Oh, this hurts. They had it in their hands. Twice. They had it. We can talk about the atrocious reffing or the Caps' blatant interference on Halak, but they had it and they blew it. I won't talk about the goaltending, even though Jaro should have had the fifth goal, because a team wins as a team and it loses as a team and our team blew it last night.
While the conspiracy theories rage and the hand-wringing and tooth-grinding escalate, the fact is the game is in the books. There's no going back now, and there's another one tomorrow night. The question I have now is how will the team approach it?
One of two things will happen. In the best case, the team will be able to dismiss this heartbreak and reset mentally to dealing with a five-game series. They'll look at the things they did right, like the way they shut down the best offensive team in the league for five periods and an overtime. They'll focus on the way both of the top two lines have found their scoring touch simultaneously for the first time all year. The veteran Cup winners on the team will buoy the younger guys and explain that hearts get broken in the playoffs, but as long as there's another game, there's another chance to mend them. Nobody gets through the post-season without adversity. They'll realize that the Caps threw everything they had at them, and the Canadiens hung in there and stayed right with them. They'll learn from their mistakes.
The other choice is to wallow in the heartbreak. It's a tempting choice, because the vision of going home up two games to none was close enough to touch. Imagine coming within one number of winning the lottery, but you need a 3 and they call a 4? You're no worse off for having missed money you never had to begin with, but the spectre of almost being rich would haunt you. They've got to be angry at themselves, frustrated and completely disheartened. They played a beautiful game with great defence, and they capitalized on their scoring chances. They should have had it, but even playing nearly as well as they're possibly capable of playing, they couldn't hold off the Caps. That's got to be a devastating revelation.
I'm not sure how the team will take it or how they'll recover mentally from last night, but I know the fans have taken a real emotional blow with this loss. If any of us had been told last week that the Habs would not only get a split in Washington, but would come to within a minute-and-a-half of taking both games, we'd have been thrilled. Now, though, when they were so close to having it all, that split feels really hollow. When Plekanec scored the game winner on Thursday, I felt like this team could have a chance, if they kept doing what they did in Game One. They did that for most of last night, but couldn't hold them off anyway.
I truly believe anything can happen in the playoffs. But I also believe in momentum, and the Caps have it now. That win last night had to have been hugely inspiring for them and let them prove their offence can carry them out of trouble. They'll have confidence and be cocky heading into Montreal. While it's true this is now a best-of-five series and the teams are square, it's not like starting from scratch. The first game of a series is always about feeling out the opponent, but now the teams have each other's measure. Game Three will be a war, if the Habs stand up and fight. It will be outright destruction if they don't.
I have to confess, even though the series is tied, I feel like last night was a turning point. The Habs gave it everything they had, and it wasn't enough. Nobody backed down or failed to show up. They were just overwhelmed. I'm not sure they can recover from this blow, or have enough in the tank to eke out three more wins against this juggernaut. I want to believe they can. I really do. But the Caps showed us that sometimes the favourite is the favourite because they just have more and bigger weapons to throw at you.
There's always hope that the Caps can't sustain that level of ferocity, and that the Habs will learn from their mistakes and hold the lead next time they're lucky enough to have one. But it feels an awful lot like they climbed Everest, only to stumble and fall just before the reached the summit. Wasting a phenomenal effort like that is enough to make anyone want to give up. Whether they can catch themselves before plunging all the way down is the big unknown. I hope they'll fight, even if the climb is hard.
We'll find out tomorrow what they're made of mentally. It would be difficult for any team to recover from having it in their hands and handing it back. When the team is the underdog, though, it's that much harder. And boy, does it hurt.