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Remembering the Capitals’ first Game 7 win after previous year's heartbreak

Remembering the Capitals’ first Game 7 win after previous year's heartbreak

Sports Uncovered is a six-part weekly podcast series that explores the stories that took the national sports world by storm. The newest episode, Marathon On Ice, dives into the longest game of the NHL’s modern era. Not surprisingly, the Washington Capitals have their own history of epic Game 7s. 

One of the most legendary hockey games in Capitals history is, unfortunately, a loss. The Easter Epic, a four-overtime Game 7 played between Washington and the New York Islanders, resulted in a loss for the Caps as Pat LaFontaine ripped out the hearts of Washington fans everywhere with his goal. In sports, sometimes there are losses that scar sports fans forever, That game was certainly one of them for Caps fans. Just one year, later, however, Washington found itself on the winning end of a Game 7 overtime as Dale Hunter restored hope to the franchise.
 
If you have ever been to a game at Capital One Arena, you will probably recognize Hunter’s breakaway overtime winner. It is played before games, but you may not know why it is significant. Long before Alex Ovechkin led the Caps to a Stanley Cup, Hunter’s goal was the biggest goal in the history of the team.
 
In 1988, Washington finished the season in second place of the Patrick Division and drew the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs. Looking to erase the memory of LaFontaine’s goal, the playoffs got off to a horrible start. Murray Craven scored less than two minutes into overtime of Game 4 to give Philadelphia a 3-1 series lead and it looked like the Caps were headed for an early exit. Instead, that’s when the team dug in its heels. After wins of 5-2 and 7-2, the Caps forced a decisive Game 7 in Washington.

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The Easter Epic took place on April 18, 1987. On April 16, 1988, the Caps once again took to the ice at home in a Game 7 to determine which team would advance.
 
The game got ugly fast as the Flyers took a 3-0 lead early in the second period, but Washington rallied for three goals to tie it before the period was out. Hunter then scored on the power play early in the third as the Caps incredibly took a 4-3 lead in a game in which they had trailed 3-0. Brad Marsh, however, scored just over a minute later and the game was tied at 4.
 
In overtime, Craven, the overtime hero for Philadelphia in Game 4, had the puck stolen away by Larry Murphy at the blue line. Seeing the lane, Hunter swung around in the neutral zone and bolted up ice and Murphy fed him perfectly as Hunter split the defense for the breakaway. Hunter beat Ron Hextall through the 5-hole with the shot and the series was over.

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The Capitals’ postseason history includes plenty of heartaches and, before the team won the Stanley Cup, it was hard not to see past those. But the team's history is full of great moments as well and Hunter’s Game 7 winner is one of the greatest. While Evgeny Kuznetsov’s Game 6 goal to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins or Lars Eller’s Cup-clinching goals may loom larger in the minds of Caps’ fans now, don't forget Hunter’s goal that restored hope to a franchise that seemed to have lost in just one year prior.

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Capitals 'hoping' Nicklas Backstrom can play in Game 3 vs. Islanders, but status remains uncertain

Capitals 'hoping' Nicklas Backstrom can play in Game 3 vs. Islanders, but status remains uncertain

While Capitals fans would take any good news they can get after the team fell behind 2-0 to the Islanders in a 5-2 loss on Friday night, there was no concrete update on center Nicklas Backstrom’s injury status postgame.

Washington coach Todd Reirden said he was hopeful for Backstrom’s return in Game 3 against New York on Sunday in Toronto. That was about all he was providing to reporters after the game. 

After a late hit from Islanders captain Anders Lee, Backstrom left Game 1 early and was ruled out for Game 2 as he remained in concussion protocol. Backstrom’s teammates and coaches were displeased by the late hit, calling it “dirty” and “predatory” after the fact.

The Caps struggled on Friday without Backstrom in an all-around sloppy performance. Reirden commented on the impact of losing the star center following Game 2.

“Without Backstrom, it's not an easy situation and getting Lars Eller back in there for the first time after being away from the bubble for a little bit, we have some adversity,” Reirden said. “We have to fight through. It's not going to happen easily. It never does, and we have to put more work in and match that and compete to give ourselves a chance to have some of our skill be more present in the game."

Now trailing 2-0 in the first round, the Capitals have to turn things around quickly if they hope to advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Having Backstrom back on the ice for Game 3 would certainly make their troubles easier. That is far from certain right now. 

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The Capitals are their own worst enemy after 'self-inflicted' mistakes lead to a 2-0 series hole

The Capitals are their own worst enemy after 'self-inflicted' mistakes lead to a 2-0 series hole

The frustration of the Capitals was evident on Friday.

Just 21 seconds after Washington gave up a breakaway, go-ahead goal to Brock Nelson in the second period, Garnet Hathaway was called for boarding Matt Martin and was hauled off to the box by the linesman with his gloves off looking for someone to fight. That play was emblematic of the team's mentality for much of Game 2 as frustration devolved into an ugly 5-2 loss at the hands of the New York Islanders.

Hathaway's boarding call was one of five power plays Washington gave up on the night.  Jakub Vrana continued his rough postseason with an early slash and Tom Wilson hit Ryan Pulock before giving him an unnecessary elbow, which sent him to the box. The team also took two too many men penalties. Washington's perfect penalty kill was finally pierced early in the second period by Nick Leddy, snapping a streak of 14 straight penalty kills.

"The disappointing part is that we get off to a good start and then self-inflicted again plays," Todd Reirden said. "It's mentally as it is physically. I mean, too many men on the ice, it's clear that the players know who they're going for and it's poor changes. Now we end up giving the momentum, we take a couple other penalties that aren't great and we allow them to get back in the game and get some momentum. We have to be smarter in that regard."

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It wasn't just the penalties that cost the Caps as mistakes were rampant throughout the game. New York's second goal came off a defensive zone turnover as Lars Eller was attacked by two forecheckers behind the net and no one reacted to give him a target to pass to. The game-winner was scored on a breakaway as Vrana tried to corral the puck at the offensive blue line with his back turned to the pressure. Brock Nelson stole it away to launch himself on the breakaway.

"I think we are just a little out of sync," John Carlson said. "There is obviously times where guys make bad plays and bad decisions, that is hockey, but I think a lot of the time we do execute the first play or two. You know just out of sync on that next leg of the play."

Coming into this series, everyone knew the Islanders could be a frustrating team to play against. It's their style of play. They play a very tough defensive style that, once they get a lead on you, suddenly becomes suffocating to play against.

But the feeling from the Caps after two games isn't so much that they are getting beat by the Islanders, but that they are beating themselves.

"We have to figure out a way to outwork this team and match their work ethic," Reirden said. "We do at some points like we do to start a game, but we don't do it for extended periods of time. We're going to have to if we want to get back in this series."

So how do you prevent the frustration we've seen from the games keep from getting into the minds of the players now with the team down 2-0 in the series?

Alex Ovechkin put it bluntly: "We've just got to move on."

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