Flyers

Capitals hope to bury disappointing playoff history in Game 7 vs. Penguins

Capitals hope to bury disappointing playoff history in Game 7 vs. Penguins

The Washington Capitals' history of playoff disappointments began even before they ever reached the postseason.

The proof is hanging in the closet in Bruce Peters' home in Waldorf, Maryland, about 30 miles away from where the Presidents' Trophy winners will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 on Wednesday night with a spot in the Eastern Conference finals at stake.

The T-shirt, purchased at the long-since demolished Capital Centre, remains in impeccable condition. On it is a cartoon image of an unnamed Washington player with a devil sitting over his shoulder. Across the bottom it reads: "Playoffs 1981 -- Paid Hell To Get Here."

One problem. The Capitals didn't actually make the playoffs that spring, finishing last in the Patrick Division instead.

So much for truth in advertising.

Not that it mattered to Peters. An 8-year-old at the time, he was already hooked on the game and the guys in the red, white and blue sweaters. And he's stayed that way. Through the Easter Epic and the Stanley Caps. Through Yvon Labre and Rod Langway. Peter Bondra and Olaf Kolzig. Jaromir Jagr (whoops) and Alex Ovechkin. Through Esa Tikkanen's botched open net in Game 2 of the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. Through blown 3-1 leads and Game 7s that almost always ended with a handshake line as the other guys moved on. Through 43 years and four wins -- four -- beyond the second round.

So Peters will watch Wednesday night, possibly in person if he can swing it. He will rock the red. And he will believe once more.

"At least the Caps have given you a glimmer of hope, something to root for," he said. "Whether it be the Presidents' Trophy or a Game 7 overtime win or whatever."

He clings to those moments -- Dale Hunter's Game 7 breakaway against Ron Hextall in 1988, or Joel Ward's winner against Boston in 2012. Finding a way to make the conference finals for just the third time ever at the expense of the Stanley Cup champion and longtime nemesis Penguins -- who are 3-0 in winner-take-all games against Washington -- would just be the icing.

"The Penguins always seemed to get the bounce," Peters said.

Wednesday night offers a chance for the bounces to go the other way. If they don't, all those failures -- the ones Peters say "kind of blur together" -- will add another painful chapter.

So let's not miss an opportunity to stick our thumb on the wound just one more time.

The Easter Epic
Technically, Game 7 of the 1987 Patrick Division semifinals began on April 18. It didn't end until around 2 a.m. on April 19, when Pat LaFontaine's turnaround snapshot from the point threaded through a sea of bodies and beat Bob Mason 8:47 into the fourth overtime. In the stands, a 13-year-old Peters sat in stunned (and exhausted) disbelief.

"It wasn't like a hard shot, you would think a routine stop, just trickled and found its way," he said. "You play seven periods of hockey, wear and tear just gets you."

The Nedved Game
While Washington's 1996 first-round series against Pittsburgh lasted just six games, in many ways it's symbolic of the club's inability to close. The Capitals won the first two games at the Igloo and had a chance to take a 3-1 lead in Game 4. The Penguins lost Mario Lemieux early in the game after getting in a fight. Washington's Joe Juneau botched a penalty shot. Pittsburgh's Petr Nedved won with a shot in the fourth overtime that could have been called "Easter Epic 2.0." The win tied the series. Pittsburgh advanced in six games.

"That one's up there," Peters said. "Way up there."

Sid vs. Ovi Part I
The NHL finally got the matchup it was waiting four years for when Ovechkin and Penguins star Sidney Crosby met in the second round of the 2009 playoffs. The two exchanged hat tricks in Game 2 and Washington did something very un-Capital-like by winning an elimination game on the road to force a Game 7. The breakthrough moment never came. Marc-Andre Fleury stoned Ovechkin early, and the Penguins ripped off four goals in the first 23 minutes and never looked back.

"They just kind of fell apart," Peters said.

Jaroslav Who?
The Capitals responded a year after falling to the Penguins by posting the NHL's best record for the first time ever. They had home ice in the playoffs. It lasted all of seven games. Washington went up 3-1, then saw its best season ever come undone at the hand of unheralded Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The team that scored a season-high 318 goals managed three over the final three games and lost 2-1 in Game 7 at home.

