WASHINGTON – A Game 7 separates the Washington Capitals from their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years – and there’s no one else head coach Barry Trotz would rather go into battle with.
“Going into Game 7, I don’t think I would want another – and I’ve been doing this for a while – I don’t think there’s a team I’ve ever had that I’d want to go into a Game 7 with,” Trotz said Tuesday. “This team has done a lot of special things this year, it’s grown, it continues to do that.”
Down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Capitals forced a Game 7 with a decisive 3-0 victory in Game 6. It was certainly Braden Holtby's best performance of the series and perhaps Washington’s best game of the playoffs.
It could have been the end of their season, but the Capitals made sure that wasn't the case. And, as if it hadn’t been evident enough throughout the playoffs, these are not the same Capitals of the past.
“I don’t think we mentally in our mind think about what people say,” star winger Alex Ovechkin said. “Lots of people say we’re going to lose to Columbus. Lots of people say we’re going to lose to Pittsburgh. Lots of people said we’re going to lose to Tampa. (Wednesday) is the biggest probably game in my life and in this team, this organization. We just want to be here and want to come back here to Game 7 and win the game.”
The last two years were supposed to be their coronation as the Presidents’ Trophy winner, each time snuffed by the Penguins in the postseason. Where those iterations might have buckled under adversity and the pressure of expectations, these Capitals thrive, having won the division despite struggling through the first quarter of the season.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
It was a remarkable feat for a team that could have easily circled the drain after starting off so badly – and one that looked rather ordinary after losing plenty of talent over the summer.
“I said to my wife, 'on paper we’re not as good this year, but watch: this will be the year we do something,'” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “That’s just the way it works. Hockey's a funny sport. That just proves how names on a piece of paper don’t win. It’s how guys play together. A lot of things have to go right, big goals, big saves, a bounce here or there. But we’re one step away and guys are excited for the opportunity.”
Each time it seems the knockout blow has been struck, the Capitals counterpunch even harder. When they were down 0-2 to the Blue Jackets in the first round, they responded by winning four straight to move on, where the Penguins waited. In that series, they were without two of their top-six forwards for several games – and when they had a chance to eliminate Pittsburgh on the road, they did it.
“Can’t tell you the exact moment or why it happened, but something felt different about it,” Niskanen said. “I just think that our ability to respond, our ability to stay with it is so much better this spring. We just play.”
History hasn’t been on Washington’s side in series-deciding games. During Ovechkin’s career, the Capitals are 3-7 in Game 7s – but this one is different from all the rest, just like the Capitals.
“Well, of course you have dreams, you have thoughts, you have all different stuff before the year or before the playoffs and right now you’re in this position and you just don’t want to give up this opportunity,” Ovechkin said. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be like a regular-season game, OK, tomorrow we’re going to have another one and we can bounce back. (Wednesday) is going to be the biggest game in our life, maybe.”