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This Thing Ain't Over

Not. Over. Yet. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais - AP

In which I pretend to be optimistic about the Caps' playoff chances....No, seriously, read on....

"We have two wins and we're playing against a very good hockey club and we cannot, we cannot lose our edge as far as what we have to do, because series can be turned around really quickly," John Tortorella said today.

Sure, he has to say that.

"I mean, you tell the guys to keep the faith," Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "You never quit. You never quit and you never give up, and one game can change the tide. I mean, they won two in our building, you know? So I don't think it's an impossibility to say that we can't win two in theirs."

Sure, that's a triple negative. And sure, he has to say that, too, assuming those negatives work out correctly. But here's the thing: it's sort of actually the truth.

In the playoff history of the Washington Capitals, only twice has a team lost the first two games at home. Both times, that team--down 2-0, going on the road amid talk of catastrophe-- won the series.

(That's something like a 100 percent success rate, for the mathematically challenged.)

The memories, in this case, are severely bad, to the point that even now you might gag a bit at the thought. But the point is, we're not talking about some maniacal dream of flipping tails 17 times in a row, of threading a rink-long shot through two defensemen and a goalie with no time left on the clock. This isn't the NBA, either.

This particular comeback happens. And when it does, the media has already written things off after Game 2. Look, that's what you have to do if you're the media and the higher-seeded team gacked up two fur-balls at home, but certainties can change.

In 2003, the Caps won two games at Tampa Bay, a club coached by none other than John Tortorella. Margin of victory? Try nine-three. One of the games was a shutout, and in the other game the victorious Caps allowed three goals. Olaf Kolzig, up 2-0 with three goals allowed, was being lauded as a shut-down playoff goalie. Does any of this sound familiar?

"Based on two games, it doesn't seem likely," The Post's Bill Gildea wrote then. "In those two games, the Capitals have shown off too many veteran scorers, too much coordinated defense and too good a goaltender to expect a letdown." See, that's what the media will say now. But, just like now, the participants were saying something different.

"Our backs are against the wall," Tampa Bay captain Dave Andreychuk said. "But we've responded before."

"There's no pressure on us," Tortorella said at the time. "We're loose. All the pressure's on them. They're supposed to win the series now....We're going to try and find a way. No guarantees, but we'll be ready to play."

"You can't think that all we have to do is just show up and things are going to go our way," Caps Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "That's not necessarily the case. Everyone recognizes you have to win four....You have to be confident in yourself and your ability to win. To have a bit of swagger was always a good thing, especially in the playoffs. Just don't let that swagger affect your work ethic or your attitude toward your opposition."

You know what happened next. Four straight one-goal wins for the Lightning, three by one goal, three on Washington's ice, involving a total of four overtimes. The Lightning won the series in 6. That led to an explosion of the entire Caps franchise, three seasons (plus the lockout) without playoff hockey, and untold heartburn for Caps fans and management.

Was that unprecedented? Hardly. The only previous time a road team started a Caps playoff series with two wins was 1996, against the second (ahem)-seeded Penguins. The first two games were both decided by the same margin, and included a starting goalie change for Game 2, with the new guy never having made a playoff start. The higher seeded Penguins had the league's top-scoring offense and best power play. Does any of this sound familiar?

"If we just sit back and bask in our glory," Olie Kolzig said, "they're going to make us pay."

"We're not in an enviable position, but it's not the end of the world either," Pens assistant Bryan Trottier said. "You've got to find a way, no matter what it is. Whatever it seems like doesn't matter. You take nothing for granted. You find something to motivate you, or to better your concentration. You find a way.''

"Anything can happen, in the playoffs,'' Mario Lemieux said.

And yeah, you know what happened next. Four straight wins for the Penguins, three on Washington's ice, involving a total of four overtimes. The Penguins won the series in 6.

But Boudreau wasn't talking about either of those series to his team this afternoon. He was talking, his players said, about the Hurricanes and the Canadiens. If you recall, the second (ahem)-seeded Hurricanes dropped the first two games of that opening-round series, both at home. They were becoming the biggest disappointment of the playoffs. How, people asked, had the Habs pulled this off?

"This series isn't over. It's just two games," Montreal's Mathieu Dandenault said then. "We're happy where we're at, but there's a lot of hockey still to be played....There's a comfort level. We're proud of what we've done and achieved. But this Carolina team won't go away. We've got to win two of the next five."

"The series is far from over; I'll tell you that right now," Carolina forward Kevyn Adams said. "It's a battle. We've got to turn the tide on them....I'm sure they're feeling pretty good about themselves; but we've been good on the road, and we'll have to find a way to get Game 3."

Those were the things they had to say. Reading straight out of the book. Canned tripe, right? And what came next? Four straight Carolina victories, all by one goal, three on the road. The Hurricanes won the series in six. The hot streak continued with three straight wins to start the conference semis, and the Hurricanes went on to win the Stanley Cup.

