Playoff hockey is stupid; but the right team won that Capitals-Maple Leafs game – Chicago Tribune
Playoff hockey is often stupid.
I write that with great affection. Playoff hockey is a rush and a thrill and a jolt of adrenaline and a three-hour sugar high. But it’s also often stupid.
The games are tight. The margins are tiny. Luck lurks everywhere. Happenstance tugs at every collar. And too often, the team that gets the better of the play still loses the game.
That’s why I kind of think writing about playoff hockey — especially on deadline, especially in overtime — often feels stupid. You’re almost forced to make grand pronouncements and reach sweeping conclusions based on who scores the final goal, which doesn’t always reflect the way the game was actually played. That was my biggest problem writing about last year’s Capitals–Penguins second-round series, where — at least twice in six games — the team that got the better of the play still lost. And you can’t really fill 35 inches with a giant shrug emoticon. At least, that’s what our page designers tell me.
You’d have been crazy not to be thinking similarly demoralizing thoughts as the Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs headed toward overtime Sunday night. The Leafs got a lucky third-period goal when the puck bounced off a stanchion and directly onto the stick of their best player, who was screaming untouched toward the net. Auston Matthews’s goal seemed like it might be the game-winner, but then the Caps got a fairly fortunate goal of their own, and so the teams headed toward overtime tied at 1. Bring your nickel to center ice. Best 53 out of 105.
Everything about this series, to that point, felt just about even: the scoring chances, the goalie play, the shots, the penalties, the intestinal agony, the fan angst, the near-cheap-shots, the offensive wizardry, the total goals, the near-misses. I was completely ready for the teams to come back to D.C. for Game 7, where the concession stands would dole out shots of Pepto — shaken, and probably stirred — and the Verizon Center ice would be covered with a giant shrug emoticon. Just flip those coins. It would go so much quicker, and cause so much less pain.
BUT THEN SOMETHING DIFFERENT HAPPENED.
(Sorry. Got excited.)
But then something different happened. The Capitals dominated overtime. It didn’t appear close. They created one chance after another. They launched one shot after another. They had 10 attempts to Toronto’s five. They had five shots on goal to Toronto’s one. They looked and acted and skated like the better team. And then they won, 2-1.
“They were way better than us in overtime,” Toronto Coach Mike Babcock said, and that was accurate to even the most novice observer.
Babcock: “They were way better than us in overtime.”
This was pleasing to me, not because I’m a giant homer, but because it seems like it would be nice in this sport if the better teams would mostly win these crucial games. You invest so much time and emotion in this nonsense, that you’d like the result to make some logical sense. You’d like the team that stockpiled the momentum and monopolized the chances and built a wave of pressure to come out on top. In this one moment, it did.
“You know what I loved about the overtime is the Caps went for it,” Alan May said on CSN’s post-game show. “They didn’t sit back and wait to lose. They pressured the Maple Leafs. … The Leafs were exhausted. They didn’t believe they could win. And the Caps just took it to them. Brent [Johnson] just kept telling me, ‘Look, they can’t skate. Look, they can’t move,’ and the Caps just came down in waves. Any time the Leafs did get in, in that short period of time, they collapsed down, they blocked out around Holtby, they didn’t give them a sniff. And I just thought that they showed that they were ready to win this game. … We’ve seen the Caps in the past in these situations — in Game 6, when they’d won Game 5 — blow these games. Tonight, they weren’t going to be denied.”
That’s what it felt like, anyhow. Maybe if overtime had lasted longer, the play would have evened back out, and we would have been again sitting at a black-and-white table with Fate, trying to convince Him that coin-flipping for your future is just as symbolic as playing chase. But it didn’t last that long. And the team that played better — in the regular season, for sure, but also in these specific six or seven minutes — earned the shiny gold star, and the right to keep playing.
And that allows us to write all the things we would have written even if the Caps had won while being outplayed: About their resolve. About them winning a must-have game even when their history points in the other direction. About overcoming a bad bounce, in defiance of a history that says bad bounces portend disaster. About getting scoring from a second-line hero. About ignoring the choking demons and just relying on plain old superiority.
Like I said, we likely would have written those things even if the Caps got their behinds handed to them in overtime but scored on a fluky breakaway. It’s just nice when it’s actually merited.