To say that the Caps' first-round matchup with the New York Islanders was not easy would be an understatement.
This was a tough, gritty battle of two fairly evenly-matched teams, one that could have changed dramatically with one bounce, one goal, one save. That it went to seven games is a testament to just how even it was, both on paper and on the ice, the series coming down to a nail-biting one-goal game that ultimately ended in victory for the good guys.
As even as it was, though, this series was not without its share of moments that could have spelled doom for this team. The seven games were peppered with any number of situations that, in the past, would have been enough to send them reeling - the fact that it didn't speaks volumes about just how resilient the 2014-15 Washington Capitals have been.
The series-opener alone could have torpedoed the Caps' postseason run, as they took to the ice for the first playoff appearance in two years and proceeded to treat the "friendly" crowd (which by the end was anything but) to a sloppy, mistake-filled 4-1 loss. After being gifted home-ice advantage on the final day of the regular season, it seemed the Caps had let that advantage - and in some peoples' minds, the series - slip through their fingertips right out of the gate.
Then there was the lead-up to Game 2, facing the prospect of going down 0-2 at home, when it was revealed that Braden Holtby was too sick to play and Philipp Grubauer would be making his NHL playoff debut. Or the Kyle Okposo tally late in the second period of that same game to put the Islanders up by two despite being wildly outplayed by the hometown Caps.
With the Caps already down a game, either one could have been the beginning of the end. But then the stars showed up, put the team on their shoulders and tied the game - setting the stage for Jason Chimera, the type of hero borne out of the postseason, to get the game-winner and tie the series at one.
After barely surviving their first big test of the series, it wouldn't be long before the Caps would be faced with yet another in Game 3. Trailing by one most of the game, a late goal by Backstrom gave momentary hope that maybe they could steal a win... but as Caps fans know, momentary hope is usually what precedes heartbreak, and that heartbreak showed up just 14 seconds into overtime when John Tavares slipped a sharp-angle shot past Holtby.
So once again the Caps would need to shake off disappointment, and quickly, to avoid being pushed to the brink of elimination. And they did just that in a pivotal Game 4, one which featured two key moments that probably changed the course of the series.
One was Backstrom's goal in overtime to send the series back to DC with home-ice advantage once again intact, something which would prove to be crucial in what was now a best-of-three. The other was an explosive body check by Tom Wilson on Lubomir Visnovsky, not only cutting into what was already a banged-up Isles' blueline (and while no one roots for injuries, an advantage is an advantage) but also drawing the single-minded focus of the Islanders.
After a dominant Game 5 performance that saw the Caps roll to a 5-1 win (and heralded the arrival of Evgeny Kuznetsov as a force in the series), and an emotional win by the Islanders in Game 6, it was fittingly down to one. Game 7. A single game to decide who was going forward and who was going home, the culmination of a hard-fought and increasingly chippy series - and a game that featured enough potential "here we go again" moments to fill a lifetime.
That the Caps had performed well at home in their last two games mattered very little; that the Caps had historically not done well in Game 7 at home mattered even less, but weighed more heavily on the minds of the fans, with memories of lopsided losses and final daggers in blown 3-1 series leads and the inability to beat Jaroslav Halak in an elimination game tainting any "advantage" that came with hosting the final game of the series.
And it was one of those games that started out feeling like it was going to be One of Those Games. Despite the Caps dictating play and holding the Islanders to just three shots, the two teams went into the locker room after twenty minutes tied 0-0 - the first time all series that neither team had scored in the opening frame. As the second period got underway, the Caps continued to put pressure on the Islanders, tension mounting with every shot that Halak turned aside and every minute that ticked off the clock... until finally the home team broke through late in the second period.
The question was, would it be enough?
It didn't take long for that question to be answered. The Islanders tied things up early in the third period on a weak goal on Braden Holtby - a goal which, at that point in the game, against the Caps' nemesis, could not go in. It was one of those moments that perhaps planted a seed of doubt in the mind of every Caps fan who had lived through the pain of the past.
If the Caps felt that doubt creep in, though, they didn't show it. If anything, they continued doing what they'd done all game, with the added incentive to get Holtby off the hook after he'd done the same for them so many times during the series. And thanks to Evgeny Kuznetsov's patience and skill, that one mistake by Holtby was erased - and the lead regained.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Game 7 for the Caps without a little added drama. With less than three minutes left in regulation (and after having no penalties called the entire game) John Carlson was whistled for roughing, giving the Islanders one final chance to crack the Caps' perfect penalty kill. It was just one more of those moments that might have signaled doom in the past... but not this time. Some blocked shots, some big saves, a Nicklas Backstrom tackle at the blue line and that was it.
The Caps' resilience has been a season-long evolution that has taken them from a team that couldn't hold leads or win games when giving up the first goal, to the team we saw dominate early and lock it down late last night. It's far too early to say that the Capitals team that once crumbled under playoff pressure has been reborn as a mentally-strong postseason powerhouse - after all, their toughest obstacle still lies ahead, with that old bête noir of the second round (and a familiar foe in the Presidents' Trophy-winning Rangers) waiting for them later this week.
But for the first time in a long time, the Caps seem ready to take on that challenge. And that's not a bad place to start.