That's what Bruce Boudreau was talking about to his players today. And that's why Tortorella said this, when asked if the pressure was off his team.

"Oh [bleep] no. No. No no no. I'm not sure what your question is, but we need to be ready to play Game 3. And if you're not ready to play, the teams that are playing in the playoffs are good teams. They wouldn't be there if they weren't. And the explosiveness of that team, and the way that they play, we need to be ready to play Game 3. We do not want any swing in momentum. That's what you try to fight for, is trying to keep momentum. So we're gonna try like hell and see where we go come Game 3."

By Dan Steinberg  |  April 18, 2009; 5:47 PM ET
Categories:  Caps  
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What a great column. I remember in 1996, watching the sports center highlights after our 2nd victory. Suzy Kolber said that the 2-0 deficit for the Penguins was actually a 2-0 advantage for them. I had no idea what she was talking about, but she turned out to be right. I hope that's the case this year.

Posted by: BigMogilny | April 18, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse

I love it. So because this time the Caps' choking is following a different home/away sequence, maybe it won't be a choke job after all!

Hope springs eternal. :)

Posted by: SamsDog | April 18, 2009 6:29 PM | Report abuse

To quote the great General Trautman "It's over Johnny! OVER!

P.S. We suck

Posted by: bulldog23 | April 18, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

I love you, Dan Steinberg. Thanks for a great viewpoint.

Posted by: boutros23 | April 18, 2009 6:57 PM | Report abuse

That Penguins series in 1996 still gives me nightmares. Mario got thrown of game four for being the third man in in a fight, the Caps missed a penalty shot in overtime and lost in the fourth overtime.

Yeah, it's not impossible, and I'm still hopeful. But after 30-some years of Caps fandom, why is it that just about every goalie that plays against the Caps in the playoffs becomes the greatest goalie ever for that week? Every goalie seems to become a "hot goalie" against the Caps--whether they're good like Lundquist or somebody you've never heard of like Johan Hedberg or something. I can't take it any more.

Posted by: TheFingerman | April 18, 2009 7:43 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Steinz, we needed that :)

Posted by: RtR52 | April 18, 2009 7:53 PM | Report abuse

Great. You had to go and jinx it didn't you???

Posted by: CapsNut | April 18, 2009 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Great post, Steinberg. Yes, teams can come back from 2 game to nothing deficits, even though, I must admit, I'm feeling very pessimistic and depressed at the moment.

@TheFingerman, I'm wondering that myself. Why does every goalie look like a superstar against the Caps? Why do very good goalies become great against the Caps? And good goalies become great? I'm seeing John VanBiesbrooke (?) all over again. And I've followed the Caps since 1975.

Some day, it's got to turn around for the Caps, I keep telling myself. It even turned around for the Boston Red Sox who kept finding the most agonizing way to lose World Series and lost League championships to the hated Yankees. And then they came back from a 3 game to nothing deficit to win the League Championship series against the Yankees, no less. And that was the first time that had ever happened in baseball.

Posted by: CapsFan75 | April 18, 2009 8:44 PM | Report abuse

So now New York has the most famous choking teams in sports at the moment. The Yankees in that ALCS. And the Mets blowing 2 division titles in the last two years. (And, of course, they were the team that dumped the Red Sox in agonizing fashion in 1986.) Let's add the Rangers to that list of chokers. (I am not a fan of NY teams in general in any sport. NY is my most hated sports city and have won more than their share of championships in all sports.)

Posted by: CapsFan75 | April 18, 2009 8:48 PM | Report abuse

@CapsFan75: Yes, it's an amazing list of goalies that have become stars against the Caps in the playoffs and left the media talking about how the Caps just had the bad luck to "run into a hot goalie." Some were good NHL goalies, others were pretty undistinguished. Let's see how many I can recall:

We won't count Billy Smith, since he did win four Cups, but in 1986 there was John Vanbiesbrouck for the Rangers, then the next year we had Kelly Hrudey with the Islanders, then Sean Burke the following year with the Devils. Remember Glenn Healy--wasn't he a star with the Islanders in 1993? Then the Pens had Johan Hedberg and Ken Wregget and pretty much whoever put on goalie pads for them throughout the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Even Martin Biron was described as a "hot goalie" last year. The only time the Caps have ever had anything comparable was Olie in the finals run in 1998.

Oh well, maybe Varlemov can be that hot goalie in the Garden.

Posted by: TheFingerman | April 18, 2009 9:09 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for being a voice of reason in a time when most everyone else is being negative and dragging this team even further down. This ISN'T impossible and far crazier things have happened. We will truly see what this team and organization is made of on Monday. I think we will be surprised at what can happen when their backs are against a wall.


Posted by: kikinguyen616 | April 19, 2009 8:59 AM | Report abuse

this is the same team that won 7 straight last year to clinch the playoffs and a division title. every game during that stretch was like a playoff game. if we can win 7 straight, why can't we win 2 straight, and make it a whole new series?

Posted by: RussianMachineNeverBreaks | April 19, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

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