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Elfin: The Unlikely Stars Have Aligned For An Unlikely Team To Be One Game From Conference Finals

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Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

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Ever since the Caps dropped their first Game 7 to the New York Islanders in quadruple overtime as the clock approached 3 AM on Easter Sunday 1987, the words “Game 7” have been making Washington hockey fans shudder.

For all of their playoff triumphs and more frequent postseason heartaches, the biggest dagger in the Caps’ history of spring frustration has been their 3-7 record in Game 7.

But even within that hideous mark, there is a ray of hope for tomorrow night’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Madison Square Garden against the top-seeded New York Rangers. While the Caps are an atrocious 2-6 at home in Game 7, they are 1-1 on the road, with that victory coming in the last round at TD Garden against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

That was certainly a sign that these Caps are different. So is their resiliency throughout these playoffs. Six times, coach Dale Hunter’s squad has lost and rebounded to win the next game. That includes Wednesday’s 2-1 victory in Game 6, less than 48 hours after a gut-wrenching overtime defeat in Game 5 when the Caps were just eight seconds from bringing a 3-2 lead in the series with the Rangers back to Washington. That’s where the boys in red rebounded from a triple-overtime defeat in Game 3 to win Game 4, the first such recovery from a marathon loss in franchise history.

In fact, Washington hasn’t lost two games in a row going all the way back to March 23. A 5-2 playoff berth-clinching run followed heading into the playoff series in which the Caps have gone toe-to-toe with the powerful Bruins and Rangers, scoring 25 goals and allowing the same number over 13 games.

While the mega-late tying goal by New York’s Brad Richards in Game 5 and Marc Staal’s winner 95 seconds into overtime were devastating, they both came with Washington’s Joel Ward in the penalty box for high-sticking. And the Rangers’ only goal in Game 6 came after they had pulled goalie Henrik Lundqvist for an extra skater in the final minutes.

Over the last five games, five of the Rangers’ 10 goals have come with them having at least a one-man advantage. So if the Caps can just avoid staying out of the box tomorrow – especially with the double-minors that were called on Ward and Jeff Halpern in the past two games – their odds of prevailing should skyrocket. New York’s power play is just 4-of-23 in the series.

While the 30-year-old Lundqvist is considered the NHL’s best goalie – he’s one of three finalists for the Hart (MVP) and Vezina (top goalie) trophies – he’s just 1-1 in Game 7, having edged the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators 2-1 in the last round and having fallen by the same score to the favored Caps in the 2009 Eastern quarters.

King Henrik’s 22-year-old counterpart, Washington rookie Braden Holtby, is 1-0 in Game 7, having outdueled reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) winner Tim Thomas 2-1 in Boston 16 days ago in front of the same kind of loud, hostile crowd that he’ll face tomorrow night in New York.

While the Caps’ playoff failures are well-known – they have never won Games 6 and 7 after losing Game 5 — they’re now 3-4 in the series and 2-3 in Game 7 during the Alex Ovechkin era.

The Rangers finished a whopping 17 points ahead of the Caps in the standings this season – with the teams splitting the four meetings – but they’re just 3-5 in playoff series since the NHL lockout ended in 2005. And New York is 0-1 in Game 7 during that span. That defeat came in 2009 against a Washington team that included current Caps Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Brooks Laich and John Erskine. Current Rangers Lundqvist, Staal, Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi played for the visitors that night.

With seeds 2-5 eliminated in the East and the top two (plus Nos. 4-7) gone in the West, the Rangers are the clear favorites to win the Cup. But that also means all the pressure will be on them tomorrow night.

No one expected the Caps to get this far, not as a seventh seed, not after trailing the big, bad Bruins 2-1 with just two home games left, and not after losing Games 3 and 5 to the Rangers in overtime.

Does all of this make it advantage Caps in Game 7 for once and propel them to just their third conference finals and their first in 14 years? We’ll find out tomorrow night.

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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