Spectacular failures. The most disappointing team in franchise history. Choking dogs. These are among the labels that will be applied to the 2009-10 Washington Capitals... if.
An opposing goalie who was relegated to the bench in favor of his hot-headed backup earlier in this series has since caught fire and is poised to propel the playoffs' worst regular-season team into the second round... if.
A power-play that led the NHL in efficiency during the regular season has deserted the Eastern Conference's top team and seemingly taken the confidence that produced one of the most potent offenses hockey has seen with it, leaving the first non-Original Six team in League history to top 120 points on the verge of extinction... if.
So here we are, wondering whether we're a couple of days away from seeing another knock-down-drag-out best-of-seven with the hated Philadelphia Flyers... or break-up day. You know, the day when the team grasps to explain what went wrong and reveals all of the injuries and maladies its players have been playing through: Mike Green, detached cranium; Alexander Semin, dislocated cajones; Tomas Fleischmann, absent atria; etc. (given the lack of brains, courage and heart, respectively, displayed by these three, this series has looked more like a Wizard of Oz revival at times than playoff hockey).
And while it might feel as if nothing short of divine intervention can get the Caps from where they are today to where they want to be on Thursday morning, we're all in luck... the Caps have the divine; the Caps have Alexander Ovechkin. But if blind faith isn't your cup of tea, here's some seeing-eye truth: the Caps still have the goaltender with the lowest goals against average in this series, an offense that is throwing a ridiculous 41.7 shots per game at the Montreal cage and the best home record in hockey.
This team didn't win 54 games in the regular season by accident; they did so by being better - better than every other team in the League. Certainly better than Montreal and its under-sized (and under-skilled) forwards, slow-footed blueliners, inexperienced goaltenders and oft-maligned bench boss. And definitely better than they've played in the last two games.
The fact remains that the Caps are still the better team and there's every reason to believe that they will be tomorrow night. The team should know it and should play like it - with swagger, not fear; confidence, not cowardice. Get busy living, or get busy dying. And so on. At the end of the night, the "shaky-handed goalie" is going to be shaking hands with twenty Capitals - let's hope they can look him in the eye knowing that he's been kicked out of their collective heads.
Over the past three springs, the Verizon Center has played host to three NHL Game Sevens, two of which ended in gut-wrenching agony, the other over-the-top euphoria. It's time to level that ledger at two apiece... a year to the day after we all savored that one win.