It was never supposed to come to this for the Washington Capitals.
After three games of a first-round playoff series, they were not supposed to be the team trying to explain away what appears to be a case of tightening collars and the wobbles from bearing the weight of playoff expectations. But they have somehow let moments when they could have buried the Toronto Maple Leafs slip away. Now it is the neophyte Leafs who are breathing fire with a 2-1 series lead and whose confidence has grown so much in three overtime games that they really think they can win this thing.
"We're giving it away and it's not good enough," Capitals centre Nicklas Backstrom said after they blew two two-goal leads and lost 4-3 in overtime in Game 3 on Monday night. His linemate Alexander Ovechkin, whose ice time was listed as a mere 15 minutes 8 seconds on the game sheet and who is once again coming up short in the playoffs, was similarly fatalistic.
Ovechkin said the Capitals have to forget what happened Monday and move forward for Game 4 on Wednesday. Then he indicated this will take some doing.
"But how I said, it's on us," Ovechkin said. "We play the game, we're out there. We have to do a better job. If we have the lead, we have to manage the puck, manage the game, be more focused on a more simple game.
"Series goes to go four wins. It's not going to be easy. It's a huge test for us."
In the Leafs dressing room the talk is mostly about how much fun they are having. Or how they are not getting flustered when the Capitals come out like they did Monday night and take a 2-0 lead in the first five minutes.
"Surprisingly, it was fine," Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner said of the mood on the bench when the Caps took the early lead. "We just stayed positive and stuck with it. I think earlier in the year we might not have. We kind of matured as a group and we have a calm about us right now, which is pretty good."
While not even Leafs head coach Mike Babcock would have predicted his players would handle themselves with aplomb through three playoff overtime games, he was right in saying before the series the pressure is always on a big favourite such as the Capitals. The pucker factor, he called it, which meant all his kids had to do was skate like crazy and play their game.
"We've got a bunch of kids so we've got energy to burn," Babcock said Tuesday. "We'll play as long as you want. We'd just like to win."
Over the past two years, in response to repeated playoff flameouts, the Capitals were refitted as a team that could defend as tenaciously as it could dangle the puck on a string. Fancy talents such as Ovechkin, Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov were joined by bruising defenders such as Brooks Orpik or playoff comets such as Justin Williams.
After a nice cruise to first place overall and the William Jennings Trophy in the NHL's regular season, the Capitals were finally supposed to shake the postseason blahs, in which they never made it past the second round in the post-2005 Ovechkin era. The Leafs were merely supposed to be a tune-up for the serious playoff hockey.
Funny thing, though, the NHL now is all about speed and youth. The Leafs may not have much playoff experience but they have plenty of speed and youth. They are using it to make the Capitals, particularly their defencemen, look ponderous.
So the questions for Washington head coach Barry Trotz were more pointed. Such as why Ovechkin only played about 15 minutes in Game 3, more than two minutes behind his centre Backstrom and three fewer than the line's right winger, T.J. Oshie.
There is some evidence Ovechkin did not receive credit from the game officials for all of the time he was on the ice. Then again, that would mean he was lousy for 20 minutes instead of 15, although Trotz rushed to his defence.
"It wasn't based on play," Trotz said. "I thought [Ovechkin] was playing terrific. It's on me to get him a little more ice time, no question.
"He's [playing] quality minutes right now. Sometimes you look at minutes, sometimes they're overstated. You're out there 20 minutes, but they're not quality minutes. His minutes have been hard, quality minutes. I know him and [Leo] Komarov have been going at it."
As it stands, though, the Capitals are still very much in this series. And even if they are giving off the sense of a team whose playoff history is now a burden, no one is going to admit it.
"No, I don't think so. I don't feel that," Caps forward Daniel Winnik said.