WASHINGTON—Contrary to the rhetorical question, you don’t get to choose between being lucky and good.
In Saturday evening’s 4–3 Game 5 overtime victory over Columbus, the Washington Capitals were a little bit of both. And that combination may have saved their season.
Nicklas Backstrom wasn’t trying to score when he fed the puck in front of the goal from an impossible angle late in the first period. It hit a defenseman’s skate, flipped over Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky’s head, hit him in the back and bounced into the net.
In 13 professional seasons (and who knows how many youth games), Backstrom said he’d never scored like that. “I’ll take it,” he said with a wry grin.
That was luck. So was surviving a third period that, for Capitals fans with the longest memories, had to bring back ugly visions of the 1974–75 expansion franchise that won exactly five of 80 games.
The younger, faster Blue Jackets outshot Washington by a staggering 16–1 in the final 20 minutes of regulation, but managed to sneak just one deflected shot past Braden Holtby to force overtime.
“That was not an ideal period for us,” said an understated Holtby, who made three sensational saves to keep things even and force the inevitable overtime for the fourth time in five games.
To that point, the Capitals certainly didn’t deserve to win. They had been outshot 36–21 and looked old and tired.
What they did after the third period showed why they can be good when they want to be.
“A little bit of experience kicked in,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Guys said, ‘Let’s get on our toes and go for it.’ There’s good leadership in that [locker] room. As I left the room, I heard the right guys saying the right things.”
Added defenseman John Carlson: “We just came out [in overtime] as a new team. We let the [third-period] goal deflate us, and it took us too long to get out of it. We have attacked in every game we’ve won.”
The newfound urgency was immediately noticeable. Bobrovsky, the best player in this series so far, did his best to thwart Washington’s onslaught, making four sizzling saves. But Backstrom finally beat him on a deflection 11:05 into the extra period.
The Capitals finally could exhale, knowing they were fortunate to take their first lead of the series after dropping the first two games on home ice.
“I look at it as the hockey gods giving something back for the last game at home,” said Trotz, noting the Capitals lost Game 2 in overtime despite a 58–30 edge in shots.
Those deities seemingly have had it in for the Capitals over the past three decades, handing them heartbreaking postseason losses in almost every conceivable fashion. Game 2 was only the latest example.
This edition isn’t about to tempt fate by declaring itself immune. Luck is something you can’t control; effort is.
“When it was 0–2, we felt we were playing better than the results,” Backstrom said. “We just had to keep grinding. The last three games, we did that.”
There’s still one more to win, or all that work (and whatever good luck charms Washington’s fans have been invoking) will all go for naught. The Capitals have two chances: Monday night in Columbus and, if necessary, back in D.C. on Wednesday.
“We’ll be back here for Game 7,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said.
Trotz is completing his 20th NHL season and his fourth in D.C. Like his team, he’s won consistently during the regular season but never reached the conference finals. He knows that good fortune rarely repeats itself, and that uneven efforts like Saturday’s won’t change his (or his franchise’s) perilous history.
Said Trotz: “We’re gonna have to be way better to win.”
A little luck never hurts, either. And maybe after all those years of heartbreak, the Capitals are due for a break or two.