WASHINGTON — The situation looks dire for the Capitals.
Down 3-1 in a second-round Stanley Cup playoff series to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington has to win three games in a row now against the defending Stanley Cup champs to continue the season.
It’s a daunting task. Only 28 teams have overcome a 3-1 series deficit in NHL history out of 290 attempts through the first round of this year’s postseason. Incredibly, the Caps have blown that lead a league-high five times in 42 seasons.
That math doesn’t look good. But Washington has had a few comeback stories of its own over the years. A very few. This list was actually super hard to extend to five. But here are the best:
1988 Patrick Division semifinals vs. Philadelphia
This first-round series was an all-timer. The Caps and Flyers finished tied in the standings so this was a No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup. Washington fell behind 3-1 in the series after the Flyers had won Game 4 in overtime in Philly. Series over, right? Nope. The Caps stomped Philadelphia in Game 5 and 6 by a combined score of 12-4 to set up a decisive Game 7 at Capital Centre.
Washington promptly fell behind 3-0. Oops. We’ve seen a few Game 7s like that in the Alex Ovechkin era (2009 Penguins, 2013 Rangers). But this Caps team didn’t quit. Or…Dale Hunter didn’t anyway. He assisted on Garry Galley’s second-period goal to make it 3-1 and jump-start the rally. Hunter scored in the third period to make it 4-3 Washington. Then he had one of the most iconic goals in franchise history – a breakaway goal in overtime past Flyers goalie Ron Hextall to complete the comeback. After the game an effusive Hunter said “it was a hockey play.” Probably. I don’t know.
2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinal vs. New York Rangers
Tense doesn’t begin to describe it. Favorites for the first time in the Ovechkin era, the Caps were the No. 2 seed after winning the Southeast Division (#RIP) in 2008-09. This was when the weight of expectations began to take hold. So of course they lost three one-goal games to the No. 7 New York Rangers and fell behind 3-1 in the series. They finally woke up and staved off elimination in style by scoring nine of the next 10 goals in the series. That still left a Game 7 where each team scored in the first period – and not again until late in the game. It made for 39 minutes, 27 seconds of excruciating, scoreless hockey where it became increasingly clear the next goal would win the series. The crowd was nervous, waiting for something bad to happen. Instead, 39-year-old Sergei Fedorov stepped into a time machine. He sensed an opening and raced up the right wing with five minutes left, stopping on a dime inside the right faceoff circle before ripping a shot past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Verizon Center has never gone from dead quiet to an explosion of noise any quicker. It was deafening. Washington held on to win 2-1.
2008 Eastern Conference quarterfinal vs. Philadelphia
Okay – so here’s the thing. The Caps didn’t actually win this series against the Flyers. You see what we’re working with here. But let’s give some extra credit for a team that went 11-1 down the stretch in the regular season to even make the playoffs for the first time in the Ovechkin era. But a gut-wrenching double-overtime loss in Philadelphia in Game 4 – Mike Knuble dagger his future teammates – gave the Flyers a 3-1 series edge. It looked like the young Caps would have to regroup in the offseason. Instead they won a tight game at home and then – improbably – won again in Philadelphia on the road to force a Game 7. That Game 6 is one of the underrated victories in Washington history. The Caps trailed 2-0 well into the second period, fought back to tie the game and then Ovechkin scored twice in the third period for a 4-2 win. Alas, Joffrey Lupul hates fun and put an end to things in overtime of Game 7 at Verizon Center. But that was the start of a decade-long run of excellent hockey.
2017 Eastern Conference quarterfinal vs. Toronto
Yes, the one you just watched. The Caps have never rallied after losing the first two games of a series before. So 2-1 deficits will have to do. The Maple Leafs are a team on the rise, they convinced themselves they could play with Washington early in the series and went up 2-1 after an overtime victory in Game 3 at Air Canada Centre. Think the Caps feel pressure now? At least Pittsburgh is the defending Stanley Cup champion. Washington absolutely could not lose to a No. 8 seed again. Extra credit for winning Game 4 on the road, a blowout that turned into a nail biter. The Caps then won a pair of 2-1 games, ending the series in overtime on the road after a Marcus Johansson goal.
2015 Eastern Conference quarterfinal vs. New York Islanders
Another one from recent history. The Caps fell behind to another young, talented team when the Islanders took two of the first three games. They were on the road for Game 4 and had to win. It was a close call. Nick Backstrom scored nine minutes into overtime to tie the series and prevent the brash young Islanders from taking control. The two teams each won their next home game and it went to a Game 7. Again. Tied 1-1 in the third period. Again. This time Evgeny Kuznetsov scored late in the game to win it with a spectacular individual effort. Just a first-round series maybe, but it gave the Caps a legitimate chance to go on a deep playoff run. Those hopes were dashed when they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers in the second round and lost in overtime of Game 7.
Honorable mentions: Down 2-1 to the New Jersey Devils in 1990 and the Rangers in 1991. In both cases the Caps won three in a row to end those series in six. Washington also trailed the Boston Bruins 2-1 in 2012 before eventually taking that series in seven games.
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