Heading into this past weekend’s two-games-in-two-nights road trip, the Washington Capitals were outwardly pessimistic. Despite winning their previous four games—outscoring opponents 19-6 in the process—the Caps were simply mortified by the prospect of playing Western powers Phoenix and Colorado, on the road, and on consecutive nights (and don’t even mention the altitude!).
In the days preceding the trip, the talk amongst the Caps was markedly foreboding: They didn’t only have to play two good teams, they had to do so in just the worst circumstances. Said defenseman, Karl Alzner, “whoever set that one up was probably laughing when they did…”
Why’s that, Karl? Because no Eastern team has ever taken a Western road trip? Because no team has ever beaten two quality opponents, back-to-back? Or maybe it’s because no team has ever gone in to the oxygen-deprived Pepsi Center and won? Or perhaps, after half a decade of underachieving, the Capitals have decided that they’re tired of the expectations.
Fifty-seven minutes into game one in Phoenix, the Caps found themselves leading the Coyotes by two goals. The Coyotes had mustered few opportunities in the third period, and it appeared that the Caps would coast through the final three minutes to an “improbable” road victory.
When Lauri Korpikoski scored to bring the Coyotes within one, it was tense, to be sure, but here’s the thing: the Caps were still winning. If only somebody had told the Caps!
From the moment Korpikoski scored that goal, whether or not the Coyotes would complete the comeback was less a question, than it was a foregone conclusion. Considering the enormous odds stacked against them, the Caps were probably happy just to be in it at all.
Yes, they still managed to coast through the final three minutes, but not in the good way. After scrambling in their own zone on one of the ensuing shifts, the Caps inevitably took a penalty, promptly gave up a power-play goal, lazily wasted a power-play of their own in overtime, and lost in the shootout.
The following night, the Caps once again found themselves playing well against a tough opponent. After surrendering a flukey goal in the opening three minutes—and overcoming another painfully slow start offensively—the Caps were arguably the better team through the first half of the game. Fatigue and altitude sickness be damned!
When Joel Ward tied the game at one off another broken play, it felt like a well-deserved reward for the hard-working road team. But it ended there.
Less than 30 seconds later, the Avalanche regained the lead, and they didn’t look back. The Capitals seemed content at having matched Colorado for nearly two periods: They didn’t have anything else to prove. After the game, both coach and players had positive things to say about the team’s performance.
This isn’t to say that the team didn’t play well; in fact there were moments in each game that were among the most impressive of the season. The issue is more that the team didn’t expect to win. They were acutely aware of the challenges they would be facing, and they allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the task at hand.
What happens when the Caps get back to the playoffs, where every game matters, and every team is good? Will they concede the games away from Verizon Center? Will they be content with simply playing teams close?
The Caps may be able to hang with the best, but a loss is a loss. Until they stop making excuses, and have some faith in their own abilities, they won’t win when it counts. There’s no such thing as an easy playoff run.