NHL Mixed Bag: Capitals combat history, circumstance entering pivotal Game 3

The Capitals have been the better team in their first-round series against the Blue Jackets, yet trail 0-2. They now face a razor-thin margin for error or else risk elimination.

Each Monday during the NHL playoffs, Rob Mixer takes a look at the biggest storylines from the hockey week that was.

Sometimes, the Stanley Cup playoffs show us things that we totally expected.

Game 3 is one of those things.

Let’s start with the Lightning and Devils, a series that probably shouldn’t be close (and it may not be, but for now, it is). The Lightning did what they were supposed to do, scoring a bevy of goals and holding serve on home ice at Amalie Arena, sending the series to New Jersey with the Devils in a 2-0 hole.

So, what happens next? You’ve seen it before. The home team has a ton of energy in front of its home crowd, playing desperate hockey to get back into the series. And lo and behold it’s a 2-1 series by the end of the night. The Devils certainly played better than the Lightning last night in Game 3, but replicating that is the issue. Teams like Tampa Bay are able to absorb those body blows, get back up, and keep playing.

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The same can be said in the Colorado-Nashville series, which has been really entertaining. The Avalanche, though, were in the lead in both of the first two games and had chances to win, whereas the Devils were mostly trying to hang around in Tampa. Colorado fell behind 0-2, went back to Pepsi Center last night and blew the doors off the Predators in the first period, cruising to a Game 3 win.

Minnesota looked dead in the water after back-to-back losses in Winnipeg to begin their first-round series, but merely stepping on the Xcel Energy Center seemed to turn Bruce Boudreau’s group into a totally different team.

And yes, there’s more — the Maple Leafs dropped the first two games in Boston, went home to Air Canada Centre last night and took care of business to make it a 2-1 series. Where these series go from here, we’ll have to wait and see, but there’s a reason it’s so hard to come back from a two-game deficit: the energy required and the near-perfection required on a do-or-die nightly basis is insane.

You can win Game 3, sure. But can you win Game 4? Then Game 5, and Game 6?

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Therein lies the toughest test of these playoffs: it’s ridiculously hard to make up ground in a seven-game series. That’s why those “road splits” are so important to take away home-ice advantage and level the playing field; you can’t afford any missteps or risk being eliminated before your comeback has a chance to manifest itself.

Those are the situations we’ve seen before, and we’ll have to see which of those teams can sustain momentum and level the series before heading back on the road. They’re guaranteed no fewer than five games, but now, their job is to bring it back home again.

And one series in particular has shown us the surprising flip-flop of the aforementioned situation.

The Jackets fell into the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card position after a season-ending loss in Nashville, which aligned them in a first-round series with the Capitals rather than the Penguins. The Capitals, champions again of the Metropolitan Division, have been the better team in this series for long stretches, but it’s the Blue Jackets who have gotten timely goals and excellent goaltending to go back to Columbus leading 2-0.

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And now it’s the Capitals, who had a clear-cut advantage before the series began, who face a razor-thin margin for error or else risk elimination.

Historically, NHL teams leading 2-0 in a series have advanced 87 percent of the time (per Hockey Reference). Only five teams in the history of major professional sports have climbed out of an 0-3 hole to win a series. As we’ve seen, there’s a reason for that.