Capitals

Quick Links

How the Capitals went from 'chokers' to 'closers' in Game 6s

ovechkin_backstrom_kuznetsov_usat.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

How the Capitals went from 'chokers' to 'closers' in Game 6s

RALEIGH — There was a time when a Stanley Cup Playoff series lead of any kind produced nothing but stress and anxiety for the Capitals and their tortured fan base.

This is an organization, after all, that has blown a 3-1 playoff series lead five times – often in horrifying, heartbreaking fashion. That has only happened 28 times in NHL history, and Washington owns 18 percent of those epic collapses. But the league’s biggest chokers have put those demons to rest. And that trend started well before winning the Stanley Cup last year. 

Tonight, the Capitals have a chance to close out the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 6 of a first-round playoff series at PNC Arena. They lead 3-2. They know they always have another chance, if necessary, on Wednesday for Game 7 at Capital One Arena back home. 

But if ending a series on the road once seemed like a daunting task, it hasn’t fazed the franchise for a while now. Washington has won four Game 6s in a row when up 3-2 in a series.  

“When we play to our identity and force other teams to make mistakes and they’re in an elimination situation, then those mistakes become magnified,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “That team is already feeling the pressure of that being their last game. And if we play to our identity then it really seems to match up nicely for those elimination games.”

The Capitals were ahead 3-2 with road Game 6s in Philadelphia (2016), Toronto (2017), Columbus (2018) and Pittsburgh (2018) and won them all. They also put Vegas away last June up 3-1 in the series with Game 5 on the road and won the Stanley Cup that night. If the recent version of the Capitals has a chance to put a team away, the team has done it.

The last time they blew a lead with a chance to eliminate the opposition was 2015 when they coughed up a 3-1 advantage in a second-round exit to the New York Rangers. 

There are theories why.

A big, physical team with elite skill, Washington has been able to wear teams out the later a series goes. In 2017, the Maple Leafs put up a great fight against the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the first round. They won two overtime games. They took a 2-1 series lead and had a chance to go up 3-1 on the Capitals with Game 4 at home in Toronto. 

Washington, instead, won Game 4 by a 5-4 score and allowed just two goals in Games 5 and 6 to end the series.

The offense went dry in 2016 against Philadelphia in the first round and a 3-0 series lead suddenly was cut to 3-2 with the Flyers hosting Game 6. They had life. The old Capitals might have panicked. But they won that game 1-0. Philadelphia managed just four goals over the final three games of the series and had nothing left in Game 6. 

There is a mentality that goes into playing a game where the other team’s season is on the line and yours is not.   

"To ourselves, I think, to show that when we play that way, we're going to be real tough to beat,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “I don't think we put much emphasis on [Carolina]. We know they're going to prepare and play as if it's an elimination game for them. We know they're going to come hard, we know they're a good young team and they never shy away from anything. It's on us to play like that and take everything else out of it."

Last year against Columbus in the first round, Washington overcame a 2-0 deficit to tie the series. Game 4 on the road was a clinic with the frustrated Blue Jackets hardly able to get the puck through the neutral zone in a 4-1 Capitals win. Washington broke Columbus’ will with its relentless, physical play. It scored 10 goals in Games 5 and 6 to end the series.  

The same thing played out the next round against Pittsburgh. A dominating 6-3 win in Game 5 at home – much like the 6-0 win over Carolina on Saturday – set the stage for a classic road Game 6. Washington scored first. The Penguins tied it. But the Capitals were the team with enough juice left in overtime to take the series on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game-winning goal. 

The best example of how the Capitals have worn down one opponent after another actually came last season in the Eastern Conference Final when they were down 3-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Washington didn’t allow a goal in Games 6 and 7 and advanced. 

“Our team likes being on the road, plays well on the road, enjoys spending that time with each other,” Reirden said. “When you want to have success on the road you have to have contributions from everybody throughout your lineup. That makes you a very difficult team to match up as the home coach. So by us having the seven 20-goal scorers, we were a difficult match.

"And now, we started to see a little bit more of our depth scoring [Saturday]. … It certainly becomes an easier road assignment for the coach -- I can tell you. That’s an advantage for us.”

The Lightning last May looked like a boxer that had taken too many blows to the head after the Capitals blitzed them in Game 6.

If you looked closely on Saturday, you saw elements of that when Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton raced back for a puck, knew Alex Ovechkin was steaming right behind him, and gave up on the play. Hamilton didn’t appear to want to pay the price for winning that race and instead Ovechkin took the puck away and fed Brett Connolly in front for the goal that put Washington up 3-0. 

Maybe Carolina regroups tonight. The Hurricanes are a young team, but with grizzled veterans like Jordan Staal and Justin Williams who have won multiple Stanley Cups between them. They won’t play scared. The crowd at PNC Arena will be a factor. They do not want their season to end.

But these Capitals are a different breed. Time and again the past three years they have grinded their opponents into dust so by the time the series reaches this point there isn’t enough fight left to them.     

“We’ve just got to regroup here and move forward,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “That was just a 3-2 lead. Toughest one is the last one. We haven’t been happy with the way we’ve played in Carolina so far. Let’s change that.”

MORE CAPITALS NEWS

Quick Links

How to watch the IIHF World Championship Finals: Date, Time, TV Channel, Lineups

kucherov_russia_donskoi_usat.jpg
USA TODAY Sports Images

How to watch the IIHF World Championship Finals: Date, Time, TV Channel, Lineups

The 2019 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship is coming to a close this Memorial Day weekend.

