have won the first two games of a best-of-seven conference final on the road. All 21 went on to win the series. Will the Capitals be No. 22? Or will they be the first to spit the bit in that situation?
So as Ovechkin walked into the locker room with a red towel around his waist and another one around his neck, he smiled and tried to push past the frustration of Game 4's 4-2 loss Thursday. The Capitals are still loose, still laid-back, the captain insisted.

"We're still going to have fun. We're still going to enjoy it, and we'll see what happens," Ovechkin said. "We're going to Tampa and play our game and try to get a victory and come back home."

Capitals Coach Barry Trotz reasoned that Washington has played well in three out of four games. After Tuesday's Game 3 loss, general manager Brian MacLellan was on his way down from the press box to the locker room when the elevator television showed an NBCSN analyst questioning the Capitals' fortitude.

Two days later, Trotz raced through his pregame news conference, speaking with the pace of someone who'd perhaps enjoyed a few too many cups of coffee. He jokingly asked a reporter, "Do I look stressed? No, really? I'm not stressed."

Several Capitals players said that lower external expectations this year, the spotlight turned elsewhere for the first time in three seasons, were a reason the team was able to flourish. The doubt motivated them, and the lack of attention enabled them to be more self-critical as they worked through their early growing pains.

When this series started, Washington was a considerable underdog to the Lightning. Defenseman Brooks Orpik reasoned that after four games, nothing in that regard has changed.

"Everybody is probably betting against us to lose the series," Orpik said. "After winning the first two on the road, yeah, percentages are that you're going to win at least one at home. And it didn't happen, so this is where we're at, and you've just got to move forward."

Said center Lars Eller: "I know I had a good sleep (Thursday) night. There were a lot of smiles (Friday). It's still a good atmosphere."

Orpik said that with one day between each game, he doesn't believe in momentum in a series, so though Saturday's Game 5 is pivotal, it's still a fresh start.

The previous two times the Capitals won the first two games of a series on the road, they then lost the next four, two six-game series losses in 1996 and 2003. This team has shown it's able to play without the weight of franchise ghosts, and Saturday's game might be the biggest test of that yet.

"If you keep thinking about what happened in the past, maybe you get stuck in your head," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "It's a new day (Saturday) and a new game. We're all excited about that."