I don’t know what to think anymore.
Let me take that back. I don’t know HOW to think anymore.
Just let me be in this state of emotional blackout for a handful of days. Let me not wake up from this dream that should have happened years ago.
That’s ecause a professional sports team from my city finally made it to the Conference Finals.
Clearly, every Penguins fan alive will come back at us Caps fans with the senseless banners that are in the Capital One Arena rafters and how we still can’t hold their jock strap towards anything meaningful with regards to titles and sporting legends. But as far as I’m concerned, they can all sourpuss their way back to Market Square, for all I care.
This should have come sooner. And it should have happened in 2010 and 2017 with titles to boot. But for one day, the past is the past, and this city can start anew. Most importantly, the players and the staff for this hockey team can start anew.
It couldn’t have been done any other way. The 2003 Boston Red Sox needed to beat the Yankees while overcoming a 3-0 series deficit to win the World Series. The 2016 Chicago Cubs needed a somewhat convenient rain delay to happen so they can regroup after losing a lead in the bottom of the 9th in Game 7 against Cleveland with a heart-wrenching game-tying home run that would have made any sane human being cry and go home. This most recent Philadelphia Eagles needed “Philly Philly“, “Dreams and Nightmares” and one forced fumble on Tom Brady in an offensive shootout to beat the New England Patriots put an end to over a half-century of pain. That’s how exorcising demons work. As I said last year, you don’t go around piercing a vampire with a stake. You have to go through the heart as well.
In this most recent case, Washington had to beat Pittsburgh. Not only that, but they had to do it with a weakened roster from one of the most miserable offseasons imaginable and some of the most inexplicable coaching imaginable. The also had to do it without Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom: three top six forwards that, when utilized correctly, are some of the most invaluable pieces to the team. Backstrom’s hand injury easily was the most devastating for how critical he has been on both sides of the rink. Injuries like the one he suffered in Game 5 don’t just heal in days.
In games past, let alone years past, Washington would have folded the tent. Trotz probably would have implemented #TopLineDSP again and we would all see how Game 7 would have turned out: which probably would have ended horribly anyway. Instead, the Capitals played like they haven’t skipped a beat. Via the eye test, Lars Eller has been immense all season long and he was fantastic in shutting down the Evgeni Malkin line with T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana.
Not only that, but Nathan Walker and #TopLineChandlerStephenson make Apolo Ohno blush with how fast they were constantly going on the forecheck and in zone entries. They made Alex Chiasson remember what it was like to play with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan from a few years back with the first goal of the game and boy did they make #TopLineDominikSimon look like the dumbest decision in the entire Mike Sullivan era. They also might as well have sent Tom Kuhnackl to the minors for all eternity after last night.
In all, I’m still baffled in disbelief how the Capitals have been able to shut down Pittsburgh’s forwards for the vast majority of the series. For the exception of Games 2 and 5, the Penguins just couldn’t generate speed the exact same way they did for the entire series like they have been doing in years past. If you’re looking for evidence, look no further than the score-adjusted even strength shot attempt rates Natural Stat Trick gave of Pittsburgh’s offensive rust. They read as follows from each game in the second round: 49.9, 74.9, 43.0, 48.2 77.3 and 43.7 per hour. The league average during the regular season is between 57-58 shot attempts per hour.
But even as the Penguins couldn’t muster anything in that department, they were still deadly on the power play, as evidenced by the players they can throw out whenever they want, the league-leading 26.2% efficiency and the 114.5 shot attempts per hour they ended up generating this series. Braden Holtby had to step up in a way he hasn’t been able to all season and over the past 15 months. Not only did he pull it off, he reminded everyone what it was like to see him steal series like he did as a rookie in 2012. Now, Holtby is coming into the Conference finals with eight of his ten starts being deemed quality variety. If you were to take Games 1 and 3 out of the equation, you would have looked at a 93.6% save percentage for Holtby all postseason. Instead, it’s more like a slightly above league-average 92.1% save percentage, but what are you going to do with small sample sizes.
Now the Capitals are into foreign territory: something this group of players never have felt and something this city hasn’t experienced since 1998. They will be getting all the attention locally and within the hockey world while probably facing the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. But this team has now shown that there’s a positive mentality that hasn’t been witnessed in a generation. It was refreshing after last night’s overtime win that everyone involved the postgame hoopla, from the players to the coaches to Ted Leonsis to the ex-players and the local media, couldn’t implore enough that this was only the halfway point of their journey. Boy am I glad there is more to come.