Physically exhausted and emotionally spent, Washington Capitals players arrived at their practice facility on Sunday morning to welcome news. They would not be subject to a mandatory, or even optional, on-ice session; if they wanted to skate, they could, but otherwise, they were asked to relax, regroup and refocus for Monday night.
The mental aspect of the game may be the most crucial for the Capitals, who prepare for a deciding Game 7 in their first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders with the specter of past failures leering over their shoulders. In recent years, the do-or-die scenario has been fatal, as the franchise has been defeated, occasionally in humiliating fashion, in four of the last five occasions it has hosted the deciding game.
Wipe away those memories, came the charge, and players maintained they have, casting aside notions that they have been haunted by their past inadequacies. They maintain this team is different — even though 13 of the 19 players who participated in their last Game 7 loss, a knockout by the New York Rangers in 2013, should suit up for the team again on Monday.
“If you can’t get up for Game 7, you’re not human or an athlete,” said defenseman Mike Green, one of those players. “Nothing we do today on the ice — there’s no Xs and Os we can go over. It just comes down to willpower.”
Whether the Capitals have that willpower couldn’t be determined on Sunday morning, but coach Barry Trotz, who never oversaw a Game 7 during his recent 15-year tenure guiding the Nashville Predators, laid a foundation in a team meeting. Green called Trotz’s speech a “good motivator,” while the coach said he merely stated facts.
Both statements could be correct.
“I just want them to leave their best game out there,” Trotz said. “Leave your best game out there, and if it’s good enough, you win, and if it’s not, you can look back and say, ‘Hey, I left it out there. I don’t have an ounce of anything left to give.’ If you do that, then the result, good or bad, you can keep your head up high.”
Washington, of course, doesn’t want a bad result. Unable to eliminate the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday, the Capitals fought all season for the opportunity to host a deciding first-round playoff game — which is what they will do. The two teams finished tied in the standings during the regular season, and Washington needed a second tiebreaker, the head-to-head matchup, to eke out that advantage.
What Washington hopes is the same kind of atmosphere and approach that spurred the Islanders to a 3-1 victory on Saturday will lead to success. While the Capitals out-shot their opponent over the first period, New York again scored the first goal, then coasted on its desperation and aggression. The frustrations from a physical afternoon boiled over after the final horn sounded, when play degenerated into a dust-up between the players on the ice.
The summary after the game was that it was part of hockey — “just a little nastiness that goes on,” as Islanders coach Jack Capuano said afterward — yet the lesson, for the Capitals, was clear. Engaging in that behavior in Game 7, they know, could be a costly mistake.
“[We know] what’s at stake and what’s important,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Hitting a guy after the whistle or saying something is not important. I think our heads are going to be in the right spot. We know they feed off that, and that some of their players play better when that’s the style of game. We know we can’t feed into that. We’re a good team when we just play.”
That’s why on Monday, Trotz decided rest, and not work, would be the best approach for his players. Not since 1996 — “when I had long hair and a mullet,” Trotz joked — has he experienced the pressure of a deciding Game 7. That year, he navigated the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League to the Calder Cup Finals, where they lost to the Rochester Americans.
It’s also why players have continued to focus on their recent accomplishments and downplay their previous failures. When confronted on Sunday morning with a question about the historical context of the game, right wing Troy Brouwer shot down the premise. “We’re not worried about the historical element,” he interrupted.
Yet Brouwer’s response demonstrated that while the Capitals may not be worried about the past, they’re acutely aware of it. Trotz’s challenge, then, is for his players to change that narrative. That opportunity looms.
“If they park it the right way and say, ‘Hey, I learned that from last series, we’re not going to do that again, this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to win,’ then I think you’re in a good place,” Trotz said. “It’s an opportunity for both teams to close out another team, and whoever is willing to put more on the line will come out with a victory. That’s in as simplest terms.”