- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2015

Matt Niskanen sat down at his locker stall Thursday morning, a ballcap corralling the sweat that clung to his newly shaved head, the skates still laced tightly to his feet. The Washington Capitals’ playoff debut the night before could only politely be described as a clunker, and Niskanen, asked to find a silver lining, could only sigh.

“We didn’t do anything great for the whole game, I don’t think,” the defenseman said. “A lot of the trouble we got into yesterday is self-inflicted.”

For days, the Capitals spoke about their excitement to return to the playoffs, which they missed out on last spring for the first time in seven years. Their enthusiasm was tempered by the prolonged spell between qualifying and playing, and that pause gave them the opportunity to lay out their plan for what they wanted to accomplish against the New York Islanders.

They wanted to take care of the neutral zone, knowing the Islanders’ speed. They wanted to be aggressive and forecheck, understanding their playing style could wear their opponents down. Perhaps more than anything, they wanted to play a simple game, believing that sticking to the structure of their system would give them the overall advantage.

Yet for a good amount of time on Wednesday night, none of those things took place. The result was a 4-1 defeat — one that seemed inevitable from the time New York first lit the lamp six minutes into the first period.

“We’ve got to turn our level up a whole bunch more,” right wing Jason Chimera said. “That’s the biggest adjustment. We’ve got to realize what’s at stake. No one’s going to go out there and hand it to us. We’ve got a good team, but you can’t just wait in the playoffs and hope to win games. We’ve got to go out there and grab it. A lot of us didn’t grab it.”

Two of the Islanders’ four goals were the result of turnovers — including the first, a hard snapper from center Brock Nelson at 6:06 that came seconds after Capitals right wing Troy Brouwer tried to force a pass across the red line. The other, also by Nelson, was an empty-netter in the final 80 seconds — the result of another intercepted pass, this time in Washington’s offensive zone.

Washington was charged with 11 giveaways on the night, including seven in the first period alone. Chimera didn’t necessarily believe the theory that the Capitals were too excited to focus early in Wednesday’s game, but he asserted that being too reckless and fancy in all three periods was not going to help them win.

“It seemed like we were a bad hockey team last night, which isn’t the case,” Chimera said. “If we keep it simple, we’re going to look pretty fast. I think the answer to what we have to do is pretty clear.”

That answer could be found on the Capitals’ lone goal, which left wing Marcus Johansson scored 19:03 into the first period. When Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak played a chipped puck in the far corner of the trapezoid, left wing Brooks Laich surged in from the blue line and disrupted Halak’s pass to defenseman Nick Leddy. With Johansson waiting near the right circle, Laich snagged the puck and slung it back to his teammate, who sent the equalizer between Halak’s legs.

The ability to rough up an opponent’s defenseman was considered one of Washington’s greater advantages entering the playoffs. That will, undoubtedly, be one of the Capitals’ salient talking points entering the next handful of games in the series.

“We had a few moments where we forechecked, like we talked about that we wanted to do,” Niskanen said. “We forechecked and got sustained pressure. Our only goal came off a forecheck — a quick play to the third forward, and then he shot it. I think, in general, we want to be more physical, and when we do have the puck, just make better decisions with it, execute the plays that are there, and I think that will go a long way.”

Trotz didn’t make the players suffer for their performance on Thursday; when they arrived at the rink, they learned the scheduled practice session would be optional. His message, then, was that the players know what they need to do to succeed, and it would be on them to put themselves in the best position to make those adjustments and move on.

As a coach, Trotz also knows that the burden is on him to figure out the Capitals’ next moves. The wrong ones can end the season as soon as Tuesday.

“That’s the great thing about the playoffs — you’re playing the same opponent, so what are we going to do to our game that’s going to be different than yesterday? And what are they going to do?” Trotz said. “Certain individuals will be better, and we’ll go from there.”

• Zac Boyer can be reached at zboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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