Resilient Caps an Unfamiliar Postseason Foe for Pens
This time, the Capitals aren’t in the process of blowing it. This time, they’re on the verge of taking control.
It’s gotten ugly already and it may get uglier yet.
But what really separates this increasingly combative Penguins-Capitals playoff confrontation from the two postseasons that preceded it is what the Caps have already established.
“This is a different Capitals team,” NBC’s Pierre McGuire insisted after Washington’s dramatic, 4-3 victory in Game 3 on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Added NBC’s Mike Milbury: “They can infuse believability into their team.”
That’s the major development through the first three games.
It’s an even bigger deal than Tom Wilson’s head-hunting.
The Caps have traditionally been a postseason punching bag, a fatal flaw for an organization that’s consistently put skilled teams on ice that were otherwise good enough to win division championships and Presidents’ Trophies.
And the Penguins have traditionally taken full advantage.
But this season the Caps have for the most part flown under the radar.
After losing the likes of Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Marcus Johansson from last season’s supposed juggernaut, and in the wake of a second consecutive postseason checkout at the hands of the Stanley Cup-bound Penguins last spring, the Capitals were a relative afterthought this season.
Now they’re halfway to becoming the story of the 2018 postseason.
And their character is showing.
Washington opened the playoffs by losing Games 1 and 2 at home in overtime against Columbus, a double-barrel gut-punch that would have devastated a lesser collection.
The Caps responded by winning the next four games in succession.
That hadn’t happened before in NHL history.
They opened what had become an annual exercise in frustration against the Penguins by losing at least one of the first two games at home.
But this time, by virtue of Alex Ovechkin’s almost-last-minute heroics and a collective effort that was uncharacteristically determined, Washington will emerge from Game 4 on Thursday night facing something other than a three-games-to-one nightmare.
That hadn’t happened before in either of the last two postseasons.
This time, the Capitals aren’t in the process of blowing it.
This time, they’re on the verge of taking control.
Lost, potentially, in the aftermath of all the emotional fallout associated with Wilson’s assault on Zach Aston-Reese, is the Caps’ transformation that’s been on display through the first three games.
“I think this group has learned to not look too far ahead, not to get too comfortable,” head coach Barry Trotz maintained. “We’ve had to work hard to sort of get a little bit of an identity. This group continues to forge a little bit of an identity.
“We’ve got, I’ll say, some confidence in our group, they have confidence in each other and they have trust in each other.”
The Penguins know the value of such intangibles.
If they haven’t already, they’d better recognize those characteristics in the Caps.
“They’re playing for keeps,” Trotz added.
That doesn’t make the Capitals invincible.
But it will demand the absolute best the Pens can muster if this keeps up.
That means Matt Murray will have to be better, the Pens will have to stop hemorrhaging odd-man rushes against, the power play will have to be heard from consistently and someone other than Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist or Kris Letang might have to score a goal.
None of that is beyond the Penguins’ grasp.
But this time even all of the above might not be enough.
And for the Caps and the Pens, that’s as different as it can get.