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Time for Sabres to upgrade in goal

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Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill confirmed that the team will not give starting netminder Robin Lehner a qualifying offer, which means he’ll be a free agent on July 1st. That means there’s an opening for a new number one goalie in Buffalo.

Lehner hasn’t had much to work with since he joined the Sabres, but he’s had plenty of issues with consistency and staying healthy. Again, the inconsistency isn’t all on him because the players in front of him haven’t been good enough. Still, his tenure in Buffalo didn’t go as planned.

The Sabres have a franchise center in Jack Eichel and they’re about to land a franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin, so it’s time they land a goalie that can help push them in the right direction. What are their options?

Last season, the team gave 24-year-old Linus Ullmark a look between the pipes, and he did relatively well over five games. Ullmark will likely be one of the two goaltenders in Buffalo in 2018-19.

For those hoping Botterill will dip his toe in the free-agent pool, you may be disappointed. There’s no number one goalie available this year. Top options include: Kari Lehtonen, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, Jonathan Bernier and Carter Hutton.

Could one of those veterans be paired with Ullmark? Sure, but how much confidence would that give this Buffalo team. Hutton has been one of the better backup goalies in the league over the last couple of years. That would likely be the best free-agent fit for the Sabres. Management might be able to land him if they can sell the idea of him playing quite a bit more than he’s used to.

Hutton could be an option.

The only other way to land a goalie right now is by trading for one.

There’s Philipp Grubauer, who’s currently a Washington Capital. Acquiring Grubauer would cost the Sabres an asset, but he could still be worth looking into if they believe he’s capable of playing at the same level he did in the second half of the season. The 26-year-old has never played more than 35 games in a season, so making him a starter won’t come without risk. At this point though, there are no slam-dunk number one goalies available, so GM Jason Botterill will have to roll the dice on somebody.

If they want someone a little more proven, they have to think outside the box. Would they be willing to take a risk on Cam Talbot in Edmonton? There have been rumblings that he’s available. Sure, he’s coming off a down year, but he was outstanding two seasons ago. He’s scheduled to become a free agent in 2019 and the Oilers might not be willing to pay a 30-year-old netminder the type of money he may command.

Now this is a really “outside the box” kind of idea, but would the Predators be willing to move one of their goalies? Pekka Rinne, who just won the Vezina Trophy, has one year left on his contract and he struggled pretty badly in the playoffs. Juuse Saros, who’s the goalie of the future, is an RFA and he’ll be getting a raise this summer. Nashville doesn’t have to do anything with their goaltenders this year, so this is very unlikely, but it’s just something to think about.

Another veteran option could Sens netminder Craig Anderson, who is available, per TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

No matter how they do it, the Sabres have to find a way to upgrade the roster as a whole, but specifically in goal. They don’t have to find a franchise netminder like a Braden Holtby or a Carey Price, but they need to get better at that position if they’re going to come close to making the playoffs one of these days.

It’s up to Botterill to figure out how he wants to do that.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

After ’20 long, dry years,’ Caps are finally back in Stanley Cup Final

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WASHINGTON (AP) Jimmy Patterson was a fresh-faced 22-year-old in the stands at the old Capital Centre in October 1974 when the expansion Washington Capitals won for the first time.

As he was leaving, an elderly man from Brooklyn told Patterson he’d always get to say he saw the Capitals’ first win. The man smiled and added, “You can’t lose ’em all.”

Forty-plus years, more than 3,000 games and 27 unsuccessful playoff runs later, Patterson and legions of longtime Capitals fans finally have a reason to believe that. Many who watched Wednesday night at an arena watch party far from Game 7 in Tampa Bay took to the steps of the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the Capitals’ first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1998. Game 1 in Las Vegas against the Golden Knights is Monday night.

“It’s been really gratifying,” said Patterson, now 65. “It feels a lot different, and it’s a weird feeling.”

