Brett Connolly #10 of the Washington Capitals celebrates his goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Capital One Arena on May 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
The straightforward aspect of the Washington Capitals’ situation in their second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins: They have two chances to win one game and advance. Simple stuff.
The reality: Get it done Monday night. Take the sixth game. The “or else” is implied. Because the specter of a Game 7 in Washington — pardon me, another Game 7 in Washington — might cause the city to crater.
Now, should the Capitals lose Monday night in Pittsburgh — a real possibility, of course, because the Penguins are fully healthy and Washington is, to some degree, undermanned — this is not to say that a seventh game at Capital One Arena wouldn’t be just what the sixth game at PPG Paints Arena is: an opportunity.
But does anyone wearing a red sweater — be he or she on the ice or in the stands — want any part of that?
“We need to just focus on the moment,” goaltender Braden Holtby said, citing something both trite and true.
We know what Game 7 means around here. The record of Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals in Game 7s, dating back to 2008: 3-7. In the second round: 0-4. You don’t need to dig through the records at the Hockey Hall of Fame to conjure up the feelings. Try May 10, 2017. Same opponent. Same building. Same hopes. Same fears.
The Capitals dominated the first, say, 12 minutes of that game against the Penguins.
“I was going, ‘We score here, we’re winning,’ ” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said before this season. “ ‘We’re going to win big.’
“We didn’t score. Then you can just feel the energy.”
Why bring up Trotz’s analysis from October, back when it seemed as if a rejiggered Capitals team would be lucky to reach the second round? Because the dynamic applies now. I spent last summer thinking, “You know what? If Game 7 had been in Pittsburgh instead of Washington, the Caps would have won.”
Instead, what was then known as Verizon Center folded in on itself. Bryan Rust scored midway through the second, Patric Hornqvist added the insurance goal early in the third, and the Penguins celebrated in front of the Capitals’ fans. What was devastating here — again — was just another difficult-but-necessary step in a run to a Pittsburgh Stanley Cup.
And yet in a year in which their offseason was panned by the hockey cognoscenti, the Capitals won the Metropolitan Division again, racking up five more points than Pittsburgh, earning home-ice advantage through this round. Part of home-ice advantage: protect it through five games, and you earn the right to wrap up the series in six.
So maybe the most significant byproduct of the Capitals’ 6-3 victory Saturday night in Game 5 isn’t that they guaranteed — at worst — a return to their home arena for a Game 7. It’s that they earned the right to avoid such a fate.
“We’ve got a little more wiggle room than them,” Trotz said Sunday.
For all the anxiety looking into the past can cause the Caps — actually, more accurately, for all the anxiety it can cause their fans — there is some recent history in which Washington has done exactly what it’s trying to do Monday. In the first round of these playoffs against Columbus, the Capitals managed an overtime win at home in Game 5 to take a three-games-to-two lead — then wrapped up the series decisively on the road in Game 6.
Go back to last year. In the first round, Washington won the swing game at home to take that 3-2 lead to Toronto, where Marcus Johansson’s overtime goal wrapped up the series in six. In the first round of 2016, Philadelphia managed a shutout win in Washington to force a Game 6 back in the Flyers’ home building — and the Caps won that game to seal the series.
So for this group, there is precedent. There just isn’t precedent against Pittsburgh.
In the Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby Era — which is now in its fourth playoff series — the Capitals have never had a chance to eliminate the Penguins before a Game 7. But their record on the road isn’t half bad. In 2009, David Steckel’s overtime goal at old Mellon Arena won Game 6 for Washington — and the demoralization came in the seventh game back home, a 6-2 stinker. Last year, they went 2-1 in Pittsburgh, including a decisive 5-2 victory in Game 6 that made it, for all the world, seem as if they were the favorites going into Game 7 back home.
And then they didn’t score on those first few shifts. And then the tension in the building mounted. And then the passes became harder to complete. And then the Penguins played with more confidence.
Imagine that Monday night, in reverse. The opportunity at hand for these Capitals is unprecedented. Yet they can’t process it as such.
“If we’re going to think all the way, it’s a little bit tough on you when some of those games you will lose,” said Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored Saturday’s equalizer early in the third. “It’s very hard to focus when you think you’re going to be best.”
So if they take that shift-by-shift approach, if they get an early goal and keep the Penguins off the board, maybe they will notice something. PPG Paints Arena will grow restless, even quiet. The Capitals, in turn, will draw energy from the silence. They can create the environment that so often has hindered them at home.
And if they don’t? If the Penguins win? Fine. No problem. There would be another chance, a seventh game in Washington.