When Jakub Voracek scored to put the Flyers up 4-1 on Sunday, it seemed as if the Caps were headed for a lopsided loss against a division rival... and yet you would be forgiven if, despite the score, you thought possibly, maybe, perhaps there was a chance for a comeback. Because the 2013-14 season has become the year of the Cardiac Caps, one in which almost no lead is safe and no amount of time too small for the team to claw their way back into games - one in which a three-goal deficit with 17 minutes in which to work is daunting, but not impossible.
Sure enough, there was Mike Green making it 4-2 just over the halfway mark of the period. Five minutes later, it was Dmitry Orlov checking in with his first of the season to make it 4-3. And with less than a minute remaining in regulation, Philipp Grubauer on the bench and extra attacker on, it was none other than the captain himself doing what he does best - scoring the big goal for his team. Tie game. Deficit erased. Point acquired.
It was the second time in less than a week that Alex Ovechkin had tied the game in the final minute of regulation, and the third time in the last seven games that the Caps had done it (with Nicklas Backstrom's last-minute shorthanded game-tying magic against the Islanders). It was also the third time this season that the Caps had climbed out of a three-goal hole, the fourth in which they came back from at least two goals... and the ninth* time this year that they picked up the game-tying goal in the game's final ten minutes:
*Does not include John Carlson's late goal against Ottawa 11/27, as the Senators reclaimed the lead a minute later...
So what does that mean?
Well, for starters it means that you should never, ever leave or turn off a Caps game early. But more importantly, it means they're getting points that otherwise might have been left on the table.
Through the first 33 games last year, the Caps went to overtime or a shootout just four times in those first 33 games, and they didn't have their first appearance in the shootout at all until, oddly enough, the 33rd game. They played to a one-goal finish 14 times in those first 33 games and lost six of them, and only once did that loss come in overtime - essentially leaving five points (and potentially more) by not doing enough to force overtime. Considering how close the playoff race was in that shortened season, and how much of a push the Caps had to put on to even make the postseason, those five points might have come in handy.
This time around, the Caps have played 17 one-goal games, winning ten of them; of the seven losses, three of them were in the shootout. And therein lies the difference overall this year - that 13 of those 17 one-goal games have ended via overtime or the shootout, which leads the League (as do their 10 extra-frame wins), edging out LA's 12 overtime/shootout games and eight overtime/shootout wins. Not only are they getting points in losses that they weren't last year, but they're also giving themselves a better chance to get more than a point (especially considering how lights-out they've been after 60 minutes so far, particularly in the shootout).
Ultimately it's a good news/bad news type of thing. On the one hand, the team is not only keeping games close and picking up points any way they can, they're also showing some serious resiliency - no deficit is too big to overcome for this group. They're among the best in the League at coming back when falling behind in the first or second period. That's nice to see, especially with a team that perhaps has been seen as lacking mental toughness in the past.
"Obviously, we didn’t want to be in the position we were, but it’s important that we never give up and it’s a prime example tonight. We get two points." - Mike Green on Sunday's win
It's also pretty gosh darn exciting - a far cry from the often effective but staggeringly dull Dale Hunter hockey or the trap adopted in the final days of Bruce Boudreau's tenure.
On the other, it often means that the team is struggling to find consistency to their game. They're playing 20 minutes here, 40 minutes there, relying on the fact that they can come back and win it without playing a full 60 (or more recently, relying on Alex Ovechkin to win it for them). This team has saved itself, or been saved from itself, by launching these late-game comebacks, and gotten a fair amount of luck in the process. The thrill of the last-minute comeback is something to enjoy in the past and present, but it's living dangerously, dependent upon something that isn't predictable and probably isn't sustainable.
And as nice as the points and the wins have been, a massive amount of them have come via the shootout; the ten regulation or overtime wins compiled by this Caps team is the fifth-lowest total in the League; no other team currently in playoff position has fewer than thirteen on the year. Shootouts count less in the standings as far as tiebreakers are concerned (and rightly so)... and they don't exist in the playoffs. Advancing in the postseason remains the biggest obstacle for the Caps to overcome, something that won't be achieved with all the shootout wins in the world.
There's something to be said for a team that keeps you on the edge of your seat night after night, that makes you want to stick around to see how it finishes - that makes you wonder whether that lopsided score on the board is really so lopsided. Is it a recipe for winning a Cup? Probably not (although the Blackhawks may argue the opposite). But as a fan, it at least keeps it fun. Whether it will or not, you know that a three-goal deficit can be erased in ten minutes. You know that with one minute left and the goalie pulled, there's still a chance. You know that if Ovechkin has the puck or the Caps go on the power play (or both), nothing is over until that final buzzer sounds.
So get out those defibrillators... because the Cardiac Caps are back.