IF Monday night’s epiphany in Pitts- burgh fulfills the Washington Capitals’ wildest dreams, they should start packing away their skates and pads, just as they’ve done around this time of year for the past 19 seasons.

Make no mistake, they earned the right to celebrate the rugged 2–1 overtime victory that eliminated their longtime nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and put a D.C. team into the final four of a major professional league’s playoffs for the first time since 1998. But judging by the viral video reaction of their long-suffering fan base, you’d think their mission was accomplished.

It isn’t. And the best news is that no one understands that fact better than the Capitals themselves.

“The goal isn’t to get past the second round,” forward Jay Beagle told reporters in a joyous locker room afterwards. “The goal is the Stanley Cup. That’s always been the goal.”

They’re merely halfway there, and if they thought beating Pittsburgh was a challenge, the path only gets tougher. The Tampa Bay Lightning, their opponent in the Eastern Conference finals which open Friday, are playing at a significantly higher level than these flawed Penguins. And unlike Washington, they’ve been here before, reaching the conference finals in each of the past three seasons.

That doesn’t mean the Capitals aren’t capable of more. They have surprised almost everyone except themselves—maybe even themselves—with their depth, resilience and grit.

Consider that Monday’s denouement came on the road, without the suspended Tom Wilson and the injured Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky, who combined for 47 regular-season goals and 84 assists. Or that the much-maligned Alexander Ovechkin, once known solely as a goal sniper, assisted on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s series-winning score.

Or that a team whose Stanley Cup window seemed to be closing fast got significant contributions from rookies Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stevenson and Nathan Walker against the Penguins, who lacked the crisp precision of the team that had won the past two titles.

They’ll need more of the same—as well as boosts from the expected return of Wilson (whose suspension is over) and Backstrom (nursing an apparent hand injury) to topple the Lightning.

They’ll also need continued superior play in goal from Braden Holtby, who didn’t pout after he was benched late in the regular season. Holtby rescued the Capitals during a dreadful second period in Game 5 against the Penguins, when the game (and series) could have slipped away. And he was the best player on the ice in Game 6. Coach Barry Trotz’s decision to return to Holtby late in Game 2 of the first round against Columbus helped avert another early playoff exit, one that might have had major personnel ripples.

Most of all, the Capitals will need to sustain the hunger that drove them to exorcise two decades of postseason demons. Pittsburgh’s mascot is a penguin, but it might as well have been an albatross, so heavily did Sidney Crosby’s team weigh down Ovechkin’s public image.

It’s human nature to relax and exhale, even briefly, when you’ve finally accomplished a difficult task that has eluded you for so long. Although Trotz conceded that he planned to enjoy “a cold one, maybe two,” on the trip home Monday night, anything short of Washington’s best effort could result in a quick exit against the Lightning. Remember that in 1998, the Capitals’ only trip to the Stanley Cup finals, they were swept by a veteran Detroit team.

The time to savor Monday’s breakthrough has passed. These resilient Capitals have made it to (for them, at least) uncharted waters. That means there’s still plenty of danger lurking.

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Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443 sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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