Let’s just start with this statement of fact: Sports fandom is all about dealing with failure and disappointment.
At the end of every season there is only going to be one team that is celebrating a championship which means everybody else is left stuck in the same pit of misery. The odds are overwhelmingly against you and your team. Just consider that there are currently 123 professional sports teams in the four major North American sports leagues, and that over the past 30 seasons only 60 of them (just a little less than half) have actually experienced a championship season. That is over three decades. If you have seen your favorite team win a championship in your lifetime, you are incredibly lucky. If you have seen them win more than one … well … don’t take it granted.
The numbers and that reality do not mean it is any less disappointing when your team loses. Even with that there are different levels of anguish that sports fans can experience in a given season or playoff.
There is the anger that comes from a team that is so incompetently run that it never gives itself a chance to consistently compete for a championship and never gets close to it. Eventually that leads to apathy where you just stop caring and become numb to the losing.
Then there is the soul-crushing disappointment that comes from having a team that is consistently good enough to win, consistently competitive, seems to have all of the ingredients every year, gets right to the edge of winning the whole thing … and then finds a way to completely fall flat on its face for one reason or another.
Sometimes it is bad luck. Sometimes the other team is just a little bit better. Sometimes things just happen that are beyond a team’s control.
No team has done this more to its fan base than the Washington Capitals, and they are on the verge of finding a way to have it happen again if they can not come back in the Eastern Conference Final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
They enter Game 6 on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) facing a 3-2 series deficit, having dropped three games in a row after winning the first two games of the series in Tampa.
It is at times difficult to comprehend just how good the Capitals have been at times throughout their history, and how close they have come to reaching the top of the mountain, and how they can just never seem to get there.
They have won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s best team three times in the past 10 years. Each time they ended up losing in the second-round of the playoffs. In 2010 they were the superior team only to run into one of the best individual goaltending performances in recent memory. The past two years they lost what were basically coin-flip series to a Pittsburgh Penguins team that has tormented them in the playoffs for more than two decades.
Over the past 10 years the Capitals have won more regular season games than all but one team in the league (Pittsburgh). They are one of just two teams in the top-10 that has yet to reach a Stanley Cup Final during that run (St. Louis being the other). The other teams in the top-five have combined to win seven of the past 10 Stanley Cups.
Their top players have performed admirably in the playoffs. Alex Ovechkin is one of the most productive players in the league when it comes his playoff production, while Braden Holtby has some of the best individual numbers of any goalie in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Usually that level of play from two superstars — including a goalie! — and the overall team success in the regular season results in more playoff success.
They have had what seemed to be commanding leads in playoff series time and time again only to have them slip away, losing 3-1 and 2-0 leads with stunning regularity that it leads to a stat like this.
It is remarkable because it is never the same cast of characters involved.
Coaches change. Players change. General managers change. Everything changes. Everything except the result and the heartbreaking method in which it is reached. It is one thing to be a team stuck in a championship drought. It is something else entirely to keep getting that close and losing the same way over and over again. When that happens it builds a reputation. It builds a narrative. It follows that team — and its best players, no matter how well they perform as individuals — around relentlessly until something happens to finally change it.
What has made this run by the Capitals seem so different is that, for once, things finally seemed to be going their way in the playoffs. Everything seemed to be falling in place no matter what obstacle jumped in front of them.
In the first-round they lost the first two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets on home ice (while losing multiple goal leads in both games) and seemed to be teetering on the edge of a disastrous early exit. Then, where past Capitals teams would have totally fallen apart, this group roared back to win four consecutive games setting up yet another second-round matchup with Pittsburgh, the point where their season had come to an end so many times before (10 of the previous 11 postseason matchups with them, to be exact). Then they exorcised that demon in Game 6 when Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s overtime goal sent them to the Eastern Conference Final.
Finally, things were different. This really was going to be the year. But even after all of that the Capitals still find themselves facing their playoff demons one more time and trying to avoid the soul-crushing disappointment that comes with potentially blowing a 2-0 series lead (after winning the first two games on the road), something that only two teams have done in a Conference Final series since 1975.
Already this postseason these Capitals have shown that they have been able to conquer those long-standing playoff demons. They did it in the first-round when they overcame the crushing losses on home ice in the first two games. They did it in the second-round when they finally beat the Penguins. Now they have to do it one more time in the Conference Final against Tampa Bay and avoid what would be another crushing collapse.
They have to start by winning Game 6 on Monday.
The Vegas Golden Knights are on their way to the Stanley Cup Final and you, the hockey watching fan, probably have some thoughts, opinions and maybe even questions about this shocking development.
Maybe you think it’s an amazing story, or maybe you are a part of a long-suffering fan-base and are angered that a team that just showed up on the scene less than a year ago and is four wins away from winning a championship.
Maybe you are asking questions like: How did a first-year team reach this point, and what does it say about the NHL that it could happen?
