Can the Caps Win the Race to Four?

April 22, 2011 | Ed Frankovic

“Everyone talks about best of seven, but to me it’s a race to four (wins). We don’t want to play any more games than we have to,” Red Wings Coach Mike Babcock.

The above quote should be pasted all over the walls of Kettler Iceplex before Friday’s practice because that is the exact mind set that the Washington Capitals need to take if they want to dispatch of the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon at the Verizon Center in game five of this first round playoff matchup. Caps fans know all too well that the win needed to send your opponent to the golf course is always the toughest one to get and this franchise has not closed the deal when just one victory away from a series triumph in 1985, 1987, 1988, 1992, 1995, 2008, 2009, and 2010. The last three years have involved the core of this 2010-11 Washington Capitals team, the Young Guns, a.k.a Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom. So there is no doubt that these four players and the others on the current roster who have been along for all or part of the ride, want to exorcise past demons.

Hockey is a very weird game and momentum can change on a dime, especially if you start thinking about results instead of the process. Last year the Capitals got caught up in thinking about winning the series and not what it would take to actually do it. Letting an opponent hang around an extra game can lead to injuries and it gives the other team confidence that maybe they can come back from a huge hole. Just ask the Vancouver Canucks, who have now seen a 3-0 series lead cut to a one game margin by the Chicago Blackhawks. Making this tougher for the Canucks is that goalie Roberto Luongo doesn’t look right at all and just may be playing injured. Even if the Canucks stabilize the ship in game six, which will be Sunday in Chicago, they’ve done some damage to their Stanley Cup aspirations. The road to Lord Stanley is a difficult one as is without making it harder by playing extra games when one has the chance to end a series and get some rest. It is starting to appear that Vancouver thought that a 3-0 series lead meant they had the series in the bag, like the Caps thought in 2010.

To me, this quote from Ovechkin following their game seven loss last season captured exactly what happened and why Montreal was able to come back and be victorious. This quote should also be handed out to each and every Capitals player on Friday so they don’t forget what they need to do on Saturday.

“When you get the lead 3-1 you think, ‘OK, maybe they’re going to give up and maybe we’re going to win an easy game and be ready for next round,'” – Alexander Ovechkin on Breakdown Day (4/30/2010) following their seven game loss to Montreal.

There are no easy games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the Great #8 and his teammates found out, and the game to close out the series is ALWAYS the hardest. There will be NO quit from the New York Rangers. They will scratch and claw and do whatever they can to extend their season on Saturday. It is a resilient group that has not given up all year. The Caps are the better team and when they play like they did in the last 52+ minutes of game four, where they are skating hard, being smart, and aggressive, they are extremely difficult to beat. That team clearly wasn’t thinking about the score, they were just playing each shift like they were supposed to do, instead of standing around and watching like they did in period two. It was at that point that the results started coming. Replicating the effort in the last two plus periods of game four is a must for Washington.

The Caps will need to come out strong and sustain their play on Saturday, because New York will bring it early much like Montreal did last year when they scored two goals in the first 10 minutes of game five, something that gave the Habs life, as evidenced by this post game quote from goalie Jaroslav Halak.

“It could have been our last game of the season so everybody started with a lot of energy and we scored two goals in the first [period], after that we were doing what we were supposed to,”  said Halak after the game five win vs. the Capitals in 2010.

Clearly a poor start cannot occur. So the pressure is on the Caps to get it done on Saturday. They spent all regular season getting ready for this and now they have a big chance to wipe away some painful memories from last year. Nearly 12 months ago Ovechkin talked about that pressure and being able to handle it.

“We all played great in the season, but in the playoffs something we missed. We have to concentrate more on the playoffs and more on how we have to play in the playoffs, not the season. … We just have to be ready for playoffs and be ready for that kind of pressure.” – Ovechkin on Breakdown Day, 4/30/2010.

So far in this post season the Capitals have looked like they’ve learned from their past mistakes. They have handled all kinds of pressure and their response in game four when trailing 3-0 spoke volumes about their mental toughness. But the series is not over until the handshake and on Saturday at 3 pm the pressure will be higher than it has been all series or season. Will this Ovechkin led team finally have learned their lessons and be able to handle the pressure by performing well and advancing to get some well earned rest for round two? If they focus on the process of what they need to do on each shift and not get caught up in results, then it is there for the taking.