Perspective | The never-say-die Caps are still alive after an ‘unreal’ accomplishment


PHILADELPHIA — So much of the joy in sports is based on the expectations that precede a celebration, on the circumstances in which an accomplishment is achieved. So here were the Washington Capitals — not those old Stanley Cup-contending Washington Capitals but a different version with a new reality — gathered in a grinning group on the ice at Wells Fargo Center. They vigorously patted each other on the heads, gloves knocking helmets around. And then, with a playoff berth locked up, they bounced as one, a circle of glee following a season of unspeakable grind.

With a bite-your-nails-to-their-nubs 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night, the Capitals returned to the NHL postseason, nabbing the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, essentially winning Game 7 of Round 0. In doing so, they earned a date with the behemoth New York Rangers. Exhale because the spot was earned and the ride was worth it. Now, buckle up again.

But enjoy this much: A team that dealt with underperformance and injury, that banished Stanley Cup hero Evgeny Kuznetsov and got better because of it, that still sold at the trade deadline because the immediate future seemed bleak — that group sneaked in. No, sorry. That group won its last three games in four days to barge in when no other result would have worked.

“Unreal,” said Alex Ovechkin, whose first-period goal was the 31st of his season, the 853rd of his career and, given the way the Caps have been scoring lately, felt something like a miracle.

“We fight through lots of stuff that happen at [the] deadline, injuries, Kuzy,” he continued. “But I think the belief inside the locker room was tremendous. We enjoyed that process. It’s special. That’s why we play hockey.”

And that’s why we watch.

Put the achievement aside for a moment. The wackiness in how it came about can scarcely be overstated. With two points Tuesday — in regulation or overtime — the Capitals would clinch the final spot. But to stay alive, the Flyers needed a regulation win — and help in the form of Montreal beating Detroit.

That meant that a tie late in the game — and the possibility of overtime, in which the Caps would earn their 90th point, eliminating Philadelphia — essentially put the Flyers in a deficit.

So for Philadelphia Coach John Tortorella, pulling goalie Samuel Ersson would come earlier than normal — with more than three minutes remaining and the score tied. Except at almost that exact same moment nearly 400 miles away, Detroit scored with five seconds left to force overtime in Montreal. The Red Wings had their point. The Flyers were eliminated. Ersson vacated the net anyway — and Caps vet T.J. Oshie, playing with a chronically messed-up back, deposited the game-winner into the empty net.

How fitting — how crazily fitting — for this group.

“Almost every game was Game 7 for us,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes didn’t get points and we’re still in a battle, and then it was a crazy situation till tonight.”

“I got info on the Detroit game right after they scored their empty-netter,” Tortorella said. “I think it happened pretty close together.”

Insanely close together — and for Washington, insanely fortunate. Because this team — which scored two or fewer goals in 42 of 82 games this year, fourth most in the NHL — didn’t seem capable of forcing another one through if the game stayed five-on-five. That struggle to score contributed to the Caps’ minus-37 goal differential, the worst of any playoff team this century.

They are limited, sure. And yet there’s so much joy.

“You could see the faces in that room, whether you’re John Carlson or you’re Hendrix Lapierre, Connor McMichael, ‘O,’ they all have different things,” said first-year coach Spencer Carbery, who has been nothing but impressive in methodology and messaging. “They’re all at different stages of their careers and their lives. But you could tell no matter what your situation, whether you’re playing in your first year, like a lot of our guys, or you’re playing in your 17th season, this group — you could tell how bad they wanted to find ways to win every night.”

It’s so striking what skin-of-the-teeth qualification means to this roster when cast against how those old juggernaut Capitals teams barreled into the playoffs. In the Cup year of 2018, the most notable aspect of the Caps’ celebration after their first-round victory over Columbus was how subdued it felt. That was a business trip. The second round was expected. What was important was on the horizon, beyond.

These Caps aren’t those Caps. And that’s okay.

“The momentum is on our side,” Oshie said. “I think there’s a lot of players in this room that maybe haven’t been deep in the playoffs or haven’t even played in the playoffs that are starting to learn the dedication and the focus and the intensity and the selflessness that it takes to play playoff hockey.”

That’s because they have been playing that style for more than a month.

Before the season, the keys to the Capitals being the best version of themselves figured to be a return to form for Kuznetsov, the talented but maddening center who was arguably Washington’s best player during the run to the Cup. They included a return to health for franchise linchpin Nicklas Backstrom, who had to come back from hip resurfacing surgery.

And they probably included a stellar year from goaltender Darcy Kuemper, signed a season earlier to a five-year, $26.25 million contract to bring stability to a position where Washington had enjoyed little.

The results: Kuznetsov was the worst version of himself, dragging the team down, managing just 17 points in 43 games. He was placed on waivers, then traded. Backstrom’s physical limitations quickly became too much. He stepped away from the game in November with just one point in eight games. And Kuemper was eventually replaced in net by stellar backup Charlie Lindgren, who started 14 of the Caps’ final 15 games and was deemed by Carbery “arguably our MVP.”

So the group that gathered in the fall with hopes of returning to the playoffs isn’t the group that ultimately landed there. The lineup Tuesday night included defenseman Dylan McIlrath, days from his 32nd birthday but playing just his 75th NHL game, the captain of the Caps’ top minor league franchise. Darned if he didn’t assist on Ovechkin’s goal. It included 21-year-old Vincent Iorio, a 2021 draft pick playing his ninth NHL game. This is a hybrid roster for a franchise in transition, the old core winding down and a new core just forming — maybe.

“It’s unbelievable just because the journey, it hasn’t been easy,” Lindgren said. “… It’s such a privilege to play for these guys.”

They will be underdogs, and heavy underdogs, against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers. The kids on this team won’t remember the burden New York has to bear, but maybe some old heads will. The 2010 Capitals won that very same trophy issued to the team with the best record in the NHL. They lost in the first round to eighth-seeded Montreal. The 2016 and ’17 versions of the Caps earned Presidents’ Trophy status and couldn’t make it out of the second round.

The point: Nothing is guaranteed. Washington’s lineup isn’t what it once was or even what it was expected to be this season. But the kids who might well be part of a future core — McMichael, Lapierre, Beck Malenstyn, Aliaksei Protas and others — get this chance following a season in which so much went wrong.

“Just to where we’ve gotten is very, very valuable for development,” Carbery said. “But now, you want to make good on it. Now, we don’t want to just [say], ‘Okay, great.’ We want to play well. … And everybody’s going to say, ‘We’ve got no business being here, and the goal differential, blah, blah, blah.’ That’s going to be the narrative. And that’s fine. It’s warranted. It’s a fact. [But] I know this group isn’t just going to be content showing up in the Stanley Cup playoffs.”

When the horn sounded Tuesday night, Carlson — a veteran of 1,009 NHL games, all in a Caps sweater — pumped his fist and wailed, then headed to Lindgren for an emphatic embrace. The standard isn’t what the standard was. But for these Capitals, this season was a success. Now, the real fun begins.

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