Filling the area, fans chanted, “We want the Cup,” “We want Vegas” and “DC! DC!” in an outpouring of joy decades and crushing losses in the making. Alex Ovechkin‘s Capitals are the first Washington team in the major four professional sports leagues to reach the final in a generation. To get this far, they had to not only outlast the Lightning but survive longtime playoff nemesis Pittsburgh, which has won the last two championships.

“It’s been 20 long, dry years and we are back,” Capitals public address announcer Wes Johnson said. “This is catharsis. Once we beat the Penguins, then you could see that the fan base was like, `Let’s just play hockey.’ As John Walton said, it’s OK to believe. It’s not just OK to believe. Just believe.”

Among markets with teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, only the Twin Cities in Minnesota has a longer championship drought going than Washington. The Redskins won their third Super Bowl title in January 1992 and it’s been mostly grim since then. None of the Redskins, Wizards, Nationals and Capitals even reached a league semifinal from 1998 until this spring.

In that same time, Boston’s teams have made 25 league semifinal appearances and won 10 titles. Maybe success is contagious.

“Last year all of those (other Washington) teams made the playoffs and then it was like, hey we got to do the same too, and we dropped the ball,” Redskins running back Chris Thompson said. “If you see your D.C. teams succeeding and the Capitals now (in) the finals and stuff like that, it’s a little bit of motivation.”

The Capitals got over the hump in their 10th playoff appearance after early exits marred by sudden-death overtime winners, a hot goaltender named Jaroslav Halak, the New York Rangers and – of course – the Penguins.

“It’s just been one nightmare after another,” said Anthony Beverina, who has had season tickets in section 417 since 1997-98. “And it makes you wonder if there’s some inherit either cosmic conspiracy or a core character issue in the core guys.”

The nightmare has slowly felt like a dream on this playoff run, which was unexpected following an offseason of salary-cap casualties in the wake of another crushing second-round loss to Pittsburgh. Players rallied around lower preseason expectations, and even going into the playoffs Washington wasn’t supposed to do this.

“This team is so fun,” said George Christo, a Boston transplant who has had season tickets since 1995-96. “This team is the most fun since that ’98 team primarily because, both of those teams, who on earth expected either of these teams to be able to get this deep and to be that tough?”

After so many early playoff exits, Capitals fans are reluctant to feel too good about things. Christo said even his children have almost gotten sick of going to games -until this year, which has challenged a lot of the old conventions about doomsday D.C. sports.

“There are people sitting in season-ticket-holder seats because they’re home mashing teeth and biting their fingernails,” Patterson said. “A lot of fans around the country when their team is in the playoffs, they like to have get-togethers and parties, viewing parties for the away games and stuff like that. But if you’ve been through some of this stuff, after the second game of a playoff series, there won’t be any of that because you can’t have your friends over and watch a game and then have everybody in that awful mood when it’s over and they’re shaking hands and you’re on the losing side.”

It was the opposite Wednesday night when almost 10,000 people wearing red watched on video screens above a basketball court as Capitals players and coaches were on the winning side of their handshake line with the Lightning. Cheers greeted Ovechkin touching the Prince of Wales Trophy and then the flash of the Stanley Cup Final schedule before the series against former general manager George McPhee’s Vegas Golden Knights begins.

“We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final,” Ovechkin said. “I think everybody is happy, but we still have unfinished, you know what I mean. I don’t know, I’m emotional right now. I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”

Game 3 on June 2 will be the first Cup Final game in the district since 1998, when the Capitals were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. One more win will make this the most successful season in franchise history, and though superstition and history keeps fans from thinking about the “what if” of four more, they’re no longer afraid to enjoy the ride.

“Now you’re excited by the win, you’re not just dreading how are they going to blow this game,” Beverina said. “It’s been nothing but fun this year.”

That fun extends to the Capitals’ locker room, which looked to have much less talent on paper than in previous seasons. But players feel different about this year, too, and have embraced each other as much as their common goal.

