Game Seven. The two most exciting words in sports. Two words dripping with anticipation. Two words which can both elate and deflate. Two words that, for Washington Capitals fans, are fraught with danger.
Given the Caps’ checkered playoff past, it is no surprise the phrase Game Seven can elicit feelings of dread. Washington’s all-time record in seventh games is an abysmal 5-11, including 3 wins and 8 losses on home ice. For a team that has registered so much success, far too many seasons have ended with a heartbreaking performance in a win-or-go-home contest. Too many times a Game Seven haymaker has laid waste to our fan souls. Too many losses punching our ticket to a summer of discontent.
As the Capitals prepare to host the Carolina Hurricanes in the latest Game Seven Wednesday night, fans cannot help but wonder if the Ghosts of Playoffs Past will once again appear. We don’t need a map to walk the path of previous Game Seven disappointments; they are seared deep in our collective memory. The Easter Epic. Countless duds versus Pittsburgh. Anemic snoozers against the Rangers. Being Halak-ed by Montreal. Devastating nights that leave a trail of profane tirades, stomped-on emotions, and tears in our beers. The reflex worry has kicked in. Muscle memory instructs us to expect the worst.
Of course, it is not time to fire up the Doomsday Siren yet. Yet. There are Game Seven highlights to cling to, to pin our hopes upon. Hunter in alone on Hextall. Federov eliminating the Rangers. Joel Ward’s overtime heroics in Boston.
And most recently, Andre Burakovsky returning from injury and Barry Trotz’s dog house to vanquish Tampa on the way to a Stanley Cup.
In fact, it is last season’s performance that should give fans hope. In 2018, Washington shut up the worry warts and skeptics with clutch performance after clutch performance. Who knew the Caps would have to quiet the critics again quite so soon? Doubters point to Washington’s effort, or lack thereof. They lament the team’s inability to routinely put together a solid 60-minute attack. Cynics wonder how a team so talented can underachieve in big moments, seeming to not “want it” badly enough. One of the best things the Caps did last postseason was keep three of the four series from reaching Game Seven where, as the cliché says, anything can happen.
It would be nice if they could have repeated the feat in this series, yet here we are. So, what now? Any time the Caps stumbled this season we heard how they were saving themselves for the playoffs. How they were conserving energy. How they now know what it takes to win. How a championship mettle forged in the crucible of a Stanley Cup victory was an advantage. Now, tonight, in this worrisome Game Seven, is the time to show if that is true. To show last season was not an anomaly, but instead the first step into a deeper run of fearless play and sustained success.
To prove this the Caps will have to overcome a hungry Carolina squad. They will have to solve the Canes relentless forecheck, patiently navigate a clogged neutral zone, and fight through shot blocks and congested passing lanes. They will have to physically punish the Canes, reaping the payoff of seven games of cumulative hits. They will have to hand Justin Williams his first Game Seven loss wearing a uniform other than a Caps’ red sweater. If they can do that, the Caps will quiet the ghosts and critics (for now), will actually own a Game Seven winning streak, will set up a date with Barry Trotz’s Islanders, and will take the next step in their Back2Back quest. Then, and only then, will fans exhale and delight in those two tricky words: Game Seven.
By Bryan Hailey