The Washington Capitals have spent most of the past year under intense scrutiny. How did they get swept by underdog Tampa Bay in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals? How did they collapse after a 7-0 start this season, costing nice guy coach Bruce Boudreau his job? How did they get crushed by Buffalo in a seemingly must-win home game late last month?
But after squeaking into the playoffs during the final week and going toe to toe with the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in Games 1 and 2 of the conference quarterfinals in Boston, the Caps will take the ice for Game 3 tonight at Verizon Center feeling about as delightful as Washington’s weather.
Goalie Braden Holtby, a 22-year-old with no previous NHL playoff experience, has quickly risen from the best-of-seven series’ biggest question mark to its biggest star, stopping 72 of 74 Bruins shots in the two overtime games at TD Garden.
By scoring the game-winner in Game 2, Nicklas Backstrom has made Washington general manager George McPhee look a soothsayer for declaring that his team could compete with anyone in the conference if its No. 1 center returned from the concussion that sidelined him for 40 games until March 31.
Three of the five remaining possible games in the series will be played on F Street where the Caps were 26-11-4 during the regular season compared to a 16-21-4 road record. None of the seven other teams in the Eastern playoffs had such an imbalance between skating in their own building and someone else’s.
Now, of course, we’re talking about the Caps, the franchise that has made a habit of squandering leads in playoff games and series and losing home contests in April to lesser opponents (Tampa Bay, 2011; Montreal, 2010; etc., etc.).
In contrast, the Bruins are virtually the same resilient bunch that overcame 2-0 deficits against the Canadiens and Vancouver and a 1-0 deficit against the Lightning during the 2011 playoffs and went on to capture the Cup. Boston is more than battle-tested and its veteran goalie, Tim Thomas, was the NHL’s best last year.
However, during the previous six seasons since the 2004-05 lockout, the 2009 Detroit Red Wings were the only defending champion to get back to the finals (where they lost to Pittsburgh). Carolina didn’t even make the playoffs in 2007 while Tampa Bay (2006), Anaheim (2008) and Chicago (2011) lost in the conference quarters and the Penguins (2010) fell in the conference semis.
The Bruins were clearly favored to beat the Caps before this series began and probably still are, after winning 1-0 in Game 1 and losing 2-1 in Game 2. But as Washington knows all too well from its playoff failures the past four springs, there’s a lot less pressure being the underdog. Boston coach Claude Julien sounded much more tense after his team lost Game 2 than Washington’s Dale Hunter did after a Game 1 defeat.
What’s more, since the lockout, more than three quarters of the teams that won the season series against their playoff rivals followed suit in postseason. Second-seeded Boston finished 10 points ahead of seventh-seeded Washington in the standings, but the Caps are now 4-2 against the Bruins this year. The guys in red, white and blue don’t just know that they can play with the champs. They expect to win the series.
If, and it’s a big if, Washington wins tonight on the 24th anniversary of Hunter’s unforgettable rush down the ice for the overtime goal that completed the comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Philadelphia Flyers, Boston will be in crisis mode heading into a near-must-win Game 4 on Thursday. For the Caps, who haven’t been the underdogs in the playoffs since 2003 when current face of the franchise Alex Ovechkin was a hot 17-old Russian NHL prospect and Holtby was a 13-year-old dreaming NHL dreams in Saskatchewan, it’s wonderful to have the (ahem) skate on the other foot.
David Elfin began covering sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.