“I think our group here really understands what it means to be a team and how to win,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Maybe in the past we’ve had more skill or been better on paper or whatever. But this team everyone knows their role and everyone wants to pitch in and everyone is comfortable with each other. I haven’t been on a team like this where in any situation we’re confident and confident in each other.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

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Game 7 history for Ovechkin’s Capitals, Stamkos’ Lightning

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There are few teams as “ready” for the stakes of Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN; stream it here) quite like the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Consider this: the Lightning are readying for their third Game 7 in a conference final in four years. While reaching the third round is a first for Alex Ovechkin‘s rendition of the Capitals (not to mention Barry Trotz’s coaching career), Washington is resoundingly seasoned when it comes to these decisive contests.

Actually, that brings up an idea: why don’t we take a chronological look at all the Game 7’s for the Lightning and Capitals during the Steven Stamkos and Ovechkin eras? You may enjoy this jog down history lane – much of which has been chronicled at PHT – while fans of these teams may find revived disdain for the Rangers, Henrik Lundqvist, Penguins, and … Bryan Rust, specifically?

Hockey Reference was an excellent resource for this post, and it’s generally a recommended spot to nerd out about NHL history in general.

Oh, and before we get to the fun/trauma, here’s a fascinating find from Japers Rink. If this holds, the Capitals might need another big night from Braden Holtby.

2008

April 22: Flyers 3, Capitals 2 (OT)

first round

Nicklas Backstrom opened the scoring with a power-play goal (Alex Ovechkin getting the primary assist, with short-term Cap Sergei Fedorov* getting the secondary assist). Ovechkin also scored the goal that sent the game to overtime, but Joffrey Lupul generated the clincher on the PP for Philly.

* – Yes, that really happened. No, you were not hallucinating. At least in that instance.

2009

April 28: Capitals 2, Rangers 1

first round

This was already an example of the type of playoff game the Capitals team of that era “wasn’t supposed to be able to win.” Semyon Varlamov only needed to make 14 of 15 saves. Backstrom assisted on an Alexander Semin goal, while Sergei Fedorov got the game-winner as basically his last true stand-out moment in the NHL.

May 13: Penguins 6, Capitals 2

second round

Ah, this is where the true torment began.

That Game 7 was the anticlimactic capper to what had been an epic second-round series, including a game where Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby exchanged hat tricks. Marc-Andre Fleury made a crucial save early on an Ovechkin semi-breakaway (after being tormented for much of the round), and the Penguins rattled off the first five goals to win in a laugher and make Ovechkin’s 11th goal of that postseason moot.

2010

April 28: Canadiens 2, Capitals 1

first round

For one summer, Jaroslav Halak looked like the superstar goalie of Montreal’s future, not Carey Price. (Give the Habs credit for making the right, and brave, call there.) The shots on goal count was 42-16 in Washington’s favor, but the Habs pulled off the upset. Ovechkin absorbed the criticism admirably.

2011

April 27: Lightning 1, Penguins 0

first round

Remember that season where the Penguins made the playoffs with Jordan Staal as their top center because Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were injured? That was this year. Despite lacking firepower, the Penguins fired 36 shots on Dwayne Roloson, and he stopped all of them. Sean Bergenheim scored the only goal. Stamkos only generated one shot on goal during 16:13 TOI.

May 27: Bruins 1, Lightning 0

conference finals

Nathan Horton went from bottle thrower to Game 7 clincher, scoring the only tally of this one. Stamkos received just under 19 minutes of ice time, firing one SOG, and was on the ice for that Horton goal.

Oh yeah, and Stamkos earned big kudos for this.

2012

April 25: Capitals 2, Bruins 1 (OT)

first round

Braden Holtby was in “beast mode” for maybe the first time while Ovechkin’s ice time was scrutinized. This was part of Dale Hunter’s brief run after Bruce Boudreau was fired. There were some successes, yet the hockey wasn’t exactly pretty.

May 12: Rangers 2, Capitals 1

second round

New York was able to gut out a win in which both Henrik Lundqvist and Holtby both played well. Was it mentioned that this wasn’t a pretty run?

