Capitals have to conquer postseason demons one more time

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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.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.