It was only fitting that the most bizarre series of the first round of this spring’s NHL playoffs was followed by one of the most bizarre post-game dressing room scenes you’ll ever see. There were the victorious Washington Capitals, enjoying their six-game triumph amid an entourage that was led by their billionaire owner Ted Leonsis, who was flanked by a couple of minority owners and their families. Lots of hugs and backslapping was done. The ownership group and their significant others even posed for a dressing room picture. If you didn’t know the Capitals had made it only a quarter the way through the NHL playoffs, you’d have thought they won the Stanley Cup or something.
The Washington Capitals have a lot to prove before anyone can take them truly seriously as a championship team. They ground out a victory when they should have breezed to one. When you have a team down 3-1 with a full two-minute 5-on-3, championship-caliber teams bury their opponents and seize control of the series. Championship-caliber teams push the pace, push around their opponents and show which team is going to set the tempo for a series. They don’t show an opponent full of playoff rookies so much respect. They teach them a lesson rather than learn the lessons themselves. And championship-caliber franchises react after a first-round victory as though this wasn’t their first rodeo.
So what are to make of this Presidents' Trophy winning team, one that was life-and-death to make beat the No. 2 wildcard in the Eastern Conference? How is that team now supposed to turn around in four days and put a chokehold on the defending Stanley Cup champion? In truth, the Capitals have accomplished the rare feat of winning the first round and positioning themselves as less of a Stanley Cup contender. Really, how many people outside the metropolitan D.C. area would put serious money on this team knocking the Penguins out of the post-season?
“It’s perfect. It’s a perfect scenario,” said Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom. “Even if we finished first in the regular season, they’re the Stanley Cup champs and we’re the underdogs. That’s perfect for us.”
The second round, which gets underway Thursday night, will conveniently (and lazily) be portrayed as another installment in the Sid vs. Ovie saga. But it will be about so much more than that, largely because Alex Ovechkin is no longer the most dangerous player on his team, particularly in 5-on-5 situations. The Penguins, you can be rest assured, will be far more concerned with Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie than they will be on Ovechkin. (And after scoring both goals Sunday night, you can probably put Marcus Johansson into that group as well.)
The Capitals engine in Game 6 was the second line of Kuznetsov between Johansson and Williams. They were the best unit on the ice for both teams and it wasn’t even close. And they were the Capitals’ best line in the series. So perhaps that’s a good omen for the Capitals that they no longer need to be carried on Ovechkin’s (and Backstrom’s) shoulders in order to win. And maybe, just maybe, this first round will have a positive effect on the Capitals’ fortunes. Almost every championship team needs to have the wits scared out of it at some point in the playoffs and perhaps this was it. And the resilience the Capitals showed in not allowing a lucky-bounce goal to sink them in a big game is the kind of strength this team has not exhibited often.
“It was, ‘That break isn’t going to kill us. That isn’t going to be the game-winner,’ ” Williams said when asked how the Capitals reacted to Auston Matthews putting the Leafs up 1-0 with just over 12 minutes to go on a rebound that hit a stanchion and landed on his stick. “And it wasn’t.”
A number of Capitals, including coach Barry Trotz, talked about how this series “hardened” them and added another layer of playoff experience in the form of adversity that will reap benefits later in the tournament. They’d better hope they’re right because there was one team that was more responsible for making this close and it was not the Toronto Maple Leafs. With all due kudos and respect, the Leafs were very good, better than anyone ever thought they would be. But if the Capitals have any designs on winning the Stanley Cup, they’re going to have to do two things. The first is they’re going to have to handle the Penguins’ speed far better than they dealt with Toronto’s. The second is they’re going to have to be far more assertive and dictate the terms of engagement.
Capitals goalie Braden Holtby was asked whether this series was the scare the Capitals needed to bring out the best, and more desperate, of them in the next round. “Yeah, that’s one way to put it,” he said. “I think another way is a good mental test. We didn’t take them lightly, as lightly as everyone else in the hockey world probably did. Any type of adversity makes you better, makes you stronger, if you use it in the right way.”