Saturday night in Florida, an arena will fill up with fans wearing white and blue, and they’ll be handed a noisemaker or a light-up bracelet or some sort of trinket meant to increase the energy of their beloved Tampa Bay Lightning.
It’s kind of an intimidating environment. The Washington Capitals might want to schedule the rest of their series there.
It’s time for all the home-cooking jokes you can muster — Who used spoiled ingredients? Crab cake give you food poisoning? — because the Capitals have a crisis on their hands. On paper, even after their 4-2 loss to the Lightning on Thursday night, the Eastern Conference finals are tied at two games apiece.
A best-of-three for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup? Nobody at Capital One Arena in D.C. — player or fan, coach or concessionaire — wouldn’t have taken that when the season began.
The crisis, though, is that the Capitals can’t deliver in their own building. They came here looking like a contender to win the big trophy, up two games and having wounded the Lightning’s psyche. They leave here having injected the Lightning with confidence and instilled — I’m sorry, but it’s true — some of the same old questions in their own fan base, which can’t help but be jittery based on 44 years of crumbles.
Here is what they’re dealing with in these playoffs:
On home ice, the Capitals are 3-5, including the two losses to Tampa Bay this week.
On the road, the Capitals are 7-1.
Hey, maybe they can move up that flight?
“I know when we go on the road, I think maybe we feel a bit more relaxed, and when we do make mistakes, maybe we don’t let the groaning affect us or whatnot,” veteran defenceman Brooks Orpik said before Game 4. “I mean, that being said, I think we should be probably mentally stronger to not let that affect us.”
Groaning, affecting them? How about booing? Because that’s what happened at the end of the first period, by which time the Capitals had frittered away their 1-0 lead because they allowed the mighty Lightning power play even one effort, and they had failed on all three of their own power plays.
This isn’t, though, about completely gagging, because in the second period the Capitals played wonderfully, and during one stretch they went more than 20 minutes without allowing the Lightning a shot, and at one point they had 28 shots and Tampa had just nine. They played so well for so long.
And they lost.
This should make no sense, of course. Not a single team that made the playoffs had a losing record at home. Forget about where the heart is. It’s where your head hits your own pillow, where your routine doesn’t change, where the support system is in place. And yet, here’s Braden Holtby before Game 4, quietly emphatic: “It’s easier to play on the road.”
“It’s always that way on the road,” he said. “Any team would say that.”
Any team? Really? Why?
“Because you’re not focused on the excitement of your fans and all that,” Holtby said. “They bring you energy in good ways, but at the same time, you need to stay realistic and play your game.”
Soooooo, then. Let’s just go back to “this makes no sense.”
And we have to be fair, too: The Capitals’ loss Thursday means that home teams are now just 34-39 in these playoffs. But that only adds to the riddle.
“It’s the million-dollar question right now,” Tampa Bay defenceman Ryan Callahan said.
Washington can’t really answer it. The Capitals, during the regular season, went 28-11-2 at home. So essentially two out of three times, those who rocked the red inside got to rock it happily as they walked to their cars or the subway system.
During the playoffs? The odds they’re miserable is now better than 50-50. In the second round against Pittsburgh, when the Capitals took the lead in the series by grinding out a home win in the fifth game, it was my strong belief that Washington needed to close the thing out vs. the Penguins in Pittsburgh in Game 6. Tie their building up in knots. Feed not off the noise at home but off the silence on the road. And for goodness sake, don’t leave it to a seventh game on F Street, because seventh games on F Street are nothing if not nauseating.
And so the Caps won in Pittsburgh. And no one had to find out what it would have been like in an all-or-nothing affair. Perhaps it’s fortunate, then, that if this series goes seven, the decider will be in Florida.
This isn’t, though, just about how the Capitals have played in the comfort of their own arena — and by “comfort,” I of course mean “cauldron.” It’s also about how they play when they’re sleeping in hotels and busing to the arena. Thus, the advice of Washington coach Barry Trotz, to his own team: “Just play the way we do on the road.”
“We’re invested there,” Trotz continued. “We’re playing with real good focus. I don’t think we’re as focused as we have been normally on the road. So just pretend you’re on the road. All the buildings are pretty well the same these days.”
Um, Barry. All the buildings aren’t filled with people wearing red sweaters with “Backstrom” and “Ovechkin” and “Holtby” emblazoned across their backs. All the buildings don’t unleash the fury late in the third period. All the buildings don’t have your own cars in your own spots in the garage deck below.
What was that Under Armour ad with Ralph Friedgen all those years ago? Right, right. “This is our house!” Where the Caps are concerned, it’s their house, and before the guests arrive they make sure they vacuum the floors and wipe down the counters, fluff the pillows, pour some cold drinks and smile upon entry.
And when the Caps go on the road? They are rude and belligerent. They knock stuff over.
“It’s ‘us against the world’ when we’re on the road,” Trotz said.
At home, it appears it’s us against ourselves.
When the Lightning iced Game 4 by scoring an empty-netter with 1.5 seconds on the clock, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin shattered his stick on the crossbar of the Washington goal. He was left holding the shaft, which he discarded on the ice. There is at least one more hockey game to be played in D.C., Game 6 on Monday night. If you asked Ovechkin, in that moment, “Hey, want to play it in Tampa instead?” the answer would have been obvious.