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Everything suddenly seems possible for the Washington Capitals
After the Capitals lost their second overtime game in a row to the Blue Jackets to start their Eastern Conference quarterfinal, it was a fair observation to point out that Washington was probably screwed. Almost nine in 10 teams to start series in an 0-2 hole go on to lose them, and the Capitals were in a goaltending free fall that threatened them existentially.

On Tuesday, one double-OT bounce in the other direction changed everything. The puck that caromed off Zach Werenski’s skate and into his own net gave the Capitals a 3-2 Game 3 road. More than that, it shifted the entire narrative around this series (and, for the moment, the Capitals’ future) in dramatic fashion. What would’ve been a 3-0 deficit and virtually assured epic disappointment yet again, possibly leading to the destruction of the Capitals’ roster core, is now a 2-1 series in which Washington’s played pretty well.

The Capitals played well in the first two games, but bad goaltending ruined them. That doesn’t seem like as big a problem now.

Not too many people took issue with coach Barry Trotz’s decision to start Philipp Grubauer in goal for the first two games. He was the best goalie on the Caps’ roster this year, and it wasn’t a close race. His .923 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average were quality marks by any standard, and they had to look extra good next to the grisly .907 and 2.99 figures put up by the team’s most frequent starter, Braden Holtby.
But the best case for the Capitals was always that Holtby would play well enough to be the guy, as he’d been during a three-season run before this one that included the 2016 Vezina Trophy. The Capitals are best when Holtby is best, and it’s a lot more believable that this team could win the Stanley Cup in front of Holtby than Grubauer.
Tuesday entrenched Holtby as the man once again. He stopped 33 of 35 shots during 89 minutes between the pipes, two nights after Grubauer wrapped a disastrous two-game run that saw him give up eight goals on 49 shots for an .837 save percentage. Holtby had to make a bunch of difficult saves, including a few in overtime to preserve the Capitals’ hopes. They’d have been cooked if he broke, but he never did.

Meanwhile, Washington’s skaters kept pushing the play.

Washington dominated the possession stats in the two home OT losses that began this series. Game 2 was especially lopsided, with the Caps controlling almost two-thirds of the total shot attempts and scoring chances at even strength. (“High-danger” scoring chances from right in front of the net favored Washington even more, 17-to-5 at five-on-five.) But a goaltending difference and some bad luck kept the Capitals in the L column.
It’s still possible that Washington will lose more games despite getting the better of the open-ice action. But the Capitals again had a solid edge in five-on-five scoring chances in Game 3 (including a 14-9 advantage in the high-danger areas, per Natural Stat Trick). The Blue Jackets pushed hard, but Washington looked to have a little more control over the game’s flow than the home team did. The Caps could’ve won sooner, and maybe they would’ve if the referees hadn’t missed a high-stick to T.J. Oshie’s head earlier in OT.

The Capitals’ playoff history is what it is, but this team should be able to build a comeback against Columbus.

The only obstacle in Washington’s way right now is a 2-1 series deficit. Teams in the Capitals’ position — down 0-2 at home, a Game 3 win on the road — go on to win series 41 percent of the time, which could be either thrilling or terrifying to either fanbase.
The Capitals’ tortured playoff past — no Stanley Cups ever, no appearances beyond the second round in more than a decade with Alex Ovechkin despite great regular-season success — is not the story now. These Capitals are extremely used to winning first-round series, and they probably know they’re a deeper team top to bottom than these Blue Jackets are. If they play their longtime nemesis Penguins in the second round, we can talk about history and its potential effects then.
This series has already been a good illustration of how quickly the playoffs can turn. Washington would’ve been all but finished if Holtby had let something past him in overtime, and it’ll still be in trouble if Thursday’s Game 4 doesn’t go well. The Caps are so far following the exact same arc as in last year’s second-round meeting with Pittsburgh, which ended in more sadness. Maybe their fans will never trust the ground under their feet. But a deep run feels a hell of a lot more possible today than it did yesterday.

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