Gone in a New York Minute
Less than two minutes from closing out the New York Rangers in Game 5 in 2015, the Capitals allowed New York's Chris Kreider to tie it late in regulation. The Rangers won quickly in overtime, and Henrik Lundqvist lifted them to two more wins. Another hot goalie. Another abrupt ending.

Through it all, Peters -- so hooked on the game as a kid his parents literally bought enough equipment to outfit all the kids in the neighborhood so he could play -- remained optimistic. He is once again, renewed by Washington's rally in Game 5 and dominant performance in Game 6.

If the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Cavaliers can finally do it, why can't the Caps?

"Does it feel different?" he said. "I don't know. Eventually it's going to turn."

Flyers notes, quotes and tidbits: Reversing home fortunes

Flyers notes, quotes and tidbits: Reversing home fortunes

VOORHEES, N.J. — Home is where the _____.

For the Flyers, filling in this blank hasn’t solicited positive responses this season.

Of course, the Flyers haven’t provided positive results.

After trouncing the Capitals and Panthers in their first two home games of the season, the Flyers have dropped 10 of their last 12 in South Philly. They gifted the Arizona Coyotes their first win of the season back in late October and have turned in lethargic efforts against the Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Boston Bruins in recent weeks.

More alarmingly, the Flyers have just a 1-2-5 record in one-goal games, a situation in which home ice should come into play as one of the deciding factors. The losing and frustration culminated with a barrage of boos and a “Fire Hakstol” chant during that 3-1 loss to the Sharks on Nov. 28.

“It doesn’t help, but we’re not doing anything to help ourselves,” goaltender Brian Elliott said Monday. “You’re trying not to listen to any crowd. You’re just trying to block it all out and stay in that moment, just playing with your team out there, and that’s probably how I approach it. It’s taking that road style hockey game and bringing it here.” 

“I think the atmosphere will be better,” Sean Couturier said. “When you’re losing, it’s tough. We were trying so hard to get a win. It didn’t seem to come, and then finally to get one, two and then three. We’re kind of on a roll, but at the same time, it’s only three games. We’re pretty excited to be back home and keep winning.”  

Tuesday, the team will be looking to change its Wells Fargo Center fortunes when it opens up another five-game homestand, its longest of the season, beginning with a visit from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Flyers are hopeful they can carry over their success from a three-game sweep in Western Canada when the Leafs hit town. 

“We keep it simple on the road. We went on the road and made a pact to keep it simple and play the right way,” Wayne Simmonds said. “We’ve had one of the best home records over the past three years. I think we do alright at home. Obviously, we’ve had a slow start at home, but we’ll pick it up.”

Not that the previous 14 home games have been irrelevant, but the final 27 games on home ice will have a much greater emphasis as 23 of their final 28 games come against Eastern Conference opponents, with 12 of those directly within the Metropolitan Division.

“From now on, games are going to get more and more important,” Couturier said. “Every point is pretty much necessary for us, especially when you lose 10 games in a row. You get behind in the standings and you’re chasing. We've got to stick together and get some more wins.”

'Ghost' feels for Wentz
Shayne Gostisbehere knows what it's like to wake up the way Carson Wentz did on Monday morning.

Wentz tore the ACL in his left knee during Sunday’s 43-35 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. 

In November 2014, Gostisbehere tore the same ACL in his knee during his rookie season with the Phantoms just five games in and never returned to action. Faced with months of rehab, there were moments when "Ghost" didn’t feel as if the injury was improving.   

“I saw the game yesterday,” Gostisbehere said. “I hope for the best for him. The rehab is really grueling. It's ups and downs. Some days you’re going to feel great, feel like you’re getting ahead of the game, and other days you feel you’re never going to get better. I think overall he’s going to have the best care in the world. I think obviously you hope for the best and hope it’s not that bad.”

Elliott named third star
Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott was named the NHL’s third star of the week after posting three road wins with a 1.67 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.

“It’s great when you get recognized,” Elliott said. “Whenever you get those recognitions as a goalie, it really shows how the group has been playing, especially this last week here. It’s probably my name up there, but definitely the whole team deserves that.”

