Three games into the postseason and the Washington Capitals are already fighting for their playoff lives.
And who among us expected that?
Not many, but that’s the deal for the Presidents’ Trophy-winners, against the team that finished dead last only a year ago.
Lose tonight at Air Canada Centre and the Caps will trail the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-1.
Lose tonight and the Caps will be one loss away from one of the most stunning letdowns in NHL playoff history.
And the way things have gone so far, nobody should be surprised if they do lose. Because this is not another Jaroslav Halak situation. The young, dynamic Leafs have gone blow-for-blow with the mighty Caps. They’ve used their speed and their skill. They’ve proven they belong.
“It’s a lot closer match than people let on,” Washington head coach Barry Trotz told reporters. “It’s not David versus Goliath. They’re a good team. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t.”
Trotz himself is under considerable pressure after failing to get Alex Ovechkin enough ice time in Game 3. The reigning Jack Adams Award winner is 2-2 in playoff series with the Caps. And in spite of all the success he’s enjoyed in the regular season, if he goes 2-3, it would be fair to debate his future behind the bench.
The Leafs, meanwhile, can’t get too comfortable. They saw what happened to the Edmonton Oilers last night in San Jose. It was a good warning.
“There’s two parts to that equation,” said head coach Mike Babcock. “One team relaxes and feels pretty good about themselves, talks to everybody and they all tell you how great they’re doing and the other team gets prepared. We talked about that after Game 1, after Game 2 and we’ll continue to talk about it. It’s so important that you get off to a good start here tonight and prepare to compete. They’re going to compete. We have to compete.”
The real pressure, though, is on the Capitals. In the second year of what their general manager has called a “two-year window,” 2017 was shaping up to be their time. A first-round matchup with the inexperienced Leafs. No Kris Letang for the Pittsburgh Penguins. A beatable opponent whoever comes out of the Atlantic bracket. Ditto for whoever comes out of the West.
The Caps, of course, already have a reputation for flopping in the playoffs. But losing to the Leafs would take it to a whole new level.
Are they really going to flop again?
“Until we change the narrative, that’s going to be the question,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It’s up to us to change it. You can’t talk about it. You just have to go and do it.”