Let’s try to tackle that a little bit because there is one massive lesson here that we can take from the success of the Golden Knights: This sport is almost impossible to predict and is more prone to randomness and luck than any other. This is true when it comes to the people running the teams, and those of us watching everything that happens as both partial and impartial observers. Basically, nobody knows anything.
We already discussed the disastrous moves that a lot of NHL teams made throughout the expansion draft process when several of them gave up more than they needed to or made bizarre decisions when it came to their protected lists. All of those criticisms are not only fair, but are richly deserved even if they are made with the benefit of hindsight. On one hand, it was the job of the teams to know what they had as far as protecting the right talent and making smart moves. But not even the Golden Knights front office expected this. Even with there being a lot of head-scratchingly bizarre decisions there was almost nobody that looked at that roster at the start of the season and said “yes, that team is going to be playing in the Stanley Cup Final this season.”
But that is part of the craziness that makes the NHL what it is. It is a sport and a league that is driven by luck and randomness more than most will ever care to admit.
That doesn’t mean that skill and talent and having the best players isn’t important. Because it is. It is just that sometimes the game comes down to a player having a career year at the right time, or several players all having everything click for them at the same time.
It is, by nature, completely unpredictable. It is a game of bounces, mistakes, hot and cold streaks, and at times completely wacky results that do not make any logical sense. This can happen of course of a single game, or a playoff series, or even a full season. Goaltending can be one of the biggest and most important factors in all of that, and Vegas has been the beneficiary of some outstanding goaltending this season, particularly when it comes to the play of Marc-Andre Fleury. And at no time has he been better than he has been during these playoffs where he is authoring one of the greatest postseason performances in league history.
Nothing elevates a team — or sinks it — more than a goaltending a performance. A great one masks flaws and makes a team look better than it might otherwise be. A bad one can sink a contender. Both teams that played in the Western Conference Final this season were perfect examples of that this season. The Jets, with largely the same roster that missed the playoffs a year ago and hadn’t made the postseason in four years, were able to power their way to the NHL’s final four because they finally received a competent goaltending performance. That team should have been a playoff team long before this season, and likely would have been with better goaltending.
That is the biggest thing to draw from Vegas’ success — goaltending drives everything.
The other thing we can take from this season is the power of opportunity and what an increased role can do for some players.
How many players around the NHL are capable of big-time performances are being buried in another team’s lineup or organization without getting a serious look?
In Vegas we saw Erik Haula go from being, at times, a fourth-liner in Minnesota (still capable of scoring 12-15 goals) and end up scoring 29 goals this season for the Golden Knights.
Nate Schmidt was mostly a depth defenseman in Washington and when given an opportunity to be a top-pairing defender has shined for Vegas. The same can be said for Colin Miller.
William Karlsson was mostly an afterthought in Anaheim and Columbus, and even if you accept that he is not going to score 40 goals again because he will probably never have another season where he scores on 23 percent of his shots, he is probably better than the ice-time he was given in his previous two stops showed.
Even though his “breakout” season happened a year ago in Florida Jonathan Marchessault is another example of what opportunity can do for a player. A talented, productive player at every level of hockey he played at that was passed over and discarded probably for no other reason than the fact he is undersized. How many players like him have been stuck in the AHL in recent years or been passed over in the draft?
How many players are there around the NHL like Haula and Schmidt that are buried in another lineup never being given an opportunity to do more, either because they are stuck on good teams with deep depth charts, or simply through poor talent evaluation from their teams?
There are probably quite a few!
Vegas’ success is going to up the pressure on every general manager across the league because people are going to look at this season and say, “if they can go from nothing to the Stanley Cup in one year, what is our excuse?” But nobody is going to get a clean slate with an opportunity build a team like this (at least not until Seattle enters the league, and I don’t envy their general manager trying to follow up this act). And there really is not anyway to replicate or duplicate what they did this season. That doesn’t mean there still aren’t lessons about the league to take from this success. The two biggest ones are to embrace the unpredictability that comes with the sport and how much luck and randomness can drive it, and to understand just how important it is for some players to simply get an opportunity to play a meaningful role.
The Golden Knights aren’t a team of misfits.
They are a team of talented players (and a great, game-changing goalie) that finally received a bigger opportunity.
Game 5 for the Tampa Bay Lightning was like night and day compared to the previous four games of the series,
Dominated at even strength over the first four games, Tampa turned things around and quickly built up a 2-0 after nine minutes, putting the Washington Capitals on their heels. But the Lightning didn’t relent and they continued pressing, which resulted in a third goal 33 seconds into the second period by Ryan Callahan. Now with a trip back to the Stanley Cup Final as the carrot dangling over their heads Monday night, they know what’s in store for them in Game 6 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream).
“[W]e’re going to have to match their urgency,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said on Sunday. “The closeout games, potential closeout games, they just seem to bring out the best in everybody. For us, we’ve had some success when we’ve gotten the lead. When you do that, you put a little pressure on the other team. Something we’ll try and focus on [Monday] night.”
