Caps banish history to force Game 7

WASHINGTON -- Maybe history is just stuff that happened the other day; something you have to kick to the side to get on with more important matters.

In the case of the Washington Capitals, the more important stuff turned out to be forcing a Game 7 on Saturday in Manhattan by virtue of a 2-1 victory in Game 6 against the New York Rangers.

And getting there meant confronting a rather nasty piece of recent history along the way.

One of the main storylines heading into Game 6 was how the Capitals would respond to the ghastly way in which they lost Game 5. The Caps, of course, led 2-1 in Monday's game until the waning moments of regulation when Joel Ward (who hadn't taken a penalty since Feb. 13) was assessed a double-minor for high sticking Carl Hagelin.

Brad Richards somehow snuck home the tying goal with 6.6 seconds left in regulation and, with the carry-over power play in effect, the Rangers ended it with a Marc Staal drive 1:35 into overtime.

The Caps talked about moving forward as they had done earlier in the series when they overcame a triple-overtime loss in Game 3 to come up with a big win in Game 4. But this, well, this was a specific kick in the shin guards. And let's be honest, would anyone have blamed the plucky Caps if they'd run out of juice in a playoff year that has already seen them dispatch the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in seven emotionally charged games?

Fast-forward to Wednesday's Game 6.

Just past the midpoint of the second period with the Caps owning a rare two-goal lead (just the third time in the playoffs it has happened for them), Jeff Halpern was assessed a double-minor for high sticking John Mitchell.

The circumstances were different, but the stakes were the same.

Would the Caps let history devour their Stanley Cup dreams?

Would the Rangers use the opportunity to once again steal victory from what looked like almost certain defeat?

"Obviously, I was probably counting down the clock more than anyone in the building," Halpern said.

"And obviously with what happened in Game 5, your first thought is negative. With a two-goal lead it could have been two bang-bang power play goals."

Ward (who scored the overtime winner in Game 7 in the first round) went into the game bearing the burden of having made a mistake that cost his team dearly. He would not know how great the price would ultimately be until Game 6 came to a close and there was still more hockey to be played this spring.

"You never want to be down a four-minute penalty, let's not kid ourselves," Ward said after Game 6.

Halpern, too, wondered for his four minutes in the penalty box whether there would be a similar price to pay for his mistake. Playing in place of the injured Jay Beagle, Halpern was in the lineup for the first time since March 23.

"That was a huge penalty kill by Holtsy," Halpern said. "It's a long four minutes in the box; the penalty kill did a great job."

The Rangers had some puck possession time and were credited with three shots on goal, but the time was marked more by a solid short-handed chance involving Matt Hendricks and Marcus Johansson and a booming shot by Mike Green that narrowly missed.

Did Hendricks think for a moment when the call was made, "Oh no, here we go again?"

"Well, you know you try not to let it sink too deep in your mind, obviously you want to think positive," he said.

"No, you can't let [that] creep into your mind at all because then you start getting doubts in your mind," added Troy Brouwer, another penalty-killing specialist.

"We know our penalty kill has been phenomenal all playoffs long, and it was an unlucky break that we took the four-minute penalty last game, so we weren't worried about it. We watched some video on it and made sure that we were making corrections and stuff. Our big focus was trying to win draws on the penalty kill as well. I thought we did a pretty good job of that."

As the time ticked away in the double minor, the Verizon Center crowd rose and the building seemed to vibrate as Halpern dashed back onto the ice.

"It gave us a lot of momentum, actually," Brouwer said. "The crowd was really into it, we were loving it. Halpy was pretty thankful and we know that he should have been out there killing with us. It's a tough situation for guys to be in. They never want to be in the box there, especially at an important time of the game."

The game, in many ways, was no different than any of the games the Capitals have played this spring. Of their 13 contests, 12 have been decided by one goal. They are 7-5 in those games now and still have not lost twice in a row this spring.

In each game, they seem to chart a course along the razor's edge.

On this night, they scored early on the power play thanks to an Alex Ovechkin blast 1:28 in and then went up 2-0 on a Jason Chimera goal less than two minutes before the Halpern penalty.

But this is a team that has grown accustomed, comfortable with the razor's edge.

"It's a big one. I think we earned it in a way that is going to benefit us in the long run," said netminder Braden Holtby, who continues to prove he has ice water running through his 22-year-old veins with another stellar 30-save outing.

If the penalty kill was a perfect tonic for forgetting the past, it was a bitter pill for the Rangers to swallow.

"Sucked," Rangers head coach John Tortorella said when asked about the failure of the Rangers' power play.

"It kills you."

The Rangers would score only one goal on this night, a Marian Gaborik shot that caromed off John Carlson in front of the Washington net with 50.5 seconds left in regulation. They never got another chance, so like the Capitals, they will play their second Game 7 in as many series.

Their task now is no different than the challenge faced and met by the Capitals in this game: forget the past, forget the chances that went by the board, forget what might have been.

"Yeah, it felt like we were pretty far from where we have to be to win a game like this," said netminder Henrik Lundqvist who stopped 21 of 23 shots. "It felt like we were not really close until the last 20 seconds."

It would seem a difficult task for any player, any team at this time of year. Some teams, though, seem to have developed a knack for just that kind of history banishing.