So, it’s the Rangers again. For the fifth time in seven seasons, the Washington Capitals will square off against the folks from Madison Square Garden in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. These series have produced signature moments in Capitals history, such as Sergei Fedorov‘s game seven winner in 2009, and crushing defeats, like when the Rangers outlasted the Capitals by just one goal in game seven of the second round in 2012, booking a spot in the Eastern Conference Final. But, as is their pattern this year, the Washington Capitals will tell you this team is different. They don’t pay attention to the past.
“All that old stuff, get rid of it,” head coach Barry Trotz, in his first year with the Capitals, said. “Let’s look to a new era. Let’s build something.”
The Washington Capitals dominated play in game seven against the New York Islanders through two periods. They were constantly parked in the Isles zone, putting pucks on goaltender Jaroslav Halak with ease. The Islanders could barely muster a whimper, with just six shots on goal as the middle frame wound down. Somehow, though, Washington hadn’t found a way to convert: missed deflections, timely saves, and bad bounces led to a scoreboard that reflected little about what happening on the ice.
Then, with 1:25 left in the second period, Joel Ward broke through, poking Brooks Orpik‘s shot through the legs of Halak. Verizon Center erupted into a shining display of pure human joy. But it was still full of Washington Capitals fans, ready to have their hearts ripped out with final game, final period collapse. And just three minutes and 13 seconds into the closing frame, Frans Nielsen did just that with an innocent-looking wrist shot from the slot that trickled through Braden Holtby’s pads. With that, the game was tied. Though the Caps had dominated play, the game looked like it would end with another bitter, bruising fight, with one bad bounce deciding each team’s fate.
But instead, the game-winner would buck the thuggery the series had shown. With around seven minutes left in the zero-sum game, Evgeny Kuznetsov picked up Jason Chimera‘s pass at the far wall, before cutting right through the heart of the New York zone. The play was magisterial, with Kuznetsov floated past Islanders defenders. Instead of firing the puck off at his first look at the net, Kuznetsov held on to it until he got to the near circle. That’s when Halak went down. Kuznetsov saw an opening.
“I just put puck in the net,” he told reporters after the game.
One-by-one, as they stepped off the ice and into the locker room at their Virginia practice facility, mic flags went flying into the faces of members of Washington Capitals. Tonight, the team will play its eighth game seven since the Ovechkin era began. Five of those games have ended with crushed looks on the faces of the boys from Arlington. The questions were obvious.
“The media is the only people that bring up the past,” Jason Chimera scoffed. “It’s history for a reason. We wanna make our own history tonight.”
On Saturday, the Capitals gave up two goals at even strength (and a garbage empty-netter) in game six, pushing the series to what is likely to be a hurl-inducing game seven on Monday. Usually giving up two goals is a good omen (especially for the talented Capitals), but during this wacky series, in five of the six games the losing team has scored only one goal.
That means that tiny mistakes are magnified. It also means that if you’re focusing on the wrong things– like settling a score or going out of your way to throw a big body check– the open ice you’re surrendering could make the difference between winning and losing, especially against a fast Islanders team.
Two of the Capitals’ leaders made tiny mistakes that turned into back-breaking goals in game six. Let’s review.
If the Caps win today in game six, not only will they advance to the second round of the playoffs, but they’ll also close Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum forever. Next year, the Islanders are moving to Brooklyn, NY, to play in the Barclays Center.
When CSN Washington’s Chuck Gormley asked Caps captain Alex Ovechkin about this possibility on Friday, he strayed from the team’s message that it was just another game.