Perspective: Battle Tested and Ready for Pittsburgh

T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner
Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The date was May 10th, 2016. The site was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the building that houses the biggest rival of the Capitals: the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals were staring at a 3-1 series hole in the best of seven series, but did their job in the previous game and staved off elimination on their home ice. Now as this series shifted to enemy territory, Washington was staring at another hole: down 3 goals to none. 

The Caps stormed right back scoring three straight goals, the latter one coming on a John Carlson strike on a 5-on-3 power play. It seemed like the momentum shifted in Washington’s favor. As overtime began, that wasn’t the case. Pittsburgh used their speed and a goal by Nick Bonino sent the Caps home.

That goal and the image of the Penguins celebrating was stuck in the heads of the players and coaches throughout the off-season. If anybody wanted to forget about that series, it certainly didn’t help that the NHL scheduled the Caps to play the Penguins in Pittsburgh to open the season which in turn forced the Caps to watch the Penguins raise their championship banner.

Before getting another crack at the Penguins in the playoffs, the Capitals had to go through the grind of another grueling 82-game regular season. This stretch was much different than last year despite ending the regular season the same, as Presidents’ Trophy winners with the best record in the NHL. For starters, there were stretches when the team wasn’t playing well, some key players getting injured at different parts of the season, and tough losses.

While the Capitals peaked in January last season, their play was lackluster the rest of the way. In the first round that year, they took on the Flyers, and after dominating the first three games, they dropped the next two. They still squeaked by the Flyers in Game 6, but the red-hot and hungry Penguins awaited.

There has been big evidence of more things that seemed different with this year’s version of the Capitals. The difference I believe is one word: resiliency. Resiliency is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness, and the ability to overcome challenges of all kinds.

One can point to the closed door – player’s only meeting the team held after they beat the Bruins in overtime. Despite the win, the Capitals squandered a 3-0 lead. Or you can point to their absolute thrashing of Columbus that ended the Blue Jackets’ 16 game winning streak. If Columbus had won that game, that would’ve tied the record of 17 that was set by the Penguins in 1992-93. That game was a part of the Caps 15-game home winning streak that began on the first day of this calendar year and extended all the way to early March.

After the home streak came to an end against the Stars on March 6th, another slide began that saw the Caps drop all three of their California road contests similar to last year. The Capitals bounced back against a hot Wild team and would later clinch a playoff berth at Tampa and notch a shootout win over the Blue Jackets on home ice. The Caps would end the month of March and begin the final month of the regular season with a long five game road trip. Washington went 4-1 and it included another big win over the Blue Jackets. They clinched the Metropolitan Division as well as the Presidents’ Trophy three nights later on home ice with a 2-0 win over the Rangers.

Once the regular season ended, the Caps learned that their first playoff opponent would be the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many fans and experts said this would be an easy series for the Capitals, but Toronto head coach Mike Babcock and his team gave it everything they had and pushed Washington to the limit.

The Capitals were in a 2-0 hole early in Game 1, but Justin Williams scored twice to tie it and Tom Wilson won it in overtime. Speaking of overtimes, overall in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs there were a record 18 overtime games. Five of those came from the Washington-Toronto series. The Caps would drop the next two games in overtime and it led many in Caps Nation to start panicking.

The Caps showed resiliency in the next three games of that series. In Game 4, similarly to Game 3, the Caps scored the first two goals of the game. Unlike Game 3, the Capitals stretched their lead to 4-1 after the opening period and hung on for the 5-4 win. Wilson and T.J. Oshie each scored twice while Alex Ovechkin had a goal of his own. Oshie’s second goal provided insurance after the Maple Leafs closed the gap to 4-3.

One night later, the Penguins defeated the Blue Jackets in five games. Pittsburgh won the first three games of that series and dropped Game 4 prior to clinching. This would mean that the winner of the Capitals-Maple Leafs series would have to go through the defending champions if they wanted a shot at the Cup.

The series went back to DC for Game 5. In the first period, Alex Ovechkin took a hit by Nazem Kadri that flipped him over. Ovechkin was down and the whole arena went silent. He was helped to the locker room. After Ovechkin left, Oshie (perhaps sticking up for the captain) scored on the ensuing power play.

Ovechkin came back in for the second period to the relief of Caps fans everywhere. The Leafs would tie it in the second with a goal from Auston Matthews. Williams won it in overtime with another game winning playoff goal added to his legacy.

Then Game 6 came. All the other playoff teams had already wrapped up each of their respective playoff series, except for Washington and Toronto. The Caps looked to end it that night while the Leafs were trying to force a Game 7 back in DC. There was a scare in the third period as Matthews got a lucky bounce and scored to give them the 1-0 lead. With their backs to the wall, Marcus Johansson stepped it up. First he tied it just over five minutes after the Matthews strike to ultimately force overtime. When this overtime began it was much different than the previous overtimes. The Caps were everywhere. Getting bodies on the other team, fighting for the puck, and getting a lot of shots to the net, very similar to what Pittsburgh did to them a year ago on that fateful night. It paid off in the end after Williams shot the puck and Johansson was there to put it in. Game. Set. Match.

Almost one year after the season ended in heartbreaking fashion, here we are once again. A lot of people think the Penguins will take care of the Caps in this series because of the simple fact that it took the Capitals six games to knock off the pesky Leafs. I beg to differ. The Toronto series was a good test for the Caps. I believe that the adversity from Game 3 made them a completely different team. I believe they learned the lesson that nothing will ever be given to you, you have to earn it. If the Caps want to earn the Stanley Cup, they have to take care of business and it starts with eliminating the Penguins.

Tonight, it begins.

By Michael Marzzacco

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