The common refrain much of this season was that the Washington Capitals were too talented to play so inconsistently. Too talented to be in danger of missing the playoffs.
Talent wasn't the problem. Perhaps it was worrying too much.
"One of the things that I noticed, towards the end of the year, when we started talking about having fun, having more fun, we started playing better," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We've got to keep the right atmosphere then. I think that it transitions into better hockey."
Going into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the New York Rangers on Saturday night, the Caps are hoping to again strike the right balance between having fun and channeling the right amount of pressure.
That's no easy task, but given that the Caps have done so well in these situations, it's no surprise that they feel so prepared this time around.
"I think it's just the character we have in this team; it's kind of a no-panic attitude in the dressing room," defenseman Jeff Schultz said. "It's a confident attitude, but just go out and play. Just play our game and worry about ourselves."
Don't worry, be happy. Or, as Brooks Laich said: "You can't [freeze] up by the pressure or the intensity."
The Capitals at the end of the regular season and playoffs haven't. They won 10 of the final 16 in the regular season to get into the postseason, went into Boston and won a Game 7, and staved off elimination Wednesday at Verizon Center.
Smiling and laughing along the way.
"It's a fun time to play," coach Dale Hunter said. "I think they enjoy the competition and pressure, but you've got to have fun with it on the ice and in the dressing room, too."
No surprise, then, that Joel Ward pointed to Hunter and his staff for that "no-panic attitude."
"I think it's pretty calm, cool and collected, for the most part," Ward said. "It's kind of just rubbed off on other guys and then we've just been trying to take that approach and have fun."
That didn't happen from the start of Hunter's regime. Alzner said the changeover happened with five or 10 minutes left in the season when the Caps "started to figure it out."
Drawing from their losses has also helped contribute to the change.
"I think it has a lot to do with what we've gone through in the past and knowing how we've prepared and how we've felt before some of these games and it never seems to really work out for us," Alzner said. "You've got to change something. I think it's keeping a light attitude."
Light without being too loose is the skill the Caps have apparently mastered. Hunter has said on numerous occasions: "It's just hockey. Don't overanalyze it. It's just playing hockey, guys. It's all it is."
It's just hockey, and the Caps in the past two months have resembled a good hockey team. Game 7 is just another hockey game.
"You can't get caught up in the hype of it. Obviously, it's win or go home. It's your season on the line," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "But at the same time you've got to be excited to play. You got to have fun out there. Like we said in the last series, these Game 7s are the most fun that you can have playing hockey."
But perhaps Laich put it best when explaining why it's not so bad to have fun in high-intensity playoff situations, and why the Capitals have made it such a successful way of survival.
"You're fighting for your right to continue to play hockey. I mean, if you don't win, then the game of hockey is taken away from you and you are no longer allowed to play," Laich said. "I think that's why you see people still having fun: They really appreciate being able to come to the rink. And we're right in the thick of things, in a Stanley Cup chase, playing good hockey against good hockey teams. It's a very exciting time of year."
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