Coming into the postseason, one of the biggest questions – particularly in the face of so many recent heartbreaking playoff exits – wasn’t about talent or physicality. It was about how strong the Caps were between the ears. It's become almost an annual rite of passage to take the skill and the systems and the potential and squander it by being unable to bounce back, whether within a game or after a bad loss. It’s what cost them in Game 7 against Pittsburgh, what caused them to crumble against an 8th seed Montreal team whose goalie seemed invincible, what’s held them back from greatness in the past. The ability, or inability as it were, to handle disappointment and adversity has been one of the major obstacles facing this franchise for the better part of a decade.
This year it’s different. This year it feels different. This year the team seems focused, motivated and strong enough to bounce back from anything. Whether it’s a result of a new voice behind the bench or a byproduct of the underdog mentality that’s taken hold or the maturation of the team’s core – or a combination of the three – this year’s Caps team has shown time and time again how resilient they can be. Every game is close, every goal matters immensely, and yet giving up a goal or losing in overtime hasn’t seemed to faze them. They’ve come back more determined to make it right the next time, get the next goal, earn the next win. It’s how they unseated the defending Cup champs; it’s how they’ve pushed the East’s top team as far as they have.
And yet despite all the signs that this team is capable of coming back, that winning two games is not beyond their capability, there is a significant amount of defeatism among the fans. One loss, a loss that puts them in a 3-2 hole against a higher seeded team, has sent hordes of Caps fans into the fetal position.
Uncurl, fellow Caps fans.
Yes, we have been through a lot in our nearly four decades of existence. The Caps are and have long been a team that seems to delight, albeit subconsciously, in dangling hope in front of our eyes only to snatch it away just as we reach for it. The division titles squandered; the Presidents’ trophy wasted. The incessant losses to teams from Western Pennsylvania. The sweep at the hands of a lowly division rival a year and four days ago today. There is plenty to fall back on as an excuse for being so mentally fragile that one loss causes us to retreat at full speed from any sliver of hope.
But history is history. The past is past. We can point to past heartaches as a reason not to believe or we can look at what we’ve been presented with over the last month and see it as a reason for optimism – frankly, I choose the latter.
This Caps team entered the playoffs as a seventh seed that just barely snuck in, a team that wasted a good portion of the regular season trying to get their heads straight and their systems down, a team that because of injury would be placing their hopes on a rookie goaltender – a team that set expectations so low that just making the playoffs seemed like a victory in itself. Then they started playing the games that really mattered… and we started to believe. It seemed as if a page had been turned, because the Caps team that took the ice against the Bruins, the Caps team that has held serve with the Rangers, bears little resemblance even to the team we saw a year ago. They’re buying in and paying the price and doing all sorts of other clichéd things that you need to do to win in the playoffs, and it’s resulted in a great (if heart attack-inducing) run over the last four weeks.
Last night hurt. To say that it didn’t is to ignore my own pedigree as a long-abused Caps fan, to ignore the fact that a blown lead in the dying seconds of regulation followed by a power play goal in overtime is just downright painful. It’s okay to feel that pain and to let yourself think, for just a moment, "here we go again". But consider this – the Rangers played what was easily their best game of the series, against what was one of the Caps’ worst games of the playoffs, and they still needed that dying-seconds goal and that power play in overtime to take a 3-2 series lead. They needed all of that to do what they were supposed to do in the first place: win at home.
The Caps had momentum going into Game 5; the Rangers have it now. That’s how quickly things can change. That’s how quickly they can change back.
The Caps may very well lose tomorrow. They may very well win tomorrow and lose Game 7. But it’s a third option, the one that for some reason keeps getting overlooked, that is the one I choose to believe is still possible – that the Caps win both. To do so they will need to play their best, and they’ll need to do it twice, with one of those performances coming at MSG. They'll need Braden Holtby to do what he's done five times already this spring. In a series as tight as this one has been, with so much on the line, there will be no room for the mental mistakes that have cost them in the past – there will be less time to overcome them as they have in the past.
They'll have to decide, to a man, that last night's loss will be nothing more than a footnote rather than the defining moment of the series. If they need a little inspiration, they need look no further than the man behind the bench, who knows the heartbreaking history of this franchise well... and has been the author of a few defining moments of his own.
After seeing what we’ve seen, does winning two games feel impossible? Does rebounding from a loss like last night's seem out of reach? It shouldn’t. Whatever happens, win or lose, it’s been a hell of a ride... and I choose to believe it’s not over just yet.