2013

May 13: Rangers 5, Capitals 0

first round

This was the stretch where the Rangers – mainly Henrik Lundqvist – was really a nuisance for the Capitals. King Hank made 35 saves for this Game 7 shutout. Following this loss, Backstrom spoke about “learning to win in the playoffs.”

Neither team played a Game 7 in 2014, but they made up for it with four in 2015

April 27: Capitals 2, Islanders 1

first round

Evgeny Kuznetsov doesn’t just have a series-clinching goal against the Penguins to his name. He also generated the game-winner in Game 7 of this series. The slick center has a way to go before he elbows in on Justin Williams‘ clutch credentials, but the Lightning better keep an eye on him either way.

April 29: Lightning 2, Red Wings 0

first round

Ben Bishop pitched a 31-save shutout, helping the Lightning win despite only firing 15 shots on Petr Mrazek (who yielded a Braydon Coburn tally, while the other goal was an empty-netter). Hey, there were worries about Stamkos’ playoff scoring then, too.

May 13: Rangers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)

second round

Ovechkin scored the first goal of Game 7, giving Lundqvist an earful in the process. That was highly entertaining, but the Rangers got the last laugh after Derek Stepan ended the game in overtime. Both Holtby and Lundqvist put out great performances in this one.

May 29: Lightning 2, Rangers 0

conference finals

Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat scored Tampa Bay’s two goals while Bishop stopped all 22 shots in a very tight Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning would go on to fall in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks, yet this was quite the run for Tampa Bay.

2016

May 26: Penguins 2, Lightning 1

conference finals

The Bolts hope that tonight mirrors the 2015 Eastern Conference Final, rather than the following year, especially since their 2016 run began with the Lightning winning both of their first two series in five games.

Bryan Rust scored both of the Penguins’ goals while Andrei Vasilevskiy (37 out of 39 saves) helped to keep the Lightning in a game Pittsburgh often carried.

2017

May 10: Penguins 2, Capitals 0

second round

At the time, this seemed like the Capitals’ last great chance, falling to the Penguins for the second season in a row after a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy. Washington pushed this series to Game 7 after falling into a 3-1 hole, but it was not to be.

Bryan Rust scored another big Game 7 against the Penguins, while Marc-Andre Fleury made this series is parting gift for Pittsburgh, making some huge stops against Ovechkin.

After that loss, Barry Trotz wasn’t “emotionally prepared” to critique Ovechkin and others. What a difference a year and a hot lap makes, huh?

***

So, how will the May 23, 2018 entry end up looking? You won’t need to wait long until you find out.

Also, don’t be surprised if the losing team mutters “At least it wasn’t the Penguins” on the handshake line …

MORE:
• Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options
• Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Flyers await free agency with rare luxury: a ton of cap space

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Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall is rapidly approaching “be careful what you wish for” territory.

For years, Hextall has been cleaning up whatever Flyers cap messes he could (sorry, Andrew MacDonald), breaking the franchise’s pattern of going after splashy, expensive moves that can sometimes blow up in their faces (sorry, Ilya Bryzgalov). Now, with what could be a ton of cap space looming in the off-season, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi reports that Hextall is expected to receive “free rein” in free agency.

(If the cap ceiling is at $80 million, they’ll have about $22 million in room, while a Jori Lehtera buyout could push that above $25M.)

“Ron has the flexibility to do whatever he wants with his cap space and his roster,” Holmgren said, via Carchidi. “If that’s the decision he wants to make moving forward, he’s got free rein to do that. I think Ron continues to do what’s right for the organization.”

That brings us back to “be careful what you wish for.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Hextall’s shown poise and patience in earning himself a clean slate, and this is his reward. That said, big moves can often be the downfall of a GM. Consider how Chuck Fletcher’s Wild era crumbled under the weight of the Ryan SuterZach Parise contracts, how the Flyers have regretted past moves, and how Ron Francis was undone in part by the ill-fated Scott Darling signing as just a few examples of mistakes that can cost people jobs.

