One second can change everything.
The annals of sports history are full of games that have been won and lost in an instant. Walk off home runs, buzzer-beating jump shots, last-second field goals, inconceivably fortuitous extra time bounces, and puck ricochets seemingly born of divine intervention - these are the moments that generate genuine drama in the world of sports. For all the hours we spend watching, analyzing, and debating games (a Stanley Cup winning season must consist of at least 5,880 minutes of hockey for the winning team - more than four full days worth) it's the fact that the season can be determined in a moment that captures the attention of millions of fans. If this season's Capitals win an Eastern Conference Championship or even, knock on wood, even a Stanley Cup, it may well be because of such a play. How do we know? Because it has already happened.
On November 15th of last year, the Capitals were in Newark for the second game of a home-and-home series with the Devils, and tied with Jersey at 3-3 after two periods. In the third, the two teams traded goals at the outset. Then, with 8:20 remaining in the final frame of regulation, Devils winger Brian Gionta put one past Jose Theodore to give the Devils a 5-4 lead. Desperate to force overtime, the Caps buzzed around Scott Clemmensen, creating chances but failing to put one behind the journeyman goalkeeper and into the net. For the better part of the remaining eight-plus minutes, the Devils withstood the onslaught of an all out attack from one of the NHL's best offensive teams.
Then, with eleven seconds left Devils forwards John Madden and Jamie Langenbrunner had the chance to seal the victory by clearing the puck out of their own end just one more time, but the puck was held in by Mike Green and directed towards Alexander Ovechkin. An Ovechkin pass to Nicklas Backstrom resulted in an unsuccessful shot attempt and a throng of red and white jerseys, with Devils working to hold the puck until time expired and Capitals working to free the puck and get one last scoring chance.
Somehow the puck came free of the mass of bodies to Clemmensen's left and trickled towards Nicklas Backstrom. In one deft motion, the second year center corralled the puck and calmly sent it across Clemmensen's crease to tape of a waiting Ovechkin, who buried the feed in the back of the net to tie the game at five... with one second left on the clock.
One second can change a game.
The momentum carried over in to the extra frame somewhat - New Jersey was held shot-less while the Capitals tested Clemmensen twice - but wasn't enough, and eventually the Capitals fell in a shootout. At the time the extra point seemed like a consolation prize; a way to salvage an otherwise frustrating evening. Now, with the calender on April and the playoffs around the corner, that point could wind up meaning a lot more. At the moment Capitals stand three points ahead of the Devils in the race for second place in the East which, coupled with the fact that Capitals were only one point ahead of the Devils before their Wednesday night win against the Islanders, means there is a very real possibility that that single point could end up being the margin that gives the Capitals the Conference's second seed and guarantees home ice advantage for the playoffs' first two rounds.
One second can change a season.
Of course, the advantage of the number two seed goes beyond game day locale. Since the lockout, sixth seeded teams have beaten third seeded teams four times while only one seventh seeded team (the 2006 Colorado Avalanche) has beaten a second seed, a trend that seems poised to continue in the Eastern Conference this year. The most likely scenarios have either Carolina or Pittsburgh - two teams with significant playoff experience and hot goaltenders - winding up in the sixth seed. Meanwhile, the seventh seed is most likely to be one of New York, Montreal, or Florida, all of whom have battled inconsistency this season and all of whom will be exhausted from having to scratch and claw their way into the playoffs. Regardless of how the final standings shake out, one thing is almost sure to be true: whomever faces the sixth seed is going to have a much tougher path to the second round than whomever faces the seventh seed. It's that ripple effect that makes the East's second seed so desirable this year. An easier path to the second round means a team that's better rested mentally and physically, which (along with home ice advantage) makes it easier to win the second round of the playoffs, which....well, you get the idea.
Ultimately any measure of playoff success for the Capitals is sure to result in well deserved accolades for the team's biggest names and flashiest players. But that same playoff success may just come as a result of Nicklas Backstrom - a guy who lacks a physical gift as impressive as Ovechkin's power, Green's speed, or Semin's hands, and whose greatest competitive advantage might be what's between his ears - having the poise and the presence of mind to pass the puck with the clock about to hit zero.
One second, even in November, can change a franchise.