TAMPA -- The Washington Capitals were supposed to be past all of this.
The talk of their past Stanley Cup Playoff failures was ostensibly put to rest when they reached the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998 by finally getting past the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.
Yet here they are again facing the same old narrative about being unable to come through when it matters most in the postseason. After winning the first two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning on the road, they've lost three in a row and face elimination in Game 6 of the best-of-7 series in Washington on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN1, TVAS.)
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"This group never seems to do anything really easy," coach Barry Trotz said Sunday.
If the path here had been different, there would have been no shame in the Capitals being in this position. The Lightning (54-23-5, 113 points) finished first in the Eastern Conference for a reason. After they rolled past the Boston Bruins, who finished one point behind them in the East, in five games in the second round, many expected them to do the same against the Capitals.
But the expectations changed after Washington won the first two games. That again made the Capitals the favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Final, a position they failed to live up to when they won the Presidents' Trophy each of the past two seasons.
Now if the Capitals lose this series, it will be remembered as another postseason failure rather than the year they finally vanquished the Penguins, their old nemesis who knocked them off in the second round each of the past two seasons.
"It's less than ideal," defenseman John Carlson said of going from up 2-0 to down 3-2. "But we've dealt with a lot this year. I think these guys are a very capable group that is very capable of winning the next game. That's all we're worried about."
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The Capitals' hope now lies in their track record of overcoming adversity this season.
It looked like it would be a struggle for them to qualify for the playoffs when they went 11-10-1 in their first 22 games. They responded by going 16-3-2 in their next 21 and finished 49-26-7 (105 points), first in the Metropolitan Division for the third consecutive season.
Then they promptly dropped the first two games of the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets before coming back to win in six. Few expected them to defeat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in the second round but they did, winning 2-1 in overtime in the clinching Game 6 despite missing forwards Nicklas Backstrom (right hand), Andre Burakovsky (upper body) and Tom Wilson (suspension).
"Our team this year definitely wasn't a Cinderella story, but I think for being a division winner, we had to claw our way most of the season," Carlson said. "Things didn't always go our way. I think we can draw from that for what's upcoming for us."
The first order of business is to win a home game Monday. Washington is 3-5 at Capital One Arena in the playoffs this year, including losses in Games 3 and 4 against Tampa Bay.
After the road team won the first four games of the series, the Lightning ended that trend by scoring 19 seconds into Game 5 on Saturday on their way to a 3-0 lead and a 3-2 victory.
The Capitals must do something similar to keep their Stanley Cup dreams alive.
"They did a good job coming out and scoring on the first shift, creating that atmosphere in their building," Wilson said. "We're going to have to do the same. It can be hard to play a road game when you get stepped on early. We can maybe take a page out of their book, make sure we get on them early, make sure we play the full game."
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The outside expectation now is that the Capitals will lose and complete another playoff collapse, living up to a history that includes losing nine of the 16 previous best-of-7 series they led 2-0 or 3-1.
Among those were the two previous series when they won the first two games on the road -- in the first round against Pittsburgh in 1996 and in the first round against Tampa Bay in 2003. They lost each in six games.
That's the history they have a chance to put to rest now if they approach this as an opportunity instead of with a sense of impending doom.
"I think it's a life lesson for a lot of guys that you just sort of park whatever happened (in the past) and then you move forward," Trotz said. "That's sort of the way is. I think this group has matured that way. I think this group has grown that way, so I expect them to respond like they have all year. We've just got to go back and win a game back at home, and earn the right to keep playing."
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