At a Crossroads in Tampa

WASHINGTON DC, DC - APRIL 23: Alex Ovechkin #8 and head coach Bruce Boudreau of the Washington Capitals look on against the Montreal Canadiens in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 23, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

It's hard to overstate the importance of tonight's Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 3 to the Washington Capitals... but that's not going to stop us from trying.

Having lost the first two games on home ice, this evening's tilt in Tampa is quite nearly a literal "must-win" (unlike the game played between these two teams at the same venue back in the first week of February). Consider that, per WhoWins, NHL teams that have taken 3-0 leads in series that started on the road are 34-1 all-time (9-0 in quarterfinals), and teams with 3-0 leads are 159-3 overall in League history. Put another way, if the Caps lose tonight, be prepared to see plenty of references to the 1942 Maple Leafs,1975 New York Islanders, 2010 Philadelphia Flyers... and not much more Caps hockey this spring. [On the plus side, teams that have taken 2-0 series leads on the road have tended to lose Game 3, so there's that.]

To say that tonight's game is the most important of the season is stating the obvious. To say that it's one of the most important in franchise history is hyperbolic. Or is it?

Since the lockout, the Caps have played some big games. They've won some and they've lost some. Beating the Panthers in Game 82 of 2008 to make the playoffs for the first time in five years was big, and signified that the Caps - and hockey - were "back" in D.C., regardless of what would happen to that young, inexperienced team the rest of that spring. Game 7 against the Rangers the following year was another step forward in the evolution of the current core of the team. The losses that ended those two seasons were painful and unique, but the fact remains that, from a franchise standpoint, the ball was advanced - the team was getting closer to the ultimate goal.

Last spring's devastating collapse was a step backwards, but one that was somewhat tempered by a record-setting regular season and the promise that the lessons learned there would inspire this year's squad to greater heights - and that means more than a single round's worth of wins.

Fast forward 12 months and it's fair to say that while some lessons have been learned (in the defensive and neutral zones, especially), others haven't. The power-play is still inept. The mental focus still waxes and wanes. The "hot goalie" is still a problem. And, as Katie Carrera put it in today's Post, the time for learning lessons the hard way is over.

This team has won four-straight Southeast Division titles... and two playoff series during that span. Its coach has compiled an incredible 189-79-39 regular season record... but is 17-18 in the post-season and has dropped three Game 7's (on home ice, no less) in the past three years. Its captain shares that same playoff record and an eye-popping post-season point total... which belies, somewhat, the play that has produced those numbers, especially over the past few series. And so on.

Over at On Frozen Blog this morning, John Keeley referred to this as "referendum hockey," and it is most certainly that - a referendum on a coach, a system, a team's leadership and commitment, and that very team itself. In a salary-capped era, windows open and they close quicker than you might think. And every spring that ends in disappointment is one spring closer to the winter when you suddenly realize that the window has indeed slammed shut while you weren't looking.

To be sure, the Caps have played games in later rounds with more impact on their chances to win the Cup than tonight's game will carry with it. But even most of those games didn't have the depth of impact on the franchise that tonight's potentially will - whether or not they won a single game in the 1998 Finals, for example, that run in and of itself captured the imagination of the city and its sports fans and helped legitimize the franchise, to an extent. Rarely has this organization stood at a crossroad as it does now (and, ironically, when it last did, it was against these same Bolts).

We've been told for a few years now that "these aren't your father's Capitals." But unless things change dramatically over the next 36 hours, they're in danger of becoming exactly that. Tonight's big.

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