Reporting David Elfin
Just when you thought the Caps had overcome their infamously tortuous playoff history by finally winning the next game after losing a postseason marathon, they had to go and do that.
How many other hockey teams could get dominated but take the lead into the final minute only to have the opponent tie the game with just 6.6 seconds remaining and then beat them only 95 seconds into overtime?
If top-seeded New York, which took a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals with the stunning 3-2 victory at Madison Square Garden, closes out seventh-seeded Washington on Wednesday or even on Friday, late goal-scorers Brad Richards and Marc Staal of the Rangers will go down in Caps lore with such other villains as Kelly Hrudey, Pat LaFontaine, Pat Verbeek, Ken Wregget, Petr Nedved, Martin Straka, Martin St. Louis, Joffrey Lupul, Jaroslav Halak and Dwayne Roloson.
How awful was it that New York’s three goals on Monday night could be blamed on three of Washington’s biggest heroes of these playoffs?
Rookie goalie Braden Holtby, who has brilliantly dueled elite netminders Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundquist, whiffed on the one that Anton Stralman scored just 10:44 into the game from an impossible angle. Then with just 22 seconds to go, Joel Ward, whose goal had knocked out the defending champion Boston Bruins in the previous round, high-sticked Carl Hagelin and drew blood for a double-minor. Richards desperately lifted a rebound past Holtby and defenseman John Carlson to force overtime. Then, after Hendricks, who had won all 14 of his face-offs in Games 4 and 5, finally lost one, Staal beat the screened Holtby with Ward still in the penalty box.
It’s no surprise that Game 5 has not been kind to Washington during its nearly three decades of playoff agony. The Caps are now 10-20 in that usually decisive game. Only three times have they recovered from losing Game 5 to win the series: in 1994 against Pittsburgh (before losing to the eventual champion Rangers) and in 1998 against Boston and Buffalo en route to their only Stanley Cup finals. However, Washington led all those series 3-1 and thus could afford to drop Game 5.
But when a series has been tied 2-2 and the Caps lost Game 5, they’ve never recovered to win Games 6 and 7 and advance. In other words, history says that after Monday’s heartbreaker, it’s turn out the lights, the party’s over, to quote the late Don Meredith.
Speaking of history, I couldn’t help but think that Richards’ killer goal was scored with 6.6 ticks left and that 66 was the number of Penguins Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, who gave Washington so much heartache in the playoffs in 1991, 1992, 1996 and 2001.
As a gritty Caps center, Dale Hunter was on the losing end of the first three of those series. Now Washington’s coach, Hunter had seemingly given his players a much-needed dose of intestinal fortitude that helped them rally just to reach the playoffs, win Game 7 in Boston, and bounce back from the triple-overtime defeat in Game 3 against New York to win Game 4.
On Monday night, Hunter’s team was just those 6.6 seconds from being one victory away from reaching the conference finals for the first time in 14 years. Even the Caps don’t win Game 5 and lose Games 6 and 7. Don’t expect the Rangers to do so either.
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.