Capitals finally change their Game 7 history

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the puck trickled between Braden Holtby’s pads and into the Washington Capitals' goal early in the third period, tying Game 7 at one goal apiece, there was a moment where many in Verizon Center wondered if this was the beginning of yet another grisly piece of Game 7 history for this franchise.

As the New York Islanders celebrated the shocking gift, and the players looked at the scoreboard, one wondered: Would this be another opportunity squandered? The lead-in to another offseason spent ruminating why so much talent accomplished so little?

And then, almost instantly, the Capitals went back to work.

They nary missed a beat pushing forward, battering the Islanders, launching pucks at netminder Jarolsav Halak until emerging young start Evgeny Kuznetsov feinted one way and then curled off the side boards and raced unscathed across the middle of the ice before sending a sharp angle shot past Halak to give the Capitals a 2-1 win in this most important of Game 7s.

The Capitals killed off the game’s only penalty (John Carlson for roughing) in the final three minutes of regulation and ended up allowing just two shots after Frans Nielsen’s potential soul-sucking goal early in the third period, allowing the Islanders a paltry 11 shots on goal in total.

Two franchises with considerable playoff baggage, two teams desperate to turn a corner and reward long-suffering fans with postseason success couldn’t have been more evenly matched.

But in the end, this was a game the Capitals deserved to win, a series in which they deserved to prevail.

Sometimes the team that deserves to win doesn’t. Sometimes game plans are abandoned.

Sometimes things like the Neilsen goal happen and everything goes to hell.

The Capitals know that from having been Game 7 punching bags for much of the past decade.

But not this team. Not on this night anyway.

They did not allow an Islanders power-play goal on 14 chances in seven games.

Islander captain John Tavares had two goals and four assists in the series to lead his team, but he did not have a shot on goal in Game 7.

“We just didn’t make enough plays down the stretch,” Tavares said.

Washington coach Barry Trotz and his staff delivered a game plan and the players stuck with that plan.

“It was a phenomenal game. It’s the best I’ve seen us play, everybody,” Holtby said.

“It was an effort that probably should have been more than 2-1 with the way we played, but start to finish it was the game we’ve been trying to groom all year and it should do us a lot of confidence that we can play a full 60 minutes.”

Brooks Orpik called it one of the hardest first-round series he’s ever played and that’s something from a man who is in his ninth straight postseason tournament and owns one of those shiny things known as a Stanley Cup ring.

Orpik was one of the Capitals’ key offseason moves last summer, a free agent defensemen who was going to help re-define this team’s identity, its culture, help Trotz introduce a new way of playing the game and maybe, just maybe, a new way of emerging from a playoff series.

“It was pretty calm on the bench the whole game to be honest with you," Orpik said. "I think everybody was just trusting what we were doing, trusting the process. That was probably the best we played all series and it was still 0-0. Maybe a younger team would have maybe gotten a little impatient and maybe tried to open things up. We just stayed the course and eventually got rewarded for it.

"That’s one of the tougher first round series I’ve ever played in. For a team that had that many injuries you can’t say enough good things about the way they competed. To be in a 1-1 Game 7 that speaks volumes about their competitive nature.”

The Islanders and Capitals finished Game 7 trading 100 more hits bringing the series total to 630.

In a quiet room away from the tumult in the Capitals locker room, Washington general manager Brian MacLellan admitted that there was a moment or more where he wondered if it was going to go his team's way after all the good work that had been put in.

“No, you have a couple of moments. The longer you go and you’re out-playing a team and you’re not scoring and it’s like you know it’s going to come the other way at some point, and if they get a break or a bounce and you’re in trouble,” MacLellan acknowledged.

“And I thought we kept the pressure on pretty much the whole night. To finish the game with 11 shots [against] that’s huge in a Game 7. I thought, credit the team, the system, the defensemen and the goalie.”

And maybe the GM, too.

“I guess you never know in September. We had a stretch there the first 20 games where it was in and out. It was touch and go, really," MacLellan said. "I think the style we play now is more suited towards playoffs. This is the most evenly matched series I think you could get, statistically, territorially, the home and away everything kind of worked out even. And I think a lot of it has to do with the structure, the better defense, the goaltending’s been better I think that stabilizes us during those times where you’re not going good, and I think it paid off in this series for sure.”

Who knows what happens next.

The Capitals will be underdogs against the Presidents’ Trophy winning New York Rangers, who crushed the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games, allowing just eight goals along the way.

But if this is a different Washington Capitals team, a team built for challenges and long, grueling playoff series, then it seems doubtless the next round will likewise be hotly contested.

Because the Capitals proved Monday night that this notion of change, the narrative of being something different, accomplishing something different in the playoffs, is now not just an idea but a reality.