The old saying goes that the fourth game in a series is always the hardest. Game 6 will be no different as the Capitals face the prospect of their Stanley Cup dreams fading away for another spring. Head coach Barry Trotz will be re-inserting Andre Burakovsky into his lineup and Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller will once again be commanding the center positions on the second and third lines, respectively.
Tampa has yet to falter in closing out a series in these playoffs. Those two games against the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins came at home at AMALIE Arena. Game 6 will be at Capital One Arena in D.C. where the Lightning took Games 3 and 4 last week.
“That’s the toughest game in the series,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “But this group has experience in that. We’ve had two games where we could close out teams so far in the playoffs, and we’ve done it. That’s the mentality that we’re going to have going in. At the same time they’re going to have their best. Their backs are against the wall. This will be the toughest game. I’m sure it’s going to be a tight one.”
“We have to understand the magnitude of the situation,” said Cooper. “Yes, we’re going on the road and we have had success there, but to close this out, if you can, garner a couple more days’ rest. As you know, at this time of year, we’re banged up, they’re banged up. The mental fatigue. Any time you can close one out earlier than seven is a good thing.”
The even strength play in Game 5 was an encouraging sign for the Lightning. That and the play of Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has stopped 100 of the last 106 shots he’s faced, should give them plenty of confidence that it’s closing time Monday night. Tampa should also expect a Capitals team that they haven’t seen yet this series, and for good reason.
“There’s no hiding the fact that we know we’re going to get a very desperate team,” Stamkos said. “This has to be our best game, as well. I think this group is confident in knowing what to expect coming into these types of games. Like I said, we’ve done a very good job up until this point in these games. We’ll look to keep that going.”
Jon Cooper didn’t blame Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Tampa Bay Lightning digging a deep hole early in the Eastern Conference final.
Two games and two losses brought plenty of criticism of the young Russian goaltender. Cooper wasn’t thrilled about that.
”The questions were coming from the other side of the table, and I felt it was the questioning of Vasilevskiy,” the Tampa Bay coach said. ”We don’t. He’s been the guy for us.”
Vasilevskiy is the guy who turned the series around for the Lightning, who now lead the Capitals 3-2 and can eliminate Washington on the road in Game 6 on Monday night and move on to the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights. After a 6.00 goals-against average and .839 save percentage in Games 1 and 2, he has a 2.00 GAA and .943 save percentage since as the series’ biggest difference-maker.
”Just tried to stay positive and play my game,” Vasilevskiy said last week. ”It’s very important, especially in the playoffs. Good or bad game, doesn’t matter. Turn the page, start over again and again. That’s how you get success.”
Vasilevskiy has found plenty of success this season, his first as a full-time NHL starter. The 23-year-old is a Vezina Trophy finalist after leading the league with 44 wins and eight shutouts.
But Vasilevskiy hasn’t made it easy on himself. He rarely does.
Cooper saw it during the 2016-17 season when Vasilevskiy struggled during a stretch of 10 consecutive starts when Ben Bishop was hurt and then again late this season when a swoon by him and the entire team almost cost Tampa Bay the East’s top seed. Vasilevskiy bounced back strong each time.
”His ability to be able to turn the page now and understand, ‘You know what there might be a tough night for you, but I’m going to go out the next night anyway and I’ve got to be there for my team,’ – I think that’s where his growth process has really come in,” Cooper said.
The same happened between Games 2 and 3 in this series. The shy Vasilevskiy who has been reluctant to do interviews told a pool reporter he didn’t make any adjustments from his worst games against the Capitals to his best.
Somehow, he has looked like an entirely different goalie. Chants of ”Vasy! Vasy!” filled Amalie Arena in Game 5 on Saturday night when he stopped 28 of 30 shots, and the highest praise was reserved for inside the Lightning’s locker room.
”He’s a world class goaltender, that’s what he does,” defenseman Braydon Coburn said. ”He battles hard every day in practice all season long, and he’s raised his game in the playoffs here.”
No doubt his teammates have improved their play in front of Vasilevskiy, with defenseman Anton Stralman saying: ”We always feel like we owe him.” But against a star-studded Capitals team led by countrymen Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vasilevskiy had to raise his game to give Tampa Bay any chance.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said confidence in Vasilevskiy never wavered, and he has showed them on the ice evidence of what they’ve seen all season.
”He just expects a lot,” Stamkos said. ”You see his work ethic every day in practice. You guys don’t get to see what goes on in the room, but his mental preparation, his physical preparation, he wants to be the best all the time. He doesn’t want to give up a goal at all, including in practice. That’s the mentality he has and that’s why he’s so good.”
If the Capitals can crack Vasilevskiy like they did the first two times, there will be a Game 7 on Wednesday night at Tampa Bay. But they’d better figure that out and get an even better game from Braden Holtby because the Lightning are 11-0 in the playoffs when scoring three-plus goals.
That record is thanks to Vasilevskiy, who doesn’t like cameras but loves playoff hockey.
”It’s definitely a fun time,” he said. ”Lot of emotions. Different hockey. It’s pretty fun to play. Just excitement level is pretty high. A different season.”
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno