How Is This Real Life?

Posted May 24, 2018

Absolutely nothing about game seven against the Tampa Bay Lightning felt real in the moment, nor does it feel real after the fact.

First, the Capitals staff laid out rally towels covering one section of Capital One Arena for a watch party. Fans came in force to cover the entire lower bowl in red, then more fans coated the second level of seats as well. Lines stretched out the doors on 7th and F Streets as more and more fans poured in to the concourse.

For the first time in a long time in the Ovechkin Era, the Capitals were not pegged as early-season Stanley Cup favorites. The team was not picked to have THIS year be the year to do that hockey championship thing. Some smart hockey people thought this Capitals team — dubbed a lesser and incomplete team compared to the President’s Trophy champions of years past — may not make the playoffs.

So much for all that malarkey.

Alex Ovechkin, the franchise cornerstone and lightning rod for criticism throughout his lengthy career, rocketed a patented one-timer from the left face-off circle to beat Andrei Vasilevskiy. On the first shot of the game. The first shot of any team. The first shot of a game seven, in the third round of the playoffs.

Then came the to-be-expected surges from Tampa. Minutes elapsed, time ticked away, and Braden Holtby stopped each one. He did not allow a goal in this series — to a Tampa offense that ranked top of the league in goal differential at +60 over the season — for the last seven periods he played. What is real life?

Yanni Gourde had his Esa Tikkanen moment, with less than two feet of blue ice separating him from a tie game, missing a yawning net. With Brooks Orpik, another subject of criticism in his tenure in D.C., putting enough pressure on Gourde’s stick to have him heel his shot and send it wide. Tampa would not get that close for the rest of the game.

Andre Burakovsky, a healthy scratch earlier in this series, scored not once, but twice. The Capitals did not need either of his goals to win the game, but for a player who was sent to the Hershey Bears a few years ago, they go a long way.

Players up and down the lineup, from Devante Smith-Pelley to T.J Oshie, laid out to block shots. 15 different times, would-be Lightning shots did not find their way through to the net-front.

Forget the rebounds Holtby gave up, forget the penalties, forget the Tom Wilson fight taking away a potential scoring chance in the first period, and forget the narrative that Washington could not get it done when it counted. Dump all of that in your brain’s Recycle Bin, right click on it, and select “empty Recycle Bin.” It is time to shut up and believe in magic.

After nine eliminations — by Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Tampa Bay, New York Rangers, the Rangers again, and again, then Pittsburgh again, and Pittsburgh once more for good measure — in the nine postseason appearances of the Ovechkin Era Capitals, this story is not over in May. The “talk to me in June” joke will be laid to rest when the Capitals host the Vegas Golden Knights for game three.

It is OK to believe.