All the Washington Capitals have to do to win their first Stanley Cup title in franchise history is to conquer their two greatest foes on Wednesday night: the Pittsburgh Penguins and the poisonous delusion of hope.
Oh, and they would still need to win an additional two playoff series, but we all know getting past the Penguins is the real crux for the Caps.
Surely, Ottawa and whatever team comes out of the Western Conference will be formidable opponents, and victory would be far from assured, even though the Presidents Trophy-winning Caps will be favored in both series. Yet with the Penguins' extensive history of snatching victory away from Washington, this seems like a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the Caps to finally go all the way, should they prevail on Wednesday.
By winning Games 5 and 6, the Caps finally have a chance to turn the tables on the Penguins. Not only has Pittsburgh won eight of the previous nine playoff series in which the teams have met, it has done so twice by erasing a 2-0 series deficit, and twice by erasing a 3-1 series deficit. At long last, not only can the Capitals get by the Penguins in the playoffs for just the second time ever, they can do so in the same exact infuriating way the Penguins have dispatched them over the years.
In Game 5, Washington trailed 2-1 going into the third period. At that point in the series, the story had been about the struggles of goalie Braden Holtby and the relative lackluster performance of Alexander Ovechkin. Holtby, at least, turned that around quickly with a few impressive key saves in that third period, as the Caps rallied to win 4-2.
Game 6 played out the way Caps fans would like to believe the entire series should have: with a decisive victory. The Caps had the clear advantage in shots taken -- something they had done multiple times this series -- only this time they were actually getting buried in the net. That had been the opposite of what played out through the first four games against Pittsburgh. The Caps were still dominating in shots in those games, but whether it was due to playing stiff, poor shot selection or just terrible luck -- they nearly found themselves getting swept. The Caps barely escaped Game 3 with a win despite the Penguins forcing overtime with two lightning quick goals in the final minutes of the third period.
Washington coach Barry Trotz had to make some necessary changes in order for this kind of turnaround to occur, most notably moving Ovechkin to the third line -- a demotion the superstar was more than willing to accept. Ovi hadn't been his dominant self for a few large stretches of the regular season, and the team has struggled in the postseason when counting on him to carry the team. But the move to the third line has paid off so far, and accepting the new role should serve as a testament to Ovechkin's commitment to teamwork.
The story of the first half of the series was that the Caps couldn't solve Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. After lighting him up for five goals in Game 6, it's clear that is no longer the case. Momentum may be overrated in sports, but it's worth something. Of course, in an elimination game, it can vanish in a hurry as well. The Caps rolled off seven goals in a row spanning their Game 5 comeback and most of Game 6. Should the Penguins put up an early lead in Game 7, Washington's confidence could vanish quickly.
The Caps are finally playing like the team they were for all the regular season, and they've done it with an aggressive approach. Little reason to believe that still won't be the case in what is shaping up to be the biggest game of the season, not just for the Caps, but possibly all of the NHL.