Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Could this be the beginning of a storybook Cup run for the Caps?

Are the Washington Capitals about to shed their playoff loser label once and for all?

It sure feels like it after the Capitals banged their way past a slow-footed Penguins team in Game 6 on Monday night at PPG Paints Arena to force Game 7. Washington has all the momentum in the series and they will look to capitalize on it by completing an improbable comeback in the deciding game of this series on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center. If they do it they'll become the 29th team in NHL history to battle back from 3-1 down to win a series.

They'll also be the first team with Alexander Ovechkin on the roster to make it to a Conference Final, which is utterly ridiculous when you think about it.

The very fact that the Caps have come level in the series, coupled with the level of intensity in their collective game on Monday, is a sign that Washington is ready to take the next step. This is a team that flirted with disaster in the first round when they were one goal away from going 7 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Then they fell behind 3-1 against the Pens, losing Game 4 against a Penguins team that was without Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary.

Braden Holtby, typically one of the Capitals best players every postseason, struggled mightily, putting up a .857 save percentage in the first four games of the series.

Washington looked ripe for another inexplicable postseason flameout, but somehow they've pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and pressed on. The Caps have dominated this series from a possession standpoint, with a 5-on-5 Corsi of 62.24% while collecting 64.23% percent of the scoring chances, but it wasn't enough in the first four games because Holtby was flat and Marc-Andre Fleury was on fire.

That has changed dramatically in the last two games.

While Holtby has started to flourish, Fleury allowed nine goals on 58 shots in Games 5 and 6 for a save percentage of .845 and a GAA of 4.59. Either the Caps have solved him or he's simply lost his mojo. Can he get it back for Wednesday's winner-take-all contest in DC?

It's going to be tough.

Whatever momentum the Penguins had in this series has been all but squandered. Washington has outscored them 8-2 in the last four periods, and Sidney Crosby has not been the same player since he returned from his concussion to play Game 5. There's further worry about Crosby's health after he took a dangerous fall into the boards late in the first period on Monday and had great difficulty picking himself up and getting off the ice.

Many felt that Crosby should have been pulled from the game for examination by the NHL's concussion spotters, but he was allowed to play on. It created some pretty bad optics for the NHL and it may have been the wrong move to let Crosby continue without an immediate evaluation. Look, everybody knows that the NHL product is a far better one with Crosby in the lineup, but his concussion struggles have cast a gloom over the series. Instead of watching him create that otherworldly magic he's known for, we're watching every hit he takes while holding our breath, hoping that it isn't the one that sends him off the ice for good and puts his career in further jeopardy.

The Penguins have been decimated by injuries this season, and it might be too difficult for them to get up off the canvas against this Capitals juggernaut for Game 7, given how bad they were physically outplayed in Game 6.

Game 7's are supposed to be toss-ups. But it sure feels like the Penguins only chance to win this series went out the window in the third period of Game 5. They held a 2-1 lead and a 43-1-1 record when leading after two periods in their last 45 regular season and playoff games combined at that point. There was reason to believe the end was near for the Caps but they stormed to victory, pumping three unanswered goals past Fleury to flip the script in this series.

But anything can happen in Game 7, and Washington must beware of letting their foot off the proverbial gas pedal. They put themselves in a bad position by falling behind 3-1 and they are by no means out of this series yet now matter how well they played in the last two games. One bounce could decide this series.

One fluky goal could end a decade of frustration for Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals, or it could be the next painful body blow in a long line of playoff failures for a Capitals organization that specializes in breaking its fans' hearts.