WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just outside the Washington Capitals’ dressing room at their home arena, you’ll find an enormous sign with words written inside a larger than life-size picture of the Stanley Cup—the trophy this franchise has never won.
It reads: “When greatness becomes tradition, success is limitless.”
Well, no doubt these Capitals have made a tradition of greatness and success in the regular season, of late. It’s this other part of the year—the post-season—that hasn’t panned out.
But here the Capitals are, one win away from eliminating the two-time defending champions from Pittsburgh, the very team that’s spelled their demise in this second round each of the last two seasons, when Washington had the NHL’s best record.
Game 6 in Pittsburgh, in other words, is a big one. A monkey off the back situation.
“I imagine this will be one of the toughest games any of us have ever faced,” says T.J. Oshie, author of an empty-netter in a 6-3 win on Saturday, which gave Washington the 3-2 series lead.
“You got a back-to-back champion, you got ‘em up against the wall and you’re going to get their best,” Oshie says. “Their best is pretty good, and we got to find a way to be better.”
And just how do you beat Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel and Matt Murray when their Penguin backs are up against a wall?
“We got to limit their time and space,” Oshie says. “They’ve obviously got some big-name players, so you’ve got to take away some of Malkin’s skating space—when he gets some open space he can create some goals.
“I think we can box guys out in front of our net, let Holts [Braden Holtby] see more shots. And special teams for us can be big – staying out of the box and capitalizing on our opportunities.”
That could do it, yes. Of course, it’s easier said than done, because these are the Penguins from the City of Champions and they are the Capitals, a team that hasn’t advanced past the second round in 20 years, despite a roster of stars.
It was Holtby who stole the game for them in No. 5, facing an onslaught of shots in the second period in particular—18, compared to Washington’s 5. The Capitals spent far too much time in the box, and Pittsburgh capitalized on two of five power-play opportunities.
“We’re going to have to play much better,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz says. “I think we’re fortunate that our goaltender was really good and made some timely saves, and they didn’t convert on a couple of their chances. We did, and at the end of the day, we found a way to win.
“That’s playoff hockey,” Trotz continues. “Sometimes, in the past, I’ve been on the other side where I felt like we played really good, and you didn’t get the result. You’ve just got to take this as an opportunity. We’ve got a little more wiggle room than them. We’ve got to bring our best our game, and we’ve got to push our game to the next level.
“There’s no ifs, ands or buts—we’ve got to do that. This is a very good opponent, and we’re going to have to be really, really good. We have a lot of guys that I know have to be better. Have to be way better in a lot of areas.”
They do, and maybe with a less than healthy Nicklas Backstrom, to boot. He leaned down to block a shot in the first period of Game 5, and it went off his hand.
Backstrom, who’s putting up more than a point per game in these playoffs, didn’t take any draws in the second period, and Lars Eller took his place on the second line for the latter half of the third period.
As Oshie puts it, “You can’t replace No. 19—he’s just too special of a player…”
Trotz says he expects Backstrom to play in Game 6, and adds, “we’ll see where is [Monday].”
Monday night in Pittsburgh is the big one, with the opportunity to advance to the Eastern Conference final just one win away for these Capitals, who have two shots at it, with Game 7 (if necessary) set for Wednesday back at home.
“I don’t know if I could tell you exactly what it would mean,” Oshie says, of getting through this second round. “None of us have ever been there.”
Well, some of them have. But many—Oshie and Ovechkin and Backstrom and Holtby, to name just a few—haven’t.
“We’re just looking to get the job done and maybe after we can talk about the feelings,” Oshie adds. “But right now, we still got a lot of work to do.”
We’ll see if the Capitals can flip the script, start to live up to that sign hanging outside their dressing room, beyond the regular season. No doubt there’s more than enough desire inside that dressing room to do just that.
“I can tell you there’s not a player, a coach, a trainer, ownership, GM who is not trying to do everything they can to win this series,” Trotz says. “Trust me. We’re trying as hard as we can, and at the end of the day, that’s all we can promise.”