With that in mind, here are some tips for Hextall.

One rule for them all

Let’s begin with an idea that seems far-fetched, but must be considered: any team that can land John Tavares should do whatever it can to make it happen. There’s a strong chance that he’ll just re-sign with the New York Islanders, but if not, the Flyers have plenty of cash to work with.

Goalie considerations

Rather than making Bryzgalov-style huge moves in net, Philly’s instead targeted value in goalies. That worked out very well in their Steve Mason sign-and-trade, while it’s been bumpier with Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott.

While the position is once again a headache for Philly, Hextall should be pleased that they’re at least not stuck with problem contracts. Elliott and Neuvirth are both cheap, and their contracts expire after 2018-19.

This gives the Flyers the flexibility to do whatever they want with the goalie free agent market. As of this moment, notable UFA goalies include Jonathan Bernier, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, and Chad Johnson. The RFA list boasts higher ceilings yet would likely require some maneuvering via a trade; the Sabres might decide to part ways with Robin Lehner while the Capitals may decide that it would be better to gain assets for Philipp Grubauer rather than giving him a raise to back up Braden Holtby.

With Carter Hart waiting in the wings as the top goalie prospect in any NHL system (or, at worst, one of the top goalie prospects), the Flyers would likely look for a short-term upgrade if they decided to make a move. Maybe Carter Hutton would be the right fit?

Risk/reward

As usual, there are “buyer beware” situations for 2018 free agency.

On one hand, you have players who’ve inflated their values with career years they’re unlikely to match. The Flyers probably weren’t in the market for John Carlson considering their young defensemen, but even if they were, they’d be better off exploring a cheaper avenue.

With expensive, long-term contracts for Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek in mind, the Flyers need to be careful when it comes to pondering some of the more intriguing UFA forwards. James Neal seems like a prototypical Flyers forward, yet he’s also already 30, as just one example. Scorers like Evander Kane and former Flyer James van Riemsdyk are enticing, but most if not all of them will ask for the kind of term that could really sting.

Hextall might be better off avoiding the splashier moves, instead either a) seeing which players end up inexplicably being PTO fodder, which seems to happen every summer and/or b) going for guys lower on the radar. Could Patrick Maroon, Michael Grabner, Ian Cole, or Michael Hutchinson help out, and do so at cheaper rates? The Flyers might be better off going in that direction, as they’ll want to continue to give their own drafted players opportunities to seize prominent roles.

The Flyers also need to set aside some money for future extensions. Ivan Provorov figures to be expensive when his rookie deal expires after 2018-19. A decision regarding Wayne Simmonds‘ future is looming, as he only has one year left on his deal.

With Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere locked up on bargain contracts, some of the big conundrums have been settled by Hextall’s deft work, but there are still some key decisions to be made, especially if management wants to hedge their bets in net alongside Carter Hart.

***

All things considered, the Flyers might actually be better off trying to improve by making trades.

If I were in Hextall’s shoes, I’d try to pry Max Pacioretty or Mike Hoffman away in swaps. The Flyers would get at least one season to see how such additions fit into their system, maybe opening the door for a team-friendly extension.

Either way, this summer stands as a fascinating fork in the road. This team showed signs of delivering on the potential prospect hounds have been hyping up. On the other hand, you never know how quickly your window of opportunity can close, particularly if Giroux, Voracek, and others slide.

Hextall has a great opportunity ahead of him, but that opportunity brings with it increased expectations. The honeymoon is about to end, and now he must guide the Flyers through those next, painful steps toward true contention.

Be careful what you wish for.

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.

Capitals’ Game 2 OT loss continues playoff torment

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If you wanted a script for what the Washington Capitals playoff experience is like their 5-4 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday was perhaps the most perfect example that could have ever been put on the ice.

