When the Washington Capitals hit the ice at Capital One Arena Monday night they will be just one loss away from elimination in the Eastern Conference Final. Rewind to just a week ago, and the Caps were flying high, having dominated the first two games of the series on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Unfortunately, things took a quick turn for the worse. If Washington were to lose, it would be the end of a complete meltdown, and one that hasn’t happened very often throughout NHL history.
Washington was cruising along to start the Eastern Conference Finals. The Capitals had finally defeated their nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the second round and carried that momentum over to the Tampa Bay Series.
The Capitals put together two great road performances on the road, winning Game 1 by a score of 4-2 and dominating Game 2, 6-2. The Capitals were skating great and looked like the better team by far, making the Lightning look like a shell of the team that was the best this year in the Eastern Conference.
Goalie Braden Holtby was sharp, the defense was playing great, and everything was falling in place for the Caps.
Capitals Hit a Wall
With the first two wins against the Lightning, and the final two wins in the Pittsburgh series, Washington was riding a four-game win streak heading to home ice for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Spirits were high, especially among the fanbase. Capitals fans have suffered through heartache and agony watching their team for decades, and they were ready to celebrate a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
One particular group of fans was so confident, that they showed up at practice prior to Game 3 in Washington and had center Nicklas Backstrom sign a broom. The broom was, of course, meant to signify a possible four-game sweep of the Lightning. Unfortunately, for Backstrom and the Caps, they haven’t won a game since he signed that broom and the chance at a sweep is nothing but a distant memory. Fortunately, the broom has since been burned.
Everything that went right for the Capitals in the first two games, went wrong in the next three.
Braden Holtby stopped making saves that he was making earlier in the series. The defense started standing around more and making poor passes in its own zone. The forecheck became nonexistent, and, perhaps most importantly, pucks stopped going in the net. Oh, and taking countless, unnecessary penalties, allowing Tampa’s potent power play on the ice, didn’t help the cause either.
Bad first periods, including allowing a goal just 19 seconds into Game 5, doomed the Caps. Playing from behind is never a good thing, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When a team is down, especially late in the game, sticks get gripped a bit tighter and mistakes tend to happen more frequently.
Now, with three consecutive losses, the Caps suddenly find themselves on the brink of heading into the offseason once again trying to figure out just what the heck went wrong.
Unwanted NHL History
After winning the first two games in Tampa, Washington was in excellent shape. Although the series was far from over, things were looking great for the Caps. History has been kind to teams with a big lead to start a series.
Even more specifically, considering that Washington won the first two games on the road, the numbers pointed to the Caps being in great shape for the rest of the series.
In the past 50 years, during the conference finals or Stanley Cup finals, only 21 teams have won the first two games of a seven-game series on the road. Of those 21, guess how many went on to win the series — all 21 of them. In fact, none of those series went more than six games.
To take it a step further, since 1970, teams that have gone up 2-0 in the conference finals are an overall 39-2.
Washington had absolutely everything going in its favor, including momentum and history. Now, incredibly, the Caps have their backs against the wall. It’s not over yet, but it will certainly be an uphill battle.
Game 6 will take place Monday night back in DC. While a home game is usually an advantage in the NHL, particularly in the playoffs, that hasn’t been the case for Washington. The Capitals are 3-5 at home, including o-2 against the Lightning.
Washington quickly saw its joy go to anguish in a matter of three games. Now, head coach Barry Trotz needs to figure out a way to get his Capitals playing the way they were back in Games 1 and 2. If he’s unable to do that, it will be yet another year of postseason disappointment in our nation’s capital.
Barry is the site expert at Victory Bell Rings, covering Penn State football, hockey and basketball. He’s also written about the NHL for RotoWire, Bleacher Report and FanSided. An avid hockey fan, he’s been a Washington Capitals supporter for most of his life.