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.”
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