The best team won last night in Washington. Let’s get that part out of the way first.
Last night, the Washington Capitals were the better team. They held the New York Islanders to just 11 shots, an impressive defensive performance that established a new NHL record for the fewest shots allowed in a Game 7. Despite Jaroslav Halak looking like he was going to pull off another elimination-game miracle, the Caps’ effort was enough to secure a 2-1 win. So yes, the Capitals were the better team, for one night at least.
It also doesn’t matter if the best team won. Let’s go there next. It’s not like there’s ever a right answer at the end of a Game 7 in the NHL. There’s no justice. Nobody walks out of a Game 7 feeling good about themselves, or their team, or the future, or the world. Nobody is even happy during a Game 7. If you’re watching closely enough, you may lose the ability to ever be happy again.
And that’s assuming that you don’t care who wins. If you’re a fan of either team, your soul has already set itself on fire by the end of the first intermission.
Game 7s are awful things. In the modern NHL, where parity reigns and every decent team plays an ultra-disciplined system, most games are determined by a lucky bounce here or a bad call there. A seven-game series barely tells you anything these days. Hell, sometimes an 82-game season isn’t enough. One game? You’re going to take an entire year for two teams and try to boil it all down into one game? You might as well flip a coin. It’s madness. It’s borderline cruelty.
Last night, the Capitals and Islanders played a classic Game 7, one that hit all the standard notes. You had the scoreless first period, just to build the tension. You had the eerie maybe the next goal wins feel that descends sometime midway through the second. You had the opening goal, this one by Joel Ward, the one that briefly tricks you into thinking it will hold up. You had the tying goal with just a little bit of odor to it. You had the refs who won’t call anything — just one minor all game long, despite plenty of opportunities, because let ’em play, right? You had the one goaltender — Halak this time, although Braden Holtby had a strong series — who starts to seem like he’s just going to say screw it and win the whole thing single-handedly.
And it all sets up That Guy who makes The Play. In every Game 7, there’s always That Guy. Sometimes The Play is a good thing and sometimes it’s a mistake, but it decides the game, and That Guy is the player who’ll never pay for a beer again in one city, and who’ll forever have an F-bomb for a middle name in the other.
Last night, The Guy was Evgeny Kuznetsov, and The Play was a spectacular solo effort to score the winner with seven minutes left. Kuznetsov is 22 years old. He celebrated his very first birthday on May 19, 1993. Three days later, the Islanders beat the Canadiens in Game 4 of the conference final. That still stands as the last playoff win the Islanders have had past Round 1. Like I said, borderline cruelty.