“We had to grind our way in,” Brooks Laich, the game’s No. 1 star said after the Caps held on to beat Florida, 4-2, on Thursday night and, with help from Philadelphia, clinch their fifth straight berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Laich, of course, was the player who didn’t balk Tuesday when asked in an interview with 106.7 The Fan which of the Caps’ missed chances would smart the most if the team failed to make the postseason. “We’re making the playoffs,” he declared, like any player who wanted to face his teammates with a straight face again would say when asked a hypothetical about not making the playoffs. (The alternative, “You know, guys, I can’t see us doing it this year. We just don’t have the heart,” would be a much bigger story, no?)
Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, whose team was in a scrap with the Capitals for the lone playoff spot remaining in the Eastern Conference, leaped at the opportunity to shoot back that Laich was trying to sound like Mark Messier of the Rangers guaranteeing a Game 7 victory in the Eastern Conference finals in 1994, adding that this is a time when teams like the Caps get tight. Did we mention, as of about 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Ryan Miller isn’t going to the postseason and Brooks Laich is?
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” Laich began. “I was expressing a belief in my teammates, that’s it.”
Finally, someone actually believed in this team.
Because even through the cacophonous roar of that crowd when the Caps went up 3-0, there were more than a few doubters with about 15 minutes left in the third period.
For starters, someone fell on the starting goalie’s left knee in the second period. Suddenly the impenetrable Michal Neuvirth limps off toward the trainer’s room. Out comes cold-as-ice Braden Holtby, who fell apart in net the last time he played in a big NHL game that mattered.
The last 15 minutes of Thursday’s game had all the trappings of a season-defining loss, the night the Capitals would bring all their liabilities to bear. All the nights they jumped out to leads and then started retreating in Coach Dale Hunter’s prevent defense were coming back to haunt them, it seemed.
With their postseason in purgatory and their healthy three-goal lead down to a perilous one, a struggling Southeast Division leader began to find its bearings.
All Florida needed was one point — a trip to overtime — to notch the division title. And a Panthers win would have put the Capitals on the brink of missing the playoffs with one game left.