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Elfin: Caps Need To Dig Down And Find More Than Mental Toughness

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Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

David Elfin David Elfin
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at...
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As Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was going on and on and on late last night/early this morning and I was recounting the Caps’ ugly multiple-overtime history, a friend basically told me that history is bunk.

I beg to differ and not just because I have a history degree from Penn. You watch a team long enough and you just get a feel. So I just knew it. Once the game went to triple overtime, the result was inevitable. The Caps don’t win these type of games.

Four times now, a Washington playoff game has gone this far and four times the Caps have been defeated.

The only difference last night was that I was watching from my family room instead of from the press box. Amazingly, all four of the gut-wrenching defeats have come at home: in 1987 and 1996 at the old Capital Centre; in 2003 and last night at Verizon Center.

And here’s the worst part. The Caps haven’t won again that season after losing a marathon. The 1987 loss to the New York Islanders in Game 7 and the 2003 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern quarters both ended Washington’s season. After the 1996 defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of the Eastern quarters, the Caps lost Games 5 & 6, too, and were done. That’s a scary history.

Olie Kolzig, whom Pittsburgh’s Petr Nedved beat to end Washington’s longest game 19:15 into the fourth overtime in 1996, is now the Caps’ associate goalie coach.

“And I lost to Tampa in a triple-overtime game (in 2003), so I haven’t been on the winning end of those so I don’t how it feels after you win one of those, but I know it’s pretty deflating after you lose,” Kolzig said today.

Neither does Caps coach Dale Hunter, who played in the Nedved game.

“A long game like this is (tiring), but you remember them games when you get my age, how much fun it was playing triple-overtime, what a battle it was and the sacrifices you made,” said the 51-year-old Hunter. “You always have good memories, win or lose. It’s always the battle. And the guys battled last night.”

Indeed they did. The Caps blocked more shots in the 14:41 of the third overtime than they did in either of the first two 20-minute sessions. And for the ninth time in their 10 games during these playoffs, the outcome was decided by a goal, this one by New York’s Marian Gaborik that gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead in the Series.

And yet, these Caps — who eliminated the Rangers from the playoffs last spring and in 2009 — seem different than their predecessors. They’ve gone 17 games, dating to Mar. 23, without losing back-to-back. Rookie goalie Braden Holtby’s NHL streak without suffering consecutive defeats is nine games longer.

What’s more, Washington was down 2-1 to defending Stanley Cup champion Boston after losing Game 3 at home in the previous round but won the next two contests before prevailing in seven games.

Kolzig said there’s no question that the Caps have become a more mentally resilient team since the gritty Hunter replaced the offensive-minded Bruce Boudreau behind the bench on Nov. 28 than they were during all those years of playoff agony.

“I think the guys have finally bought into Dale’s type of hockey and they’re realizing what he’s been trying to emphasize throughout the year is finally paying off now,” said Kolzig, Washington’s No. 1 goalie during Hunter’s final two seasons as a Caps center. “The guys are rising to the occasion. To go into Boston and win three games out of four … including Game 7, that says a lot. … So I don’t think that we’re going to be as down as maybe some other teams would be after a game like (last night’s).”

Maybe Kolzig’s right. Maybe these Caps are different. But the spectre of its history – 11-14 home playoff record during the Alex Ovechkin era, one trip to the finals in its 22 previous postseasons, after which it didn’t win a series for 11 years – still hangs over this franchise like the Curse of the Bambino loomed over the Boston Red Sox for more than eight decades.

It’s going to take more than an upbeat attitude in the post-game locker room and brave words to convince me otherwise.

David Elfin began writing about 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.

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