Caps and Downs

Unlucky or unworthy? Washington Capitals face elimination yet again

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PITTSBURGH — A hockey goal is in many ways a random act of God. Yes, certainly, there are elaborately formed strategies involved with scoring goals. Countless hours of practice go into it. Superhuman skills of strength and speed and timing are necessary — the ability to redirect a puck in mid-air traveling at 110 mph is the sort of thing Homer would have written epic poems about.

But, in the end, a puck actually going into the net is a little bit about fate too. The puck requires just a touch of destiny. And the only fair conclusion to make at this point is that providence, for whatever reason, frowns upon the Washington Capitals.

The Caps have played for 41 seasons. They have made the playoffs 26 times. They are now on the brink of going 0-for-41 Stanley Cups.

Of course, they are not the only team to be on such a sustained Stanley Cup drought — heck, the entire country of Canada has been without the Stanley Cup for 23 years — but the Capitals have faced their own particular agony on the road to nowhere. Six times, they have blown commanding playoff leads by getting beaten in three straight games. No other team can match that.

This year was supposed to be different. This has been, in many ways, the best of those Capitals teams. Their 120 points was the most in the NHL by a lot. They had the second-highest scoring team in the league, along with the second-best defense. They surrounded the great Alexander Ovechkin with the sorts of superb players John Updike once called “gems of slightly lesser water” — T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson and so on. Braden Holtby was again sensational in net. For a team always pointing to next year, it finally seemed that it would be this year.

It still can be this year — the curtain has not yet fallen. But it’s closing rapidly.

Washington, after their heartbreaking overtime loss on Wednesday, now trails the Pittsburgh Penguins 3 games to 1. That’s not insurmountable. As mentioned, the Capitals have blown such playoff leads so often it seems almost normal. The Capitals blew a 3-1 lead to the Rangers just a year ago.

“We have to take that experience and turn it around our way,” Ovechkin says.

The trouble is that nothing in the Capitals’ long history of heartbreak suggests that the 3-1 comeback trick works the other way.

The series is 3-1 Pittsburgh largely because the puck just will not go into the net for the Capitals. That’s obvious enough, of course, but the Capitals have done all the right things to make the puck go into the net. In Game 3, they controlled the game more or less from start to finish and peppered rookie goalie Matt Murray with 49 shots. He somehow turned away 47 of them and Pittsburgh won 3-2.

The Penguins were better in Game 4 even without star defenseman Kris Letang, out on a one-game suspension. Still, the Capitals certainly had their share of glorious scoring chances. One puck went through Murray’s legs but then slid wide, while others seemed to overwhelm Murray but ended up bouncing harmlessly off of him. And so on.

Meanwhile, the Penguins scored one goal when Trevor Daley fired a shot to the net. The puck was slowed by Washington’s Karl Alzner, but it kept willfully sliding toward the net, looking for all the world like Bugs Bunny’s slowball. Holtby was sufficiently perplexed and, like everyone else, he could do nothing but watch it slide into the net.

“Things are going their way a little bit,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz admitted. “Pucks seem to be following them a little bit more. Some of the goals are deflecting off people and finding the back of the net, where ours are just sort of missing the net.”

This can sound like sour grapes and maybe it is — everyone in hockey knows that you have to make your own breaks. And it isn’t like every puck has bounced Pittsburgh’s way. But Trotz’s frustration touches on a fundamental point about playoff hockey — maybe even THE fundamental point about playoff hockey. Goals, unlike touchdown passes or out-of-bounds plays, can rarely be choreographed neatly. They emerge out of chaos.

Jim Murray, the legendary columnist of the Los Angeles Times, used to write that before he died he did not want to see Paris or Rome. He wanted, just once, to see a hockey goal. It’s a fair point. Everything moves so fast, the puck bounces and dances so erratically, while power plays can change the basic geometry of the action. Goals still require just a touch of magic.

Take Patric Hornqvist’s overtime goal Wednesday. Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary flipped a shot toward the net and it was blocked by Washington’s Mike Weber. The puck bounced and stopped right in the high slot, just about the most dangerous place on the ice when Sidney Crosby skates nearby. Weber, in a near panic, swiped at the puck just to get it out of there. His swipe unintentionally ended up knocking the puck to the wrong guy, a wide-open Hornqvist. It could not have been a better pass. Hornqvist took it in stride and then banged home the first playoff game-winner of his career.

Now is that luck? No. The Penguins’ pressure put the puck in a dangerous place. Crosby’s presence forced a rash move. Hornqvist’s positioning set him up for the chance. And he still had to beat Holtby.

“At the end of the day, that’s why we play,” Hornqvist said happily.

But there was luck in there. There usually is. And that luck, well, the Capitals never seem to have quite enough of it.

“That’s why it’s sudden death,” Trotz said sadly. “That’s what it feels like.”

The Capitals — and you can’t blame them — try to hang on to the idea that they were the better team in Game 3 and were at least even in Game 4. The Penguins would agree with that. “I don’t know if we were thrilled with how we played,” Murray would say after Wednesday’s game.

So, the Capitals tell themselves, if they continue to be the best team on the ice, the luck will turn, the tide will turn, and they can win three in a row, two of them on home ice. It’s sound logic, but the wonder and agony of the Stanley Cup playoffs is that logic doesn’t always have much to do with it. You don’t have to be the best team. You just have to be the team that scores the most goals.

“I think this team has a lot of character,” Ovechkin says.

Then he adds: “I think it sucks.”