Readying for the Storm

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty

Here we go again.

Saturday night inside Madison Square Garden, the Washington Capitals will play a game seven in which one team is the favorite.  One team had the banner regular season.  One team led the Eastern Conference in points.  One team is a betting favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

Sound familiar to a Capitals fan?

It should.  But as we all know, this year, is different.  This year, the Capitals are the upstart underdog, the team pushing the top seeded club to the brink for a decisive game seven on the road.  It is their opponent, the New York Rangers, that have the MVP candidate, the all-star coach, and the top seed in the Conference.  And, both among most pundits and in Las Vegas, it is the Rangers that are expected to win.

For the core of these Washington Capitals, this will be the sixth game seven that they have played as a group.  Brooks Laich, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green have compiled a 2-3 record in those decisive games, disappointing results to say the least.  Of course, prior to this year, that group had played all of their game sevens inside Verizon Center, a period in which they put together a 1-3 record.

In the one road game seven that they have played in the last six years?  A thrilling 2-1 victory over the Bruins last month that sent the Stanley Cup champions to the golf course.

In sports, a lot of focus – media, player, and organizational – is often placed on home ice advantage, and how the regular season is so important because if you are the top seed, you earn the right to home ice throughout the Conference playoffs.  But to some of the Capitals, they say the mindset is different – and decidedly better – when you are heading in to an opposing team’s building for the final game of a playoff series, because it allows you to be a bit more relaxed, and a little bit less under pressure.

“I would say it’s a different mindset,” said center Nicklas Backstrom following practice on Friday.  “I mean we don’t have the pressure on us.  They are the number one seed and they have the pressure.  We just have to go up there and throw everything we have at them.”

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“You know, I say it doesn’t, but it does,” said Karl Alzner about the change to him.  “Just because we know that [the Rangers’] feeling, and if they were to lose to us…what people would say with them having as good a season and us not as good.  I think that there is more pressure on them, because it’s their building, too, to win.”

In the past handling that pressure on home ice was an undeniable issue that the Capitals had.  In previous game sevens during the era of the “Young Guns,” Washington has started games timidly and in some cases downright awful, such as game seven of the 2009 Conference semifinals against the Penguins.  Whether that was nerves, bad luck, or a simple lack of preparation, we will never know.  But it changed this year – and, funnily enough, it may have to do with the removal of home ice from the equation.

“It’s a hard thing, really, to describe,” added Brooks Laich.  “In Boston, what we said, was that it was the entire world against us, and all the pressure was on them.  When you’re playing at home I think there is an added pressure to win, and when you’re on the road, you’ve got 18, 19 thousand fans that hate you, the other team hates you, and it really united your team and makes you stick together.  You know, I’d love to play game seven at home, but on the road, our team feels really comfortable.  I think it can help you.”

Nevertheless, the Capitals aren’t treating these road game sevens like they are anything less than monumental games not only for this incarnation of the Capitals, but also for the franchise.  They know it’s going to be tough, and they know that there is undoubtedly pressure on them to perform from a long term organizational standpoint as well.  But they also know that their experience with Boston in the first round will help them this time around.

“You feel the power from the fans,” said veteran Roman Hamrlik, who was on the Montreal Canadiens team that did to the Capitals what Washington is now trying to accomplish against New York in 2010.  “The cheering, you are a little bit nervous…the other team is really going to push.  But we have to play the same way we have.  Just have a good start, score an early goal, and play with some confidence.  We hope they [the Rangers] are gonna be a bit nervous, but we know they’re going to come hard.  We have to be ready from the first minute.”

“The more you do something, the more you expect,” added coach Dale Hunter.  “But it comes down to one game now.  There’s nothing better than a game seven, this is what you remember when you’re my age.  It’s gonna come down to who makes the hockey plays.”

The Rangers, however, have never lost a game seven inside Madison Square Garden, dating back to their founding in 1926.  Most memorable among those game seven victories was their win over the Canucks in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.  But Hunter, and his team, don’t care.  They know how good the Rangers are, but they know that they are good, too.  They have proved it.

It’s clear that this team is going to fight tooth and nail for everything in this game, just as they have the entire playoffs.  They want it, and they’re going to try and take it from a team, and a coach, that seems to want it just as much.

And no matter what the result, it certainly seems as though as Hunter knows that his team will have given it all.  He expects nothing less.

“You just have to go out there and battle, leave it all on the ice,” added Hunter with his trademark smile.  “I have no problem with that.”

None of us should, either.

Harry Hawkings is a college student who is credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here.