The Washington Capitals are in a place with which they have some familiarity over the years, holding a 3-2 lead through five games of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. A Game 5 usually means a series win, looking at the history of such things around the league. For the Caps, though, it has not been as reliable an indicator of series success. But we’ll let the cousins bat that back and forth…
Feerless… For much of the season, Capitals Nation has entertained the notion of this being a team different from any other in recent history. They score like the 2009-2010 team…yeah, well this team is different. They won 56 games last year, 55 games this year…yeah, well, this team is different. In some respects, this team has been different. It is arguably the best defense/goaltending performance in the post-2005-2006 era, if not team history. They were actually pressed in the late season by Columbus and Pittsburgh this season while they coasted to a Presidents Trophy last season. But the first meaningful indicator of whether this team is truly “different” this season comes on Sunday night when they can eliminate the Maple Leafs without letting things slide to a Game 7 in Washington on Tuesday.
Cheerless… Well, y’know, this whole “Game 5” thing hasn’t been much of a thing in this “era,” as you call it, cuz. Since 2005-2006 the Caps took a 2-2- series into a Game 5 on home ice three times. They won two of those games – in 2013 against the New York Rangers and in 2015 against the New York Islanders. In those two series, they lost Game 6 in New York against the Rangers in 2013 before losing Game 7 on home ice, and in 2015 they lost Game 6 on Long Island before beating the Islanders at Verizon Center in Game 7. Know what would really be different here? Winning Game 6 on the road.
Cheerless… When is this team going to put together a complete game and give us all a break?! Five games, five one-goal games, four settled in overtime. This is worse than that 2012 series against Boston that had seven one-goal games, four of them in overtime, including the Game 7 win on the road. At least the Caps were an underdog in that series, or at least the lower seed playing the defending Stanley Cup champs. And it’s not like the 2010 series against Montreal where the goalie played out of his mind in the last three games to steal the series from the Caps. The Caps have played right to the level of their competition in this series. High scoring games, low scoring games…no matter what, all one-goal games, and the Caps and coin-flips don’t go well together.
Fearless… Yes, this is a game between one- and eight-seeds. But since March 1st, their records are almost identical. Washington was 13-6-1, while Toronto was 12-6-2. Toronto has been rightly characterized as a young team, but they might not be getting enough credit for being a good one. Sure, one could make the argument that they have had the benefit of some bounces, but they have put themselves in a position to take advantage of the opportunities those bounces provided. Teams that lack a foundation in fundamentals might not find themselves in those positions. The Caps have done well to fight through that and carry a 3-2 lead into Game 6.
Fearless… Once more, the game on the ice and the “off season” game intersect. Look at who scored the goals in Game 5 – T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. The players that the front office went out and acquired to address a specific shortcoming after the 2014-2015 season. Those two are tied for the team lead in goals (three, with Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin), and they are first and third in points, respectively, in the postseason. Each has a game-winning goal, Oshie’s coming in the third period of Game 4 and Williams’ coming last night in overtime of Game 5. It is part of a broader theme of the veterans having a pretty good series. Ovechkin is tied for the team lead with three goals in five games, while Nicklas Backstrom is 2-4-6, second on the team in points.
Cheerless… Then there are the young guys. Evgeny Kuznetsov occasionally looks as if he is oh, so close on chances or about to break out in a big way, and he did have the primary assist on the overtime game-winner last night on a sweet feed. But then again, that was his third point in five games. Him having three and not, say, five, might be the difference between the Caps wining this series in five games and having to go to a Game 6 to close things out. Then there is Andre Burakovsky. Two assists in five games makes for 1-2-3 in 17 playoff games over the past two seasons. And his ice time is starting to look like his performance. He had 10:44 in Game 4 and 11:56 last night after three games over 13:30, one of them over 19 minutes. Burakovsky isn’t the reason this series is close, but if he gets untracked it could end really quickly.
Cheerless… The Caps are facing a hard climb in Game 6. They beat Toronto in Game 4 at Air Canada Centre, but they have not won consecutive games on the road in the postseason since then won three in a row in 2012 against Boston (they haven’t won consecutive games on the road in regulation since 2010 against Montreal). Since those wins against Boston in 2012, Washington is 6-16 on the road in the playoffs, 1-7 in overtime.
Fearless… The Caps have been in a position to win each of their last dozen games on the road in the postseason. In those dozen games they have a 4-8 record, but all eight losses were by one goal, five of them in overtime. To be fair, of the Caps’ four wins in that span, three were by one goal, but all of them in regulation. It is not as if the Caps have been dominated on enemy ice the last two seasons, but they have been consistently on the wrong side of those close games.
Fearless… If the Caps should be successful in this postseason, Tom Wilson’s effort late in the first period of Game 4 against the Leafs might be referred to as “The Shift” in Capitals lore. But there might be a day remember in the future that was every bit as important that and that had nothing to do with a game. Thursday was an off-day between Games 4 and 5, but while the skaters took advantage of the down time to recharge their batteries, goalie Braden Holtby took the ice at 10 a.m. to work with coach Mitch Korn to do some “fine tuning.” You get the feeling Korn wouldn’t need a tuning fork to tune a Stradivarius or a Steinway (or that he’d bring a lot of funky tools to the job). Whatever he and Holtby did had the desired effect, a 30-save effort when the Caps desperately needed one. It might have been his best performance since he authored a 30-save effort in Game 5 of last spring’s second round series against the Penguins, the 3-1 win forcing a Game 6. If Holtby has been sufficiently “fine tuned,” Toronto’s task becomes infinitely more difficult.
Cheerless… Cuz, about that game against Pittsburgh last spring. Yup, it was a 30-save effort. Yup, he allowed only one goal. Yup, he won on home ice. Yup, it came after he allowed three goals in three of his previous four games and after he lost three in a row to the Penguins. But that Game 6 after that 30-save effort? He allowed four goals on 42 shots and lost in overtime in what was the series-clinching win for the Penguins. Maybe the key is going to be not letting Toronto use Holtby like a shooting gallery.
Peerless… The Caps took a first period lead in each of the last two games, but they allowed the Maple Leafs to tie the game in the second period twice. The second period is the only one in which the Caps have a negative goal-differential in the series (minus-2), and they have been outscored, 5-2, in the second periods over the last three games. It might not be coincidental, the Leafs taking advantage of the long change with their speed to ramp up the pace of the game. The second period has been an issue all season long. It is something that still bears watching.
The Capitals have had the chance to eliminate a team 20 times in since 2005-2006. In those 20 games, they have a 5-15 record, 2-9 in their last 11 games in which they could have sent an opponent home. What is most ominous in an historical context is that the Caps have never won consecutive decisions in games in that span in which they could have eliminated an opponent. The last time they were in this situation, they eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of their opening round series last spring. Nothing would say – nay, scream – “we’re different”… “WE’RE DIFFERENT! – than ending this series in the Caps’ first chance to send the Maple Leafs off to the off-season.
However, the thing to watch for now might be on the Toronto side of the ice. The Maple Leafs have played a high-tempo, but determined sort of game for most of this series. They have not looked like a team with seven rookies having dressed for games. Now, however, the Leafs are facing elimination for the first time in this series. If Shakespeare was a hockey guy, he might call this the “undiscovered country” for the Leafs (for Hamlet, it was death; for Toronto, it is elimination from the playoffs). How the Maple Leafs deal with this situation might be what decides Game 6.