Matt Calvert‘s game-winning goal at the 12:22 mark over the overtime period lifted the Blue Jackets to the win and sent the Capitals to their second consecutive overtime loss to open the series, putting them in a 2-0 hole as it shifts to Columbus on Tuesday night.

Honestly, it might have been the quintessential Capitals playoff game because it had a little bit of everything that has happened to this team over the better part of the past … well … let us just say their entire existence.

You wanted to see more from Alex Ovechkin? Perfect!

He was great, scoring two goals and finishing with 17 total shot attempts, including 10 on net. He played 30 minutes, was everywhere, and helped the Capitals own a 29-13 total shot attempts advantage when he was on the ice (via hockeystats.ca). Not much else one player can do, and it was just the sort of effort you want to see from your best player in a playoff game.

Epecially one in which your team is trailing in the series.

But it was not just him that showed up for the Capitals.

Despite the result on the scoreboard they carried the play, especially during 5-on-5 play, for most of the night and outshot Columbus by a 58-30 margin, only to be shut down by another spectacular goaltending performance, this time by Sergei Bobrovsky playing the role of Jaroslav Halak. It was not just the fact that Bobrovsky had to face 58 shots. He had to face quality shots and all night was making highlight reel saves. For a goalie that entered the playoffs with questions about his recent playoff experiences he did quite a bit to quiet those concerns.

That sort of shot disparity is usually — usually! — enough to win a playoff game. According to the hockey-reference database this was only the 12th playoff game where a team had at least 55 shots on goal and allowed 30 or less.

The previous 11 teams were 9-2 in those games. Seven of those games went to overtime , where the team with the shot advantage was 6-1.

Once again, there was a lot here that should have resulted in a win, especially with the way they were able to open the game.

For the second game in a row they built up a two-goal lead (on Sunday they actually had two different two goal leads — 2-0 and 3-1) and seemed to have Columbus on the ropes.

In terms of the way they actually played they did enough to get a win and even the series.

So what went wrong to result in another soul-crushing defeat?

Well, let’s start with discipline.

For the second game in a row they took some really poorly timed penalties and could not stay out of the penalty box, resulting in Columbus scoring two more huge power play goals. For the second game in a row Tom Wilson — a regular on the Capitals’ penalty kill — was sitting in the box for one of those Columbus power play goals.

To be fair the Blue Jackets had their own lapses here, especially in the final six minutes of regulation. Maybe it all evened out in the end. But you can not take those penalties game after game.

Then there is goaltending.

Nothing can turn completely swing a playoff game or a series the way goaltending can. A hot goalie can steal one. A cold goalie can lose one. On Sunday we kind of saw both.

While Bobrovsky was making 54 saves (many of them spectacular), Phillipp Grubauer was getting benched after the second period for giving up eight goals in his first seven periods of hockey in the series, posting a dismal .836 save percentage.

That all happened after he took over the No. 1 job from Braden Holtby entering the series.

Holtby, of course, is a goalie that won the Vezina Trophy two years ago, was a finalist a season ago, and has the second best postseason save percentage in NHL history (minimum 50 games played). You can look at his down year and argue that Grubauer was the hot hand coming into the series if you wanted to, but he’s still Braden Holtby. He’s still one of the best goalies in the league. And he started the series on the bench while the guy that replaced him struggled. A lot.

Put all of that together and you have where the series is sitting now.

Washington has to now go on the road for two games and is in a position where it has to win four out of the next five games in order to avoid what would be yet another disappointing, and all too premature postseason exit.

Given the way the Capitals played the first two games of the series there is every reason to believe they are perfectly capable of doing that.

But given the way they played those first two games there is every reason to believe they should have won at least one of those games.

That is the beauty — or agony, depending on your perspective — of playoff hockey. It doesn’t care about who deserves anything. Things happen. Sometimes weird things. Frustrating things. Nobody knows that more than the Washington Capitals.

Perhaps no game encapsulated all of that more than Game 2 on Sunday.

Welcome to the Washington Capitals playoff experience. It is quite the ride.

————

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.