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
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.