My head keeps telling me that the Caps are done. Down 3-1 to the Penguins, a team that has caught fire over the past few months and that has had the Caps' number for decades, it doesn't look good.
They've lacked secondary scoring, Braden Holtby has at times looked human, and the power play has dried up. Under the best circumstances, erasing a 3-1 deficit is incredibly tough (no matter what the Caps' postseason history would lead one to believe). With everything that has gone wrong, logic and reason suggest that we should start preparing for another summer that comes too soon and lasts too long.
My heart, however, won't let me believe it's over. My heart tells me that these Caps still have fight left in them.
All season long we've talked about how "this team is different". Those weren't just empty words by an eternally optimistic fanbase; god knows, Caps fans are a lot of things but eternally optimistic is not a phrase one would use to describe us as a group. There was a reason behind it, a sense about what this team is made of and what they're focused on. They have the veteran leadership and the team commitment and the talent needed to get to the next level. They don't panic. The pieces are there; they just need to come together. That doesn't change simply because the Caps are facing their first true adversity of the playoffs.
Because there's something to be said for playing with their backs against the wall, and in a weird way the Caps have been preparing for this all year long. They've orchestrated comebacks as the best third-period team in the League and managed to keep losing streaks at bay. Their resilience and ability to bounce back, whether within a game or between games, has been tested time and time again. Even in the playoffs, they've managed to tie up games when falling behind and put together their best performances after struggling through their worst ones.
Now they get a chance at coming back from the ultimate adversity - the threat of a season once again ending too soon. Now is when all of that confidence and leadership needs to come to the fore. Now is when they make history.
History has rarely been kind to the Caps. We know that well. But it's worth noting, amid all of the stats and facts about the franchise's painful relationship with the postseason, that while this is a team that has historically struggled with holding series leads of their own, they've had just one shot at erasing a 3-1 deficit in the last decade... and they were successful.
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were part of that team. They've seen it from both sides, in fact, and know how fragile a 3-1 lead is these days. They know it can be done. So do Justin Williams and Mike Richards, part of a Kings team that not only came back from being down 3-1 two years ago but went on to win the Cup (a year after the Blackhawks did the same thing en route to their 2013 Stanley Cup championship). These situations, these tough playoff scenarios, are exactly why those guys were brought in - for their experience.
And all of them, from the seasoned veterans on down, know that while this series is 3-1 on paper, it could just as easily be tied, or even reversed. Much like last year's eventual loss to the Rangers, the lead held by the Penguins is something of an illusion - not because the Penguins haven't deserved their wins, but because the Capitals haven't necessarily deserved their losses. They've outplayed the Penguins as much as the Penguins have outplayed them, and more often than not the two teams have been fairly evenly matched.
That should make the Penguins - a team that has blown two 3-1 leads in the last five years alone - very nervous.
Realistically and statistically, there is a very good chance that the Caps don't survive this series. Needing to rattle off three wins while the other team needs just one is a daunting task; they may not be able to complete it, if only because the bounces just don't seem to be going their way. They may not even win another game. If that's the case, there will be plenty to dissect and question, plenty of guys who will need to take a hard look at what they've done so far this postseason and figure out how to be better - and they'll have plenty of time to do so.
But there's also a chance that the Caps come back. There's a chance that they exorcise a whole host of demons in one fell swoop, and it starts with one win. Get one win, and it's 3-2, and suddenly the heat is on the Penguins; steal one in Pittsburgh and it becomes a best-of-one, back home in the friendly confines of Verizon Center.
It won't be easy, but if they manage to pull it off... there may be nothing else that can stand in their way.