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Washington Capitals and Washington Nationals: Kindred Spirits in The Big Game

Divisional Series - Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Washington Nationals sponged away a lot of their postseason frustration last night in Los Angeles when they faced the Dodgers in the deciding Game 5 of their National League Divisional Series. After falling behind 3-0 early, things looked bleak... until they got home runs on consecutive pitches from Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto to tie the game in the eighth inning. Then, with the clock turned past midnight on the east coast, Howie Kendrick delivered what might be the most important blow in Nats history: a grand slam in the top of the tenth inning to propel the Nats to an unexpected 7-3 series-clinching win over the 106-win Dodgers.

The Nats and the Washington Capitals have an unusual bond, players to players and fans to fans. Because of that, Kendrick’s star turn brings to mind moments in Caps history of desperate times in deciding games (or close to it) and a hero’s moment. So which moment in Caps history might most resemble Kendrick’s winning moment? Let’s use a “four-Howie” Kendrick’s Comparability Rating.

The Particulars

The Nats have been a team of unusually persistent misfortune in the postseason, never having won a playoff series going into this season. When they drew the Dodgers in the divisional series, a team that appeared in each of the last two World Series, it looked as if the streak would continue.

The teams split four games, each splitting two games on the other’s home diamond, setting up a deciding Game 5 in Los Angeles. The Nats fell behind early, trailing 3-0 two innings into the contest. The Nats got one back in the sixth inning, but by the top of the eighth it seemed the Dodgers had enough to hold on, especially with Clayton Kershaw on the mound. But he had his own history of postseason misfortune to deal with, and it haunted him once more when he allowed home runs on consecutive pitches to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto.

Having clawed back to tie the game, the teams went to the tenth. A walk, a double, and an intentional walk loaded the bases for Howie Kendrick, who might have had the most frustrating series for the Nats to that point. He committed three errors in the field and was batting .227 in the postseason. But on a one-strike pitch, he ripped a drive to the deepest part of Dodger Stadium, the blow clearing the wall for a grand slam, the deciding moment of the Nat’s 7-3 win over the Dodgers to clinch the series. So, what we are left with for comparisons are…

  • Deciding game (not in a final series)
  • On the road
  • Falling behind early
  • Trailing late
  • Against a team with recent experience in championship games
  • A player having had a personally frustrating series, but is the unexpected hero

What are the candidates in Caps history to compare to this scenario? The obvious ones are series-clinching moments that would include:

1988: Game 7, Flyers at Capitals, Patrick Division Semi-Finals
The Hero: Dale Hunter

The Caps and the Flyers, 90 minutes apart on I-95, developed quite a rivalry through the 1980’s, and their series to open the 1988 playoffs did nothing to diminish it. The Flyers took a 3-1 lead in games before the Caps fought back in Games 5 and 6 to tie the series and send it back to Washington for Game 7. Philadelphia opened fast in the deciding game, going out to a 3-0 lead 23 minutes into the game. The Caps scored three times in a span of 11 minutes in the second period to tie it, and then they got a power play goal from Dale Hunter to take a lead five minutes into the third period. Philadelphia tied it a minute later, and the 4-4 score held up through the end of regulation. Just under six minutes into the first extra session, Dale Hunter took a feed from Larry Murphy as he was exiting the defensive zone, split two Flyer defenders, and slid the puck under goalie Ron Hextall to send Caps fans into a frenzy with the 5-4 overtime win and the Caps’ first ever win in a best-of-seven series.

Kendrick Comparability Rating: Two Howies
Yes, it was a deciding game in an early series, and the Caps feel behind early, arguably in a deeper hole than the Nats given the scoring in hockey games. But the Caps actually had a lead late in this game, in the third period. The Flyers were a team of recent championship series, having lost in the Stanley Cup final the previous season. However, it could not really be said of Hunter that he had a frustrating series. In the first six games he had three goals, and he had a power play goal earlier in this game. There are resemblances, but not so much that makes this a good match to Kendrick’s moment.

1998: Game 6, Capitals at Sabres, Eastern Conference Final
The Hero: Joe Juneau

The Caps and Buffalo Sabres did not have a divisional rivalry, nor a playoff history to add spice to their 1998 matchup in the Eastern Conference final. Even though this was only Washington’s second trip to a conference final (they were swept by Boston in 1990), this series lacked the punch of a Patrick Division matchup. Washington went out to a 3-1 lead in games but failed to clinch the series on home ice in Game 5, sending the series back to Buffalo for Game 6. After a scoreless first period, the teams traded goals in the second period and did so again in the third, the Caps coming back from a one-goal deficit each time. The teams went to overtime, where in the seventh minute Brian Bellows circled through the left wing circle with the puck in on goalie Dominik Hasek. He tried to stuff the puck under Hasek, but it was turned aside, sliding out to the left of the sprawled goalie. Joe Juneau darted in, and before Hasek could smother the puck, tucked it inside the near post to give the Caps the 3-2 overtime win and send them to their first Stanley Cup final. As for Juneau, his series against the Sabres lacked a frustration factor, having gone 2-2-4, including a shorthanded goal, and without a penalty minute over the first five games of the series.

Kendrick Comparability Rating: One Howie
The comparison here suffers first from not being a deciding game. The Caps already wasted a chance to clinch on home ice in Game 5 and might not have wanted to chance having to clinch on home ice in Game 7, but Game 6 is not Game 7, either. This game was on the road, and the Caps did fall behind – twice – but both times by one-goal margins, not the deep hole in which the Nats found themselves on Wednesday night. And, the Sabres were not a team of recent championship pedigree. Their only previous trip to the Stanley Cup final was in 1975.

