The Washington Capitals have long taunted their fans with tastes of greatness and then fallen short of expectations in the playoffs. Last year’s second round loss in 4 games to Tampa Bay being the latest example. Their dismal record in Game 7’s (2-7) offers little reason for optimism. Defeating the defending Stanley Cup Champions on the road seems like a daunting task. So, why will this year be different? In short, because it can be different, and here’s why.
The Underdog Caps have defied the experts for months
No one expected the Caps to be here, and by no one, I mean all the smart guys in the media. During the last month of the season, when the Capitals were battling the Sabres for the final playoff spot in the East, not a single analyst picked Washington. Zero. One analyst went so far as to say, “the Washington Capitals don’t scare anyone.” Then the Caps dug deep, played some of their best hockey of the season and got into the playoffs. So much for the experts.
Once they got in, the Caps continued to get overlooked. Not a single analyst picked the Caps to win this series with the Bruins, despite the Caps having won the season series with the Bruins (3-1) including two “must win” games down the stretch. Most analysts picked the Bruins in six games (sorry experts). In fact, Jeremy Roenick went so far as to call the Bruins his “lock of the week” in the first round. That means Homer Simpson has his mortgage riding on the black and gold. And the Caps won. And won. And won. Doesn’t sound like a lock to me.
Now it comes down to a best of one, winner take all game, and guess what – no one is picking the Caps. Despite all of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, historical performances and picks by the media, I believe the Caps are in the best spot because they have NOTHING TO LOSE. They are not defending the Cup, they are not at home, and no one expected them to be playing this game anyway, much less to win it. Preseason predictions aside, the Caps have already gone further in the last two months than anyone gave them credit for. And so, they can play loose and confident and they can win this game.
Dale Hunter is one tough SOB
Game 7 is going to be a street fight, and if there’s one guy on either team that I’d want on my side in a street fight, it’s Dale Hunter. Sure, the Bruins are loaded with tough guys and carry a reputation as the toughest team in the league. But I grew up watching Dale Hunter and he doesn’t take crap from anybody. That is why the Caps haven’t backed down from the rough play or intimidation tactics employed by the Bruins. In fact, they’ve embraced the more physical style of play.
After months of coaching the Caps we are finally seeing the team take on Dale Hunter’s personality. They are committed to shot blocking, defense and fighting it out for pucks in the corner. Everybody is contributing. Even Alex Ovechkin threw his body on the ice to block a shot in Game 6 (okay, it was a little ugly and his teammates and coaches probably had a laugh with it, but the fact is, when the Great 8 does it, everyone is committed to it). They have rallied around a rookie goal tender who is playing great hockey. And, they never give up. They are not intimidated by the Bruins or by Game 7. And given the Caps record on the Bruins’ home ice, I’d say it’s the Bruins who should be scared.
Because the Caps have more talented playmakers
Remember all those playoff losses to Lemieux and Jagr? Lafontaine? Hextall? Well, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green possess a truckload of talent. And while this has been a tight checking, hard fought series, and these players have under delivered over the course of the season, it is talent that usually wins out in these situations. Alexander Semin in particular has impressed me over the last 6 games. I have never seen him consistently fight as hard for pucks or throw his body in front of shots like he has in this series. And Ovechkin reminded us of what a threat he is when he put a wicked wrister between Tim Thomas’ legs before he had a chance to react. The Caps had plenty of chances to score in Game 6 with brilliant play by all four players mentioned. As long as these guys don’t try to be hero’s, limit mistakes, finish opportunities and play within the system, the Caps will be in it.
Braden Holtby is in the Bruins heads
Despite the high(er) scoring nature of the last two games, the Bruins have launched far more pucks at Braden Holtby than the Caps have at Tim Thomas. Holtby’s statistics in the playoffs are stellar (.935 SV% 2.18 GAA). The Bruins are now admittedly trying different tactics to just get a better scoring chance. Some of it has worked (like shooting at the goalie’s head) but a lot of it has not. And, in a pressure packed Game 7, it will be the Bruins who are desperately trying to create scoring chances, not the Capitals. And, if I’m the coach, Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Playoff series is not where I want to be reinventing my offensive game plan. If the Legend of Braden Holtby hasn't been written already in these playoffs, Game 7 might be the first chapter.
Because anything can happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs
In sports as in life, the Caps have done the one thing they needed to do – put themselves in position to do something great. In a game of hot goalies and bounces of the puck, that’s all you really need, a chance. When you put yourself in position to be successful, good things usually happen. The Caps have been on the wrong end of Stanley Cup playoff mojo for a long time. But I believe it’s their turn to be great. It’s a time when this team, these players, this franchise, and this hockey city turn the corner. Michael Jordan once said he missed more game winning shots than he made in his career. But he always wanted the ball, he always took the last shot, he always wanted to be in that position, exactly where the Caps are tomorrow night. Dale Hunter said that as a player, you have to embrace the moment and have fun with it, and as a fan that is what I'm going to do. For one, I’d much rather be Alex Ovechkin playing in Game 7 than be sitting at home with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.
Let's go Caps!