Moment of truth is coming far earlier than expected for the Washington Capitals

Melrose: 'Washington's got some soul-searching to do' (0:42)

Barry Melrose says the Maple Leafs won Game 3 by getting grittier and hungrier, which is exactly what the Capitals need to do to win the series. (0:42)

TORONTO -- It might well happen that after the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup, they'll look back and smirk.

They'll reminisce about the first-round scare they got from the young Leafs as being a great teaching moment.

After all, many a Stanley Cup champion has needed to go through adversity in Round 1 before their run truly begins, the rough waters before the smooth sailing.


But for now, we'll have to live with the reality that the powerhouse Caps, trailing the series 2-1, are facing a defining moment in Game 4 Wednesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre.

Call it an overreaction if you will, but this is it. The Alex Ovechkin-era Capitals, perennial playoff underachievers, need to show us what they're truly made of.

"You're going to see our best game tomorrow," Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said Tuesday.

In a series pitting a massively experienced and deeply talented squad versus a wet-behind-the-ears but also very talented team, what's puzzling is that it's the graybeards making more mental mistakes. It's the older team looking like it is lacking confidence, the veteran squad easily rattled by any change in momentum.

Is there just too much riding on this season, which long ago was scripted as the last kick at the can for this roster?

Said a rival Eastern Conference head coach of free agents such as T.J. Oshie, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk, "if they don't win it this year, that group is going to be broken up. It seems like they're weighted down. It's almost like they've got to have a come-to-Jesus moment. Maybe it happens with their backs against the wall here. Maybe they get through that and play now. But it seems like that team has the weight of the world on them."

They'll deny it, of course, but the idea that this team, which has about half the roster on expiring contracts, won't be the same again -- win or lose -- that's the real deal.

By all accounts, these Capitals like each other. Guys care for each other. They want to win for each other. Is the pressure from within the real burden? Is the pressure there knowing that the clock is ticking on the composition of their team?

The Caps, I'm told, got everything they needed to get off their chest in a meeting right after Game 3. It's how Trotz likes it: Don't carry it over to the next day. Deal with it right then and there and move on. The meeting wasn't unusual.

And I didn't sense any panic in the Caps on Tuesday. Star goalie Braden Holtby, in his dapper suit and fedora walking out of the rink, hardly looked like an athlete worried sick.

No, these guys still believe.

But that doesn't change that they need to get it done now.

The Caps got off to a terrific start in Game 3, really manhandling the Leafs for the opening 26-27 minutes, before it all fell apart.

"That's the sense of urgency we need for 60 minutes," Caps winger Tom Wilson said Tuesday. "If we're playing like that, I don't think there's any team that can play with us. You see kind of the energy and the execution we put forth. The first 10 minutes of that game, if we can continue to keep that pace up, I don't think they'll be able to play with us. It's on us. We can't get satisfied with a two-goal lead.

"There's big moments -- we were up 3-1, [had a] 5-on-3, stuff like that, a penalty kill in overtime. ... We've got to take care of those moments. If we do that, we're going to give ourselves a good chance. There's bounces, there's a little bit of luck, but we can't leave it up to that."

Added the Caps' Justin Williams on Wednesday: "We know our aspirations, our aspirations are certainly as big as they get. It's very rare when you see a team waltz their way all the way to the Stanley Cup. It doesn't happen. And if it does, it's very few and far between. You go through adversity on your way there. I've been on a couple of championship teams down 0-2, down 0-3, so you rally around it. There's a lot of times during the playoffs where you need to man up and win a game and the pressure is on. This is one of them."

They need to own this series now, or else that window to win everybody has been talking about is going to slam shut weeks before they ever believed possible.

Just six days into their playoffs, the Capitals face their moment of truth.