After two weeks, the sixteen team field has been narrowed down to four with the world championship now on the line in Slovakia. 

The two group winners, Canada, the top-ranked team in the world and 26-time IIHF Champions, and Russia, who rolled through the group stage with a 7-0 record and a +29 goal differential, are the favorites. Russia overwhelmingly has played like the best team in Slovakia, outscoring its opponents 40-10 behind Nikita Kucherov's 16 points in eight games.

The Russian/ Soviet Union team is the only team with more titles than the Canadians with 27 (five as Russia, 22 as the Soviet Union). 

Canada will face off against the Czech Republic, whose only loss came against the Russians in group play, with a spot to the Finals on the line. Russia will play Finland for the last spot in the gold medal match.

Three of the four teams remaining (Russia, Canda, and the Czech Republic) are the winningest teams in the IIHF's history. The four semifinalists have combined to win 67 of the 82 IIHF World Championships.

When is the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals?

The 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals will take place at 8:15 p.m. local time (2:15 p.m. ET) on Sunday, May 26. The bronze medal match will precede the gold medal match at 3:45 p.m. local time (9:15 a.m. ET). 

2019 IIHF World Championship Schedule:

There are only four matches left in the 2019 IIHF World Championship. The two semifinals, the bronze medal match, and the gold medal match.

SEMIFINALS:
No. 3 Russia vs. No. 5 Finland, 9:15 a.m. ET, May 25
No. 1 Canada vs. No. 6 Czech Republic, 1:15 p.m. ET, May 25

BRONZE MEDAL MATCH:
Loser of Semifinal No. 1 vs. Loser of Semifinal No. 2, 9:45 a.m. ET, May 26

GOLD MEDAL MATCH:
Winner of Semifinal No. 1 vs. Winner of Semifinal No. 2, 2:15 p.m. ET, May 26

How to watch or stream the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals:

All games at the IIHF World Championships will be broadcast on NHL Network.

Who is playing in the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals?

The 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals will be played between the winner of Russia (8-0-0)/ Finland (7-0-1) and Canada (7-1-0)/ Czech Republic (7-0-1).

Lineups for the 2019 IIHF World Championship Finals:

Lineups for the 2019 IIHF Championship Finals will be announced on the morning of May 26. 

Quick Links

The Blues turnaround from last place to the playoffs began with a blowout win over the Caps

st_louis_blues_caps_usat.jpg
USA Today Sports images

The Blues turnaround from last place to the playoffs began with a blowout win over the Caps

When the St. Louis Blues woke up on Jan. 3, they were in dead last in the NHL. A 15-18-4 record gave them 34 points, less than teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the Ottawa Senators who would go on to finish the season as the two worst teams. Yes, St. Louis had played in only 37 games to that point, the fewest in the league, but finding a way to climb back into the playoff hunt seemed daunting and unlikely.

Now the Blues are the Western Conference champions and stand just four wins away from the Stanley Cup.

The Blues have been one of the best stories of the NHL season climbing from last place to the Stanley Cup Final. When looking back at St. Louis’ season, there are several moments one can point to as key moments in the turnaround. Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as head coach on Nov. 20 and goalie Jordan Binnington got his first start with the Blues on Jan. 7 and never gave back the crease.

But the turnaround really started on Jan. 3. On that morning, the Blues were in last place. That would be the last day they would find themselves there.

And it all started with a 5-2 win against the Washington Capitals.

On Jan. 3, St. Louis and Washington looked like two teams headed in opposite directions. While the Blues were in last place, the Caps were rolling with a 24-11-3 record, first in the Metropolitan Division. Washington came into St. Louis on a five-game road winning streak. As if that wasn’t enough, the Blues were also without sniper Vladimir Tarasenko.

And yet, what looked like an easy win for the Caps turned into anything but. Robert Thomas scored a deflection just four minutes into the game. Washington managed to take a 2-1 lead early in the second, but St. Louis rattled off four straight goals for the 5-2 win. With Washington down only 3-2 heading into the third period, the Blues but on a possession clinic outshooting Washington 14-2 in the final frame.

"We stayed aggressive," Alex Pietrangelo told reporters. "When we're playing in the O zone, the best way to play defense is to play in their end. We kept the puck, we moved the puck, we worked. Forwards were great tonight, protecting the center of the ice. It kind of took their playmakers out of the game."

The Caps’ first shot came 13 minutes into the third. By then, the Blues already had 12 shots and two goals.

Over the course of an 82-game season, teams will lose games against teams they shouldn’t. This felt different. Watching this game, you did not come away thinking the Caps played down to an inferior team. The Blues dominated that game and the Caps knew it.

“They were skating, competing harder, won races, more determined than we were,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “If we’re being honest about it, we didn’t have a very good game, and they played a pretty darn good game.”
More importantly, St. Louis realized it as well. They knew following the game that this was a win and a performance they could build on.

“I think we out-chanced them, so we're building here at even strength,” Pietrangelo said. “It's just a matter of keeping it at even strength and scoring goals. Tonight the goals weren't necessarily pretty but we created a lot of chances."
That night proved to be the first night of the turnaround. From Jan. 3 on, no team in the NHL earned more points than St. Louis’ 65, not even the Tampa Bay Lightning who won the Presidents’ Trophy with an incredible 128 points.

St. Louis was not expected to be bad this season. The team made a number of offseason moves to bolster the roster and many thought they could be real contenders, but they sure did not play like it through the first half of the season. It took a big win over the defending Stanley Cup champs to show them and everyone else just how good they really were. From that point on, they never looked back.

MORE CAPITALS NEWS: