The Capitals and Rangers face off tomorrow night in Game 7 of their second-round series, setting up a dramatic showdown that seemed unlikely just a few days ago. The Rangers looked like they were in big trouble when they fell behind 3-1 in the series, and they seemed all but done when the Caps held a lead late in Game 5. But a New York comeback has flipped the series around, and now the Rangers head into Game 7 in their own building with all the momentum. Who could have seen this coming?
Well, any Capitals fan could have, if we’re being honest. After all, this is a franchise that carries a certain reputation when it comes to blowing playoff leads. In fact, a loss tomorrow would mark the 10th time in franchise history that the Capitals found a way to lose a series in which they held a two-game lead. That’s not easy to do; historically, teams that lead a series 3-1 go on to win 90 percent of the time, with those that lead 2-0 faring almost as well. And yet the Capitals find a way to do it every few years. That’s almost impressive.
So in the lead-up to Game 7 and what could be yet another Capitals’ collapse, let’s take a trip back through the history of some of those series that got away. Maybe we can learn a few lessons that will help this year’s team avoid a similar fate. Or maybe we’ll just call it a dry run for the inevitable. Either way, it should make for a fun look back.1
1985, first round, New York Islanders
“Fun” does not apply for Washington Capitals fans.
The Capitals: This was a good young Caps team featuring three future Hall of Famers just entering their primes in Mike Gartner, Larry Murphy, and Scott Stevens. They finished the season with 101 points.
The opponents: The Islanders were at the tail end of the Bossy/Potvin/Trottier dynasty; they had won the conference five straight years and still had most of the core that had won four consecutive Cups from 1980 to 1983. But they had struggled to stay over .500 and finished 15 points back of the Caps.
The lead: Washington took the first two games in overtime in what was then a best-of-five opening-round format. No team in NHL history had ever blown a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five series.
The collapse: The series went back to Uniondale, where the Islanders stayed alive with a pair of wins. That set up a deciding game in Washington, in which goals by Brent Sutter and Anders Kallur were enough for the Isles to edge the Capitals, 2-1, and take the series.
The lesson: Watch out for those New York teams that lost in the Stanley Cup final the year before.
Heartbreak rating: 5/10. It’s never fun to become the first team in NHL history to squander a specific type of lead, but somebody has to be first. At least they got it over with quickly, right?
1987, first round, New York Islanders
The Capitals: A slightly older and wiser version of the 1985 squad, these Capitals featured names like Mike Ridley, Kevin Hatcher, and Michal Pivonka, who would become the core of the late-’80s/early-’90s teams.
The opponents: The Islanders still featured many of their legendary names, but were now four years removed from their last Cup and firmly transitioning into the Pat LaFontaine era.
The lead: After splitting the first two games in Washington, the Caps stole Games 3 and 4 on the road, giving up only one goal in the process and heading back home with a commanding 3-1 series lead.
The collapse: The Islanders took Game 5 by a 4-2 final, then held on for a 5-4 win in Game 6 at home. That set up a seventh game in Washington, and it turned out to be a classic: the Easter Epic, a quadruple-overtime marathon that ended on LaFontaine’s long-distance bomb.
The lesson: Why settle for losing one Game 7 when you can lose the equivalent of two in the same night?
Heartbreak rating: 9/10. This was the first time in NHL history that a team had blown a 3-1 series lead,2 and the drama of the final game made the loss devastating — Bob Mason’s stunned drop to one knee is still burned into the minds of old-time Caps fans. I’d say it can’t possibly get any worse than this, but I’d be worried that this year’s Caps would take that as a challenge.
1992, first round, Pittsburgh Penguins
Not counting the two times a team had come all the way back from 3-0.
The Capitals: Gartner, Murphy, and Stevens had all moved on, replaced by a young core that included Peter Bondra. But the most recognizable face may have been veteran Dale Hunter, who’d been acquired from Quebec after the 1987 collapse.
The opponents: The defending Stanley Cup champions were built around Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, and a young Jaromir Jagr. Despite all of that impressive talent, the Pens finished the season with just 87 points, so Washington held home ice.
The lead: After taking the first two at home, the Caps dropped Game 3 in Pittsburgh. But they responded by winning a 7-2 laugher in Game 4 and headed home with a 3-1 series lead.
The collapse: The Penguins won Game 5 thanks in part to a two-point night from Bryan Trottier (who’d also been on both of the Islanders teams from the previous two comebacks). Game 6 was tied late before Lemieux took over and scored twice. In Game 7, Francis had three assists and the Pens got goals from future Hall of Famers Lemieux, Jagr, and Joe Mullen to take a 3-1 final and win the series. Elvis has just left the building.
The lesson: Stay away from any team that’s ever been associated with Bryan Trottier and you should be fine. Oh, hey, what’s this …
Heartbreak rating: 6/10. By this point, the Caps’ “playoff choker” label had been pretty firmly affixed.
1995, first round, Pittsburgh Penguins
The Capitals: This year featured much of the same cast of characters as the 1992 squad, but with a twist: The Capitals were led by Jim Carey, a 20-year-old rookie goalie who’d go on to win the Vezina the next year before … well, we’ll get to that.
The opponents: Oh, good, these guys again. This year’s Penguins didn’t have Lemieux, who sat out the season for health reasons, but they were still pretty stacked and had the third-best record in the league during the lockout-shortened regular season.
The lead: The teams split the first two games in Pittsburgh before the Caps returned home to take Games 3 and 4 by identical 6-2 scores. That gave Washington a 3-1 series lead, so the Penguins had them pretty much right where they wanted them.
The collapse: Game 5 went to overtime, where tough-guy Pens defenseman Francois Leroux somehow turned into Paul Coffey to set up Luc Robitaille’s winner. That was pretty much it for Washington; the Penguins took Games 6 and 7 by a combined score of 10-1.
The lesson: If you’re up 3-1 in the series, definitely don’t lose Game 5 in overtime.
Heartbreak rating: 3/10. At this point, I don’t think any Capitals fan was really surprised by this. Besides, they were probably too busy praying that they wouldn’t have to play the Penguins in the first round ever again.
1996, first round, Pittsburgh Penguins
The Capitals: Pretty much the same as the year before.
The opponents: Robitaille was gone, but Lemieux was back, so … yeah, you see where this is going.
The lead: Despite being heavy underdogs, the Caps went into Pittsburgh and won the opening two games, returning home with a 2-0 series lead. “What could possibly go wrong?” asked Washington fans while pouring paint thinner into a whiskey bottle.
The collapse: The Penguins won four straight. The most memorable of those was Game 4, a weird classic that saw Lemieux kicked out for fighting, an unsuccessful penalty shot in overtime, and Petr Nedved’s winner in the fourth overtime.
Along the way, the Pens also basically ruined Carey as a top-tier goaltender — legend has it that they figured out he couldn’t go side to side, and they used that knowledge to light him up. Word got around, Carey was never a full-time starter again, and his NHL career was over before he turned 25.
The lesson: Don’t get too attached to amazing young goalies; they’ll just break your heart.
Heartbreak rating: 5/10. Quadruple overtime again. Nice touch, hockey gods.
2003, first round, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Capitals: Seven years after the last collapse, the Caps were a completely different team. They were also old, and not especially good. This was during the brief and uninspiring “Oh yeah, Jaromir Jagr once played for Washington” era.
The opponents: While this was pretty much the same Lightning team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup in 2004, at this point the franchise had never won a playoff series in its 11-year history.
The lead: The Caps went into Tampa and took the first two games, returning home with a 2-0 series lead. Young fans assumed this was a good thing. Old fans just shook their heads at the foolishness of youth.
The collapse: The Caps had a chance at the dagger in Game 3 but dropped a 4-3 decision in overtime. From there, the scoring dried up, as Washington managed just three goals over the rest of the series. The end came in Game 6 on Martin St. Louis’s triple-overtime winner while the Caps were serving a too-many-men penalty.
The lesson: Watch out for that Martin St. Louis guy, he’s good.
Heartbreak rating: 2/10. Nobody really remembers this series, and it even preceded some good news — the Caps bottomed out in 2003-04, then won the draft lottery and picked Alexander Ovechkin first overall. And besides, at least it wasn’t the damn Penguins again.
2009, second round, Pittsburgh Penguins
The Capitals: The Capitals had Ovechkin and maybe some other guys.
The opponents: The Penguins had Sidney Crosby and maybe some other guys. (These two sections were brought to you by the NHL’s marketing department.)
The lead: Ironically, this series followed on the heels of a Capitals comeback in Round 1; they beat the Rangers in seven after trailing 2-0 and 3-1 in the series. They parlayed that momentum into a 2-0 lead over the Penguins, winning a pair of one-goal games at home.
The collapse: In Game 3, the Caps scored late in regulation to force overtime but lost on Kris Letang’s blast off a faceoff. That was the first of three straight losses, but a Game 6 Caps win in overtime forced the series back to Washington for Game 7. That set the stage for what should have been a classic; instead, we got a blowout.
The lesson: Beating the Rangers in seven games is pointless because something even worse will just happen the following round.
Heartbreak rating: 8/10. Caps fans were more than used to all of this by now, so it shouldn’t have stung much. Except … the Ovechkin era was supposed to be different, you know? If anything, the Round 1 comeback over the Rangers was seen as evidence that things had finally changed in Washington. Instead, this series was a cruel reminder that the Caps were still the Caps. (Seeing the Penguins go on to win the Cup didn’t help.)
2010, first round, Montreal Canadiens
The Capitals: By now, the Capitals were the league’s best regular-season team, racking up 121 points to run away with the Presidents’ Trophy. Offensively, they were close to unstoppable; Ovechkin scored 50, Alexander Semin added 40, and Nicklas Backstrom topped 100 points. Defensively, they were just average, but offense wins in the playoffs, right?
The opponents: The 2010 Habs were a no. 8 seed who’d backed into the playoffs and whose second-leading scorer was Scott Gomez. They were bad.
The lead: After dropping Game 1 in overtime, the Capitals won three straight, pumping home 17 goals in the process. That onslaught was enough to have the Canadiens bouncing back and forth between Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak in net, with neither guy having any answers for the Capitals’ firepower.
The collapse: Halak transformed into Dominik Hasek in an inflatable sumo suit, holding the Caps to just one goal in each of the final three games while making 131 saves, many of them ridiculous. Game 7 was a 2-1 heartbreaker that featured a controversial waved-off goal and a late comeback attempt that fell one goal short.
The lesson: Maybe forfeit the first few games of each series, just to be safe?
Heartbreak rating: 10/10. I’m awarding some bonus points in hindsight, because this loss made the Capitals’ organization lose its mind. Instead of accepting that it was a very good team that had the bad luck to run into a crazy-hot goalie, it suffered a crisis of confidence and became convinced it had to remake itself as a defensive team. Bruce Boudreau was fired 19 months later, leading to a revolving door of coaches, and everyone decided Ovechkin was somehow the problem (even as he kept winning MVPs). The fog didn’t really seem to lift until this season, and it may have cost this team a Cup run or two.
2013, first round, New York Rangers
The Capitals: You know the usual names: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Holtby, Carlson, Green, Brouwer …
The opponents: You know all these guys, too: Lundqvist, Nash, McDonagh, Stepan, Kreider …
The lead: The Capitals won the first two games at home to take a 2-0 series lead. Then guess what happened? I bet you’ll never guess what happened.
The collapse: A pair of one-goal losses in New York evened the series, but Mike Ribeiro’s overtime winner in Game 5 gave the Caps the series lead. It was also the last goal they’d score; Henrik Lundqvist’s back-to-back shutouts gave the Rangers the win in seven.
The lesson: Life is horrible and you should never care about anything.
Heartbreak rating: N/A. Heart? What’s a heart? Oh, that squishy thing in my chest? Yeah, I tore it out and flushed it down the toilet years ago. It’s just easier this way.
2015, second round, New York Rangers
The Capitals: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Holtby, Carlson, Green, Brouwer. Hey, wait a second …
The opponents: Lundqvist, Nash, McDonagh, Stepan, Kreider. Oh, good Lord, no, it’s all happening again …
The lead: After splitting the opening two games in New York, the Caps came home and took both games to build yet another 3-1 lead. I’ve seen this movie before and I don’t like how it ends.
The collapse: Well, technically it hasn’t happened yet, since Game 7 is still a day away. But the script has been familiar. The Capitals came agonizingly close to ending the series in Game 5, holding a 1-0 lead until a game-tying goal from Chris Kreider with less than two minutes left forced overtime, which Ryan McDonagh won 10 minutes in. Back home for Game 6, they fell behind early and mounted a frantic comeback attempt that fell just short.
And that leads us to Game 7. With two equally matched teams, anything can happen. Maybe the Capitals find a way to close it out, and we all have a good laugh about the whole “collapse” thing. Or maybe history repeats itself yet again, and Caps fans get to throw one more onto the pile.
The lesson: To be determined.
Heartbreak rating: Let’s not even think about it.