Nolan Patrick's start reminder of rookie life adjusting to NHL

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AP Images

Nolan Patrick's start reminder of rookie life adjusting to NHL

VOORHEES, N.J. — If Nolan Patrick is to have a long and storied career in the National Hockey League, then perhaps we shouldn’t get caught up in the prologue - that section of a book you likely skim over before you begin chapter one.

This season is Patrick’s prologue - a short blurb that will likely be passed over when the final chapter is eventually written.  

In fact, Flyers GM Ron Hextall reminded us recently that, as an 18-year-old, Joe Thornton scored three goals and seven points in 55 games during his rookie season with the Boston Bruins in 1997-98. Does anyone remember or discuss Year 1 of the Thornton Era?

“People forget this stuff,” said Hextall. “These guys are young kids. It’s why some players need time in the minors. It’s a process. It’s hard to go out 82 times against 25, 30-year-old men and play. It’s demanding as hell. People don’t realize that.”

Starting the season on the Flyers' second line with Jordan Weal and Wayne Simmonds, Patrick, the No. 2 overall pick in this past June's entry draft, was consistently logging 13 and a half minutes a game and contributing offensively despite inconsistencies while acclimating and adjusting to playing at a much higher pace. Then came the hit against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 24 and the prolonged post-concussion period that lasted for nearly a month.

Recently, the mistakes have piled up with turnovers and poor positional play, and head coach Dave Hakstol has cut Patrick’s ice time. The rookie averaged a little below nine minutes during the recent three-game Western Canadian sweep.

“Patrick’s 19 years old. He’s a kid,” said Hextall. “I know people want more out of him. We want more out of him, but he’s a 19-year-old. People think because a kid’s got a big name, he’s drafted high, he’s going to come into the league and bang, he’s going to make an instant impact.

“He’s shown enough of signs that he can compete at this level and be a factor, and that’s what you want with a young kid. I don’t like putting young kids on a team that aren’t a factor. Why would he even be on your team? Nolan has shown at times he can be a factor and he needs to get better as the year goes on.”

Patrick’s season is more than anything a by-product of last year in juniors with the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings when he suffered a muscle tear in the midsection area that went misdiagnosed. Admittedly, he was never performing at 100 percent while fighting through pain and discomfort. 

While the majority of non-playoff NHLers begin their offseason regimen sometime in May, Patrick barely did anything. He worked out prior to combine testing in June leading up to the draft, and only after meeting with renowned core muscle surgeon Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia did Patrick realize his injuries were career-threatening. 

Had Patrick gone through an injury-free season with the Wheat Kings and a full offseason to recover from normal nagging injuries all players go through, he would have been back in the gym before the first round of the NHL playoffs had commenced.  

“I think [Brandon] lost out in April, so obviously I would have liked to have that whole time to train and work on my game, but my body had other ideas for me,” said Patrick. “The big thing for me was I was hoping I was in good enough shape to do well with fitness testing and all of that. I only had a month to train. That was kind of the main thing I was worried about.”

A second surgery followed with a 4-to-6 week recovery and then came a bizarre abscess/boil that prevented him from skating in late July. By the time Patrick started working out in August, he was a good two months behind even the most experienced veterans. 

“He didn’t have a regular offseason, didn’t play a lot last year," Hextall said of Patrick. "It’s not an excuse, but those are things you got to look at. This is where he’s at right now, and Nolan has done some goods things for us. Does he need to do better? Yeah, he does.”

Just about every player would like to re-write their rookie season, especially those who came into the league as a teenager. Prior to Patrick, Sean Couturier was the last Flyer to play in the NHL the same year he was drafted. In Couturier’s case, he had the luxury of playing on a talented in 2011-12 team while focusing on his role as a fourth-line defensive center.

“It’s all about getting adapted to a new lifestyle,” Couturier said of transitioning to the NHL as a teenager. “Everything’s new. You’re going from juniors, being with a bunch of 17 and 18-year-olds, and all of a sudden, you’re with men. It’s definitely a big change in your life. Offseason training, nutrition -- a lot of little details matter.

“I think Nolan’s figuring it out, but you can see he’s got all the potential to succeed. I’m not too worried about him to be honest."

Eventually Patrick will turn the page on his career. It just might not come this season.