2012: Game 7, Capitals at Bruins, Eastern Conference Quarterfinal
The Hero: Joel Ward

The Caps drew the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round of the postseason, but they played the champs tough. The first six games were decided by one goalt, two of them in overtime. The Caps had a chance to clinch on home ice in Game 6, but they fell to the Bruins, 4-3, in overtime. The Caps took a lead in the first period in Game 7 on a Matt Hendricks goal and held that slim lead until Tyler Seguin tied it late in the second period.

That would be it for the scoring in regulation, and folks settled in for what might be a long spell of overtime. It was not. In the third minute, Boston’s Benoit Pouliot tried to fire the puck along the right wing boards into the Caps’ end to get a line change, but the puck bounced off the shin pad of Mike Knuble back into the neutral zone. Knuble tracked it down and headed with Joel Ward on a 2-on-1 rush into the Boston end. Knuble curled through the left wing circle and tried to backhand the puck through goalie Tim Thomas’ pads. Thomas made the save, but Ward jumped on the rebound, sliding a backhand under Thomas to give the Caps the 2-1 overtime series clinching win.

Kendrick Comparability Rating: Two Howies
Deciding game that was not in a final series…check. On the road…check. Falling behind early… no. Trailing late… no. The Caps never trailed in this game. In fact, they had not trailed in Boston since Zdeno Chara scored the game winning goal with less than two minutes left in Game 3 of the series. The Bruins were a team of recent experience in championship games, having been the defending Cup champion. You could say Ward had some frustrating moments in this series. It was his first postseason series for the Caps after going 9-8-17 in 18 career playoff games with the Nashville Predators. But over the first six games he did not have a goal (on eight shots) and had only two assists. Even in this Game 7 he drew blanks on his first two shots on goal before finding the back of the net for the series clincher.

2015: Game 7, Islanders at Capitals, Eastern Conference Quarterfinal
The Hero: Evgeny Kuznetsov

These were teams with a long playoff history against one another, but this would be only the second time in the postseason rivalry with the Islanders that the teams faced off in a Game 7. The first time was memorable, and not in a good way. The second Game 7 was as closely fought an affair, even if it didn’t go so deep into the night and the next morning. Washington opened the scoring, courtesy of Joel Ward, late in the second period. The lead did not last long, Frans Nielsen tying the game barely three minutes into the third period.

As the game passed the halfway mark of the third period, overtime seemed a good bet. That thought was put to rest in the 13th minute when Jason Chimera outfought Johnny Boychuk for a loose puck in the right wing corner and worked it out to Evgeny Kuznetsov along the boards. Kuznetsov spun off the board and around Nielsen, holding the puck patiently as he skated across the slot. His patience paid off as goalie Jaroslav Halak dropped to the ice for a shot that didn’t come, leaving Kuznetsov to snap a shot over the goalie for a 2-1 lead with just over seven minutes left in regulation. The Caps held off the Islanders the rest of the way, and the 37th meeting of these teams in the postseason ended with a Caps win.

Kendrick Comparability Rating: Two Howies
It was a deciding game that was not a final series, but it was not on the road, and these were teams with a long history of postseason matchups, albeit none since 1993. It was neither a road game, nor a game in which the Caps ever trailed. It was not an opponent with serious championship experience since winning four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980’s. Kuznetsov was in his first NHL postseason, and what frustration he had was inconsistency. He did have a two-goal/one-assist effort in Game 5, but otherwise he was without a point in the other five games leading up to Game 7. He had a particularly difficult Game 6, failing to find the back of the net with six shots on goal.

2018: Game 6, Capitals at Penguins, Eastern Conference Semi-Final
The Hero: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Every Caps fan knew the frustrations the Capitals suffered at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins over the years. One playoff series win, that one a distant memory (1994). Crushing, heart-ripping, gut-wrenching losses. When the Penguins, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, won Game 1 it looked like more of the same. But the Caps won three of the next four to take a 3-2 lead in games as the series went back to Pittsburgh. Washington took a lead early in the second period on an Alex Chiasson goal, but Kris Letang tied it just under ten minutes later. It would be all the scoring in regulation. The Caps dodged a bullet when a Tom Kuhnackl drive hit the crossbar and ricocheted out less than three minutes into the first overtime. It was the luck the Caps needed and never had against this opponent in the postseason, and in the sixth minute they took advantage. A long feed from Kris Letang was lost off a teammate’s stick and found its way to Alex Ovechkin. Taking two strides, he slid the puck up to Evgeny Kuznetsov steaming ahead of him. Kuznetsov split two defenders and deking goalie Matt Murray to the ice, slid the puck between his pads to give the Caps the 2-1 series clinching win.

Kendrick Comparability Rating: Three Howies
It is tempting to give this one all the Howies, but we might be blinded by the context of the rivalry. That this was not a deciding game is not disqualifying because, let’s face it, the Caps on home ice against Pittsburgh in the postseason has been one long horror show. And with Game 7 in Washington looming, this had all the feel of a deciding game. The game was on the road, but the Caps never trailed in it, although no lead is safe with the Penguins, either. The Penguins were the best example of an opponent with recent championship pedigree, having won the previous two Stanley Cups (each time going through the Caps to do it). As for Kuznetsov, his series against the Pens was not what one would call frustrating. In the first five games he was 2-3-5 and was coming off a three-point performance in a 6-3 win in Game 5 in Washington. If anything, this game and Kuznetsov’s role in it shed years of frustration in the postseason for the Caps, similar to what Nats’ fans have experienced, and was followed by their own championship weeks later. May the same be said for the Nats a few weeks from now.

And that one we’ll compare to the “Lars Eller” moment.

Until then...