- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2015

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The belligerence and rancor of the crowd at Nassau Coliseum reverberated through the decaying walls on Sunday afternoon, shortly before the game was set to begin, and reached the cramped visitors’ dressing room.

Inside, the Washington Capitals understood they were in store for a challenge, especially early, and were eager to confront it. They weathered the storm in the first period — their goaltender, Braden Holtby, turned away 16 shots, including nine in the first five minutes — before buckling in the second, steadying themselves in the third and then tumbling in overtime.

In all three games of the best-of-seven series against the New York Islanders, they have been undone by slow starts, then vowed afterward that the urgency and determination could improve. Yet as the Capitals hang on the precipice of a must-win situation entering Game 4 on Tuesday, it begs the question: What’s more dire than a playoff game?

“It’s not as easily said as done,” Capitals left wing Jason Chimera said. “They’re trying to go, too.”

The Islanders have been doing more than that, taking it to their opponents in at least two of the three games in the series. They showed they would not be pushed around in the opener, taking a 4-1 victory in Washington in front of a slumbering crowd, and scored the first two goals of the second game as well before the Capitals rallied, regrouped and responded.

A change of venue on Sunday provided a different dimension to the series, but the result was more of the same, magnified by an Islanders crowd that highlighted every hit and glorified every goal. To underscore the magnitude of Tuesday’s meeting, the Capitals have faced a 2-1 deficit on 13 previous occasions and lost that fourth game seven times. Only once, in 2009, did they lose that game yet win the series.

“I think that’s the part you have to learn from, you know?” coach Barry Trotz said Monday. “Instead of taking its toll, it’s got to be embraced and cherished. I mean, coming out like [on Sunday], we’re in enemy territory. Whatever this place seats, they are not cheering for us. We’re pretty sure about that. It was a great atmosphere. This is what you play for — the emotional highs and the lows and how you respond from that. You embrace the battle and challenge and all those things.”

Instead of taking another shot to their collective psyche, the Capitals chose to look past the circumstances of the Islanders‘ game-winning goal on Sunday, marginalizing John Tavares’ winner as a fluke. New York claimed the victory just 15 seconds into overtime — one of the fastest extra-time playoff results in league history — when Tavares thrust the puck past Holtby from an impossible angle.

When players showed up on Monday for practice — a half-hour session on the same ice — their mood was spirited and jovial. They flung pucks at visitors watching from behind the glass, laughed about an inability to quickly change out of their practice jerseys and interrupted other players’ chats with reporters by using sticks as microphones.

Their interactions oozed calm and confidence. They weren’t downplaying the consequences of their situation, but trusting that they could work their way out of any hardships they could face.

“Obviously, we have to learn from last game,” Holtby said. “We didn’t come out hard enough to beat their push and create our own energy. First goal is obviously, it’s crucial, but at the same time, we feel very comfortable playing from any situation in the game. Our goal is to come out quick, score a goal fast, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t put any panic into us.”

Washington’s strategy, then, doesn’t depart from what it has tried to do in previous games. Against the advantageous Islanders, the Capitals want to control the puck, make smart decisions and win individual battles. If they can push their opponent through the neutral zone and into its own end, they’ll have an ability to put pucks on net, create offense and find a rhythm.

“But if they have the puck and are winning the territory battle, they’re putting it in, getting hits on our defensemen, getting hits on our wingers, they feel bigger, and their building kind of starts to get a little bit louder,” Brooks Laich said. “For us, we just have to have our game plan and execute [and be] a little more crisp in the first 10 minutes.”

If the Capitals don’t, they’ll surely hear about it. The specter of another first-round playoff exit would loom for a team that has only advanced to the Eastern Conference quarterfinals three times in their last six postseason appearances — more of the same from an organization that underwent a moderate upheaval after sitting out last spring.

And that says nothing of the Islanders‘ fans, who would love nothing more than to have their team on the verge of advancing to the next stage for the first time since 1993 and are sure to make their presence known again.

“You see the highs and the lows, and that’s how you have to deal with it,” Trotz said. “You have to sort of bring it back to the horizon again all the time and go at it again and prepare and take a one-game mentality.”

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