Photo credit: Patrick McDermott
The Capitals had they backs against the wall Wednesday in Game 6, down 3-2 in the series after dropping Monday’s game in heartbreaking fashion. For this team, during this year, that was nothing unusual. Their head coach was fired in November. They were on track to miss the playoffs late in the season. But they beat the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round. And they just pushed the number one seed to a final, deciding game in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
“Everyone would like it to be smooth sailing all the time, but it’s just not the way it works around here and the way it works in the playoffs,” John Carlson, nestled in a corner of Washington’s locker room, told reporters. “I think everyone is paying the price for each other. I think everybody is sacrificing, doing what it takes, whether it’s playing, whether it’s not playing, whether it’s chipping the puck out instead of trying to stick handle, whether it’s getting the puck deep — everyone’s committed and knows when they look left, look right, look across that people want it. If you look in the playoffs right now it’s the best team teams. Teams that work together the best are most successful.”
This squad, frankly, doesn’t have the talent of prior years. Their young stars no longer shine quite so bright. But this team has something those clubs didn’t have. They play as a group, they don’t give up, and when they lose, they come right back — just like Thursday night. The Caps are now 5-0 in games after a loss this postseason.
“We’re not getting too high or too low for anything,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Our skin is so thick, it seems, compared to the regular season. We all just know exactly how to react to all the situations. We’re a mentally strong team and that’s why we’re playing well back to back.”
Previous Capitals teams licked their wounds as they let the Montreal Canadiens roar back from a 3-1 deficit and knock off the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Previous Capitals teams got embarrassed in four games to the Tampa Bay Lightning as the top seed in the East.
This team got kicked in the teeth in the longest NHL contest since 2008 and then pulled out a gritty win the next game. This team was left bewildered after blowing a one goal lead with seven seconds left in regulation before losing in overtime, only to come back and outplay the Rangers in the biggest game of the season, winning 2-1.
There’s something about the 2011-12 Washington Capitals. They are composed — maybe it’s Dale Hunter behind the bench, maybe it’s because no one picked them to win the Stanley Cup. They are accountable — not to the media, not to some meaningless statement on the back of a t-shirt, but their teammates.
“We’re not afraid to say something to each other,” said Alzner. “There’s been yelling matches and everything this year. We know what is expected of everybody here, we’re not afraid to say that, and guys aren’t taking it personally. We go out there, we all know we’re for the exact same goal.”
Whatever the key to their success is, the Caps are preparing to play their 14th postseason game this year. And in the NHL playoffs — where your record during the season seems to reflect nothing — that’s all that matters. It takes talent to win a Stanley Cup, but it also takes luck and heart, two things this team has plenty of.
“There’s a lot character in that room,” Hunter said.
The Washington Capitals might win Game 7 Saturday. The Washington Capitals might lose Game 7 Saturday. Either way, they still have proven a hell of a lot more about themselves then in years past.