ARLINGTON, Va. -- And, in the end, Game 7 is exactly where two teams with so much baggage trailing behind them, so much to prove, and so much optimism about the future should be.
The New York Islanders, haunted by the ghosts of their franchise's dynasty years, and the Washington Capitals, haunted by their failure to translate superior talent and skill into meaningful playoff success, will meet at the Verizon Center on Monday night with a chance to create a new narrative.
Of course, only one team will achieve the goal and move on to tell another story next week against the New York Rangers.
For the other team, this series will be yet another brick on their wall of disappointment and regret.
“It’s kind of the game we all wait for. You don’t want to have to be in any do-or-die games, but at the same time, it’s super-exciting just because there’s so much at stake,” Washington defenseman Karl Alzner said of the deciding game in this first-round series.
“You see who can rise to that occasion, that challenge. And knowing that you might have that feeling, that excited feeling at the end of the game, is something that kind of drives you. So, it’s a lot of fun. Obviously, a little nerve-wracking, but you can’t play nervous because we’ve seen what’s happened when we’ve played nervous; we’ve got lit up before in games like that before. It’s going out there and just playing, having fun, [be] confident, and when we do that we put together some good games.”
Of all the first-round series in this postseason, no matchup has had the physicality of the Islanders-Capitals series.
It has been a street fight from the moment the series began.
The Capitals and Islanders have combined for 530 hits, an average of just north of 88 hits per game in what has at times been a nasty, emotional series.
Each team has paid a price.
The Islanders, already without Travis Hamonic before the series, lost defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky to a thunderous hit by Tom Wilson in Game 4, and Calvin de Haan missed Game 6 after being injured in Game 5, leaving Isles coach Jack Capuano to dress Scott Mayfield, 22, and Matt Donovan, 24, both defensemen playing in their first NHL playoff games in Game 6.
And still the Islanders came up with a season-saving 3-1 victory to send the series back to the Verizon Center for Monday’s deciding tilt.
“We’ve got a relentless bunch of guys in here,” Capuano said Sunday, his voice still hoarse from the effort of trying to make himself heard above the din at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The coaching staff had meetings with the players to talk about minor adjustments in the lead-up to Monday night, but at this stage it’s really in the hands of the players.
“Then you get out of the way,” Capuano said.
“These guys want to stick together. They want to fight for another day. They’re a close bunch of guys.”
The Islanders have not won a playoff round since 1993, which happens to coincide with the last time they won a Game 7.
They are set to move into Barclays Center in Brooklyn next season, so their charge to the playoffs followed by their emotional tilt with the Caps has provided a terrific send-off to the old barn on Long Island. Of course, the Isles would like the send-off to last a little longer, would love to mark the move with something more than a "this team looks like it could be good in a few years" refrain.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t happen [at the end of the team’s time at the Coliseum],” Islanders forward Kyle Okposo told reporters before the team headed to Washington. "We want to get back and keep playing games here. Tomorrow, for a lot of guys, is the biggest game of their lives.
“This is what you do, what you dream of when you are a kid playing in your driveway or whatever, scoring a big goal in Game 7. It’s our team’s time to play well and go out there and win a hockey game.”
The Capitals, on the other hand, are trying to prove they are a different team than previous incarnations -- that their identity is different, that they can win these kinds of games and these kinds of series, even though history suggests they're not different.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz spoke to his players about those issues Sunday, and while he would not share exactly what was said in their meetings, you could glean from what he believes about these kinds of games the message that was imparted.
“I just want them to leave their best game out there," Trotz said. "Leave your best game out there, and if it’s good enough you win, and if it’s not you can look back and say, 'Hey, I left it all out there, I don’t think I have an ounce of anything left to give.' If you do that, then the results, good or bad, you can keep your head up high.”
The longtime Nashville coach has never coached in a Game 7 at this level, and he joked that the last time he did so was in the American Hockey League when he had a mullet.
But many of his players have played in Game 7s at the NHL level, and the Caps have not had a particularly good time of it. With captain Alex Ovechkin in the lineup, the Caps are 1-4 in Game 7s at home, with losses to the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens and Rangers. The Caps have not been beyond the second round of the playoffs since their lone trip to the finals, in 1998.
“We’re not worried about the historic element,” Troy Brouwer said, cutting off a question even before it had been fully asked on Sunday.
Trotz, though, was more philosophical about the role the disappointments of the past may play in his team’s thought process.
“I think they’ve learned. I hope they’ve learned," Trotz said. "You learn something from every series. What do you learn? Different guys will learn different things. But I think you have to embrace everything. Embrace a Game 7. The great thing is, if you’ve had failures in the past, two things: A) Odds are on your side that you’re going to break that trend; the other thing is that the odds are that you can make some history on your own and the past doesn’t really matter.”
And there it is.
Does it matter that the Islanders have gone 0-for-13 on the power play through six games?
Does it matter that the Capitals have allowed the first goal in five of the six games, and all three games at Verizon Center?
Not if one of these teams is able to rise above those trends in Game 7.
“Whoever is willing to put more on the line will come out with a victory," Trotz said. "And that’s it in its simplest terms. That’s not X’s and O’s, that’s just, at its simplest terms, whoever is willing to put more on the line, lay it on the line, the more opportunity [they have] to have a chance to win."
It seems unlikely any of the injured Islanders will return for action in Game 7, and Trotz said injured center Eric Fehr is still not ready to return to action even though he was on the ice Sunday, a day off for the rest of his teammates. Curtis Glencross will likely go into the Caps lineup, with Andre Burakovsky a candidate to come out.
As for lessons learned along the way in Game 7s, Alzner figures there are a few.
“There’s a lot of pretty good lessons," he said. "One of them is having a short memory. Being able to forget about being scored on, being able to forget about what happened the game before, and then also knowing you have to throw everything out there. You can’t wait until the third period, you can’t wait until you’re down, it’s right from the start. That’s something that’s very important."
As for whether he’s won or lost those games in the past, he hasn’t given that much thought.
“Honestly, I haven’t even thought about the records in Game 7s," Alzner said. "We’re a different team, and each year there’s a different challenge, and this year I think our team is good at handling a lot of these challenges that we’ve come across. I’m not worried about that. I’m just worried about making sure I have my best game. I think everybody’s in the same boat.”
It’s a sentiment that seems universal, regardless of the color of the jersey that will be worn Monday night.