The Capitals made the playoffs, and a surreal season continues

PHILADELPHIA — Much of the joy in sports is based on the anticipation that precedes a celebration, the circumstances surrounding an accomplishment. So here were the Washington Capitals — not those old Stanley Cup-contending Washington Capitals, but a different version with a new reality — gathered in a smiling group on the ice at the Wells Fargo Center. They violently pat each other on the head, gloves knocking against helmets. Then, with a playoff berth locked up, they jumped together, a circle of joy following a season of unspeakable half-heartedness.

The Capitals returned to the NHL postseason with a nail-biting 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night, clinching the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, essentially winning Game 7. Round 0. In doing so, they earned a date with the behemoth New York Rangers. Exhale because the spot was earned and the ride was worth it. Now, the hook again.

But enjoy this one more: A team that had traded away Stanley Cup hero Evgeny Kuznetsov, worked well because of it, overcame performance and injury, and was still sold at the trade deadline because the immediate future looked bleak — that team was in. No, sorry. The team has won its last three games in four days boat When no other solution works.

“Unreal,” said Alex Ovechkin, whose first-period goal was his 31st of the season, 853rd of his career and, given the way the Caps have been scoring lately, felt like a miracle.

“We struggle with a lot of things going on [the] Deadlines, injuries, Kusi,” he continued. “But I think the confidence inside the locker room was huge. We enjoyed the process. It's special. That's why we play hockey.

That's why we watch.

Put achievement aside for a moment. The irony of how that came to be cannot be overstated. With two points on Tuesday — in regulation or overtime — the Capitals will clinch the final spot. But to stay alive, the Flyers need a regulation win — and help in the form of Montreal beating Detroit.

See also  How 49ers QB Brock Purdy made NFL history in multiple ways against Eagles - NBC Sports Bay Area & California

That meant a late-game tie — and an overtime opportunity, in which the Caps would score the 90th point to eliminate Philadelphia — essentially pushed the Flyers into the deficit.

So for Philadelphia coach John Tortorella, pulling goalie Samuel Ersen would come earlier than normal — with more than three minutes remaining and the score tied. Except for the same moment nearly 400 miles away, Detroit scored with five seconds left to force overtime in Montreal. The Red Wings had their point. The flyers were removed. Ersen emptied the net anyway — and Caps vet DJ Oshie, playing with a chronically troubled back, deposited the game-winner into the empty net.

What a fit for this group – what a crazy fit.

“Almost every game was a Game 7 for us,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes we don't get points, we're still in the battle, and then it's a crazy situation until tonight.”

“I got word of the Detroit game right after they scored the empty-netter,” Tortorella said. “I think it happened pretty close.”

So close together — and for Washington, so lucky. Because this team — which has scored two or fewer goals in 42 of 82 games this year, tied for fourth in the NHL — doesn't seem capable of forcing another if the game goes five-on-five. That struggle to score contributed to the Caps' minus-37 goal differential, the worst of any playoff team this century.

They are limited, of course. There is much more joy.

“Whether you're John Carlson, whether you're Hendricks LaPierre, Connor McMichael, 'Oh,' you can see the faces in that room,” first-year coach Spencer Carberry said. Impressive in style and messaging. “They're all at different stages of their lives and their careers. But whatever your situation is, whether you're in your first year playing like a lot of our guys or your 17th season — you can tell how bad they want to find ways. Every night. to win.”

See also  Nordstrom Canada is closing all stores by June

It's amazing how skin-of-the-teeth this roster is against those old juggernaut Capitals teams that made the playoffs. In the 2018 Cup year, the most notable aspect of the Caps' celebration after their first-round win over Columbus was how subdued it was. It was a business trip. A second round was expected. What mattered was on the horizon, beyond.

These hats are not those hats. That's okay too.

“The momentum is on our side,” Oshie said. “There's a lot of players in this room who haven't been deep in the playoffs or even played in the playoffs, and they're starting to learn dedication and focus, intensity and selflessness. Play playoff hockey.

That's because of playing that style for over a month.

Before the season, the keys to being the best version of the Capitals, Kuznetsov, a talented but crazy center, was Washington's best player during their run to the Cup. Franchise linchpin Nicklas Backstrom has returned to health after recovering from hip reconstruction surgery.

They could have added a stellar year from goaltender Darcy Kumbert, who signed a five-year, $26.25 million deal a season ago to bring stability to a position Washington has enjoyed little.

Results: Kuznetsov was the worst version of himself, dragging the team down, managing just 17 points in 43 games. He was waived and then traded. Backstrom's physical limitations changed very quickly. He left the game in November with one point in eight games. Kuemper was eventually replaced in net by star backup Charlie Lindgren, who started 14 of the Caps' final 15 games and was deemed “our MVP” by Carberry.

So the team that assembled in the fall with hopes of returning to the playoffs was not the team that ultimately landed there. The lineup Tuesday night featured Dylan McIlrath, a few days shy of his 32nd birthday but playing his 75th NHL game as captain of the Caps' top minor league franchise. If he didn't assist Ovechkin's goal, he would have jumped. That includes 21-year-old Vincent Iorio, a 2021 draft pick, playing his ninth NHL game. It's a hybrid roster for a franchise in transition, with an old core winding down and a new core now forming — perhaps.

See also  Alphabet shares rise on profit, dividend announcement

“The journey, it's incredible because it's not easy,” Lindgren said. “… It's a privilege to play for these guys.”

They will be underdogs and heavy underdogs against Rangers who won the Presidents Trophy. The kids on this team won't remember the burden New York had to carry, but some of the older leaders will. The 2010 Capitals won the same trophy awarded to the team with the best record in the NHL. They lost in the first round to eighth-seeded Montreal. The 2016 and '17 editions of the Caps earned Presidents Trophy status and failed to make it out of the second round.

Point: Nothing is guaranteed. Washington's lineup is not what it once was or what it was expected to be this season. But the kids who could be part of the core of the future — McMichael, Lapierre, Beck Malenstyn, Aliaksei Protas and others — get the chance after one season.

“Where we've gone is very valuable for growth,” Carberry said. “But now, you want to do it well. Now, we don't [say], 'Okay, great.' We want to play well. … And everybody would say, 'We have no business being here, and the destination is different, blah, blah, blah.' That would be the story. That's okay too. This is guaranteed. This is a fact. [But] I know this team isn't just going to be content in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

When the horn sounded Tuesday night, Karlsson — a veteran of 1,009 NHL games, all in a Caps sweater — pumped his fist and wailed, then went to Lindgren for a hearty hug. Standard is not static. But for that These are The Capitals have had a successful season. Now, the real fun begins.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *