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The Capitals Can Finally Exhale … Until Thursday

Washington escaped the first round by eliminating the youthful Maple Leafs in a surprisingly close first-round series. The Caps’ reward? A matchup against their nemesis, the defending champs from Pittsburgh.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For the first 60 minutes of the Washington Capitals’ butt-clenching, 2–1 Game 6 overtime win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night, it was hard to tell which team finished the regular season with the NHL’s best record and which was the Eastern Conference’s lowest playoff seed.

So it had been for much of the previous five games — three of them won by the Presidents’ Trophy–winning, perennially playoff-underachieving Capitals, and two by the upstart, underdog Leafs. Slim margins defined this series, the closest of the first round: Coming into Game 6, the goal tally was 16–15 in favor of Washington, with four of the five games decided in overtime (which, in the NHL playoffs, makes for the most anxiety-inducing TV-viewing experience in sports). And so it was for Game 6 in Toronto, which was as tight and nervy as you’d expect from a potential elimination game. The contest remained scoreless for two periods, but not chanceless: The Caps were stonewalled by Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen while Toronto pinged the post behind Washington’s Braden Holtby several times.

Then, just under eight minutes into the third frame, this happened:

For a moment, you could envision the next day’s headlines, which would have inevitably focused as much on the Capitals’ inability to close out a series as on the young Leafs forcing a Game 7. One way or another, it felt as if Sunday’s game would decide the entire series.

Then, five minutes after Toronto’s goal, with the ghosts of Washington’s past playoff failures creeping into view, Marcus Johansson somehow squeezed a puck through the previously impenetrable Andersen. Tie game. The Caps exhaled. By the time overtime began, momentum had swung Washington’s way. The Capitals finally did resemble the best team in the league, and the Leafs suddenly looked overmatched.

Six and a half minutes later, Johansson ended Toronto’s season.

And so, after six heart-stopping games, the Capitals move on to the second round.

But first, some Game 6 miscellany: Biebz wuz there, which afterward caused much “bad luck” consternation amongst Leaf Nation. Alexander Ovechkin got a bit of revenge on Nazem Kadri, who low-bridged him in Game 5. And for not the first time, a couple of Caps fans celebrated a victory in the middle of Maple Leaf Square, like Bloods wading into a party on Crip turf.

Also, a word about these Maple Leafs, who surpassed expectations this season by even making the playoffs. “They pushed us and they hardened us this series,” said relieved Caps head coach Barry Trotz of his opponents Sunday night. There’s an air about Toronto that is similar to the vibe the Golden State Warriors had four years ago: The Leafs are young, hungry, incredibly fun to watch, and far from their ceiling. Auston Matthews, still only 19, scored four goals in his first playoff series. Fellow rookie forwards William Nylander and Mitch Marner chipped in with four points apiece. Of Toronto’s top six scorers against Washington, five were born in 1992 or later. The Leafs got a lot of lucky bounces against the Caps, sure, but they grew in confidence each game and were neither awed by the stage nor their competition. Toronto could be set for a deep playoff run as early as next season.

As for the Capitals — it’s the Penguins again, because of course it’s the Penguins again. Last season, Washington and Pittsburgh were the two best teams in the Eastern Conference and faced off in the second round. The Pens won that series in six games and went on to win the Stanley Cup. This season, Washington and Pittsburgh were the two best teams in the entire league. Once again, they are facing each other a round too early. For the Capitals, who have lost eight of nine series in their playoff “rivalry” against the Penguins — including two in the Ovechkin–Sidney Crosby era — getting out of the second round for the first time in 19 years will require slaying a historical nemesis.

“I still think we have a level of play to our game that we haven’t seen yet.” said Caps center Lars Eller after Washington finally put away the Leafs. Against the Pens, they’ll need it.