- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

An oft-told Cherokee fable shares the dilemma of a tribal elder, who, while sitting beside a campfire one night, tells his grandson about the strife that once roiled inside of him. It was a battle between two wolves, he explains — one full of anger, resentment and pity, the other motivated by hope, passion and optimism.

The boy, captivated by the story of the fight, pauses for a moment once his grandfather’s voice tapers off. Curious, he asks which of the two wolves wins the battle — to which the elder told him, “The one you feed.”

That phrase has echoed through the Washington Capitals‘ dressing room for the duration of the postseason, adorning T-shirts handed out to each player and posters hung up on the walls. Only by remaining optimistic, compassionate and dedicated, the maxim dictates, can they accomplish all of their goals.

On Wednesday night, the Capitals will face their biggest challenge of the postseason, a decisive, winner-take-all meeting on the road against the New York Rangers. The winner will advance to the Eastern Conference Final, which would be a first for Washington since 1998, while the other’s season will draw to an end.

“We were looking forward to this for the whole season,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We don’t want it to end [on Wednesday]. We’re ready for Game 7, and we’re going to show why we’re a good team.”

In early March, as the Capitals were making their push toward returning to the postseason, first-year coach Barry Trotz invited Eric Hoffberg, an ex-hockey coach turned motivational speaker, to address his players following practice.

Trotz had been introduced to Hoffberg years ago by Mitch Korn, the Capitals‘ goaltending coach, and soon realized that their moral fibers were intertwined. Hoffberg exhorted the value of optimism in progress, and only by minimizing negativity could true progress arise.

“That stuck with us,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We’ve made fun of it at times and we’ve listened to it at times, and it’s just a good all-around thing for this team to follow.”

After each postseason loss, the Capitals did their best to strip the lessons from the emotions and discard the results. Preparation for the next game would begin immediately following the last; dedication would beget results.

Even Tuesday, as Washington faced the grim reality of its situation, players remained upbeat. They rejected the historical narratives, which include the Capitals losing all four times they took a 3-1 lead in a series to a decisive seventh game, and minimized the Rangers‘ record nine-game winning streak in elimination games they have hosted.

The 4-12 record in games in which they could have eliminated their opponent? Irrelevant. The Rangers‘ perfect record at Madison Square Garden in Game 7? Insignificant. The victory over the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the first round? Inconsequential.

“We’re in a good situation right now,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We still have a chance to win and move on to the next series. We weren’t able to do it in the first two opportunities we had, but the good news is we still have a third one, and how we played and how we got to be up, 3-1 — we put ourselves in a good spot to move onto the next series, and whether it’s Game 5 or Game 7, we’re still in a situation where if we win, we move on to the next series.”

Perhaps some of that bravado can be drawn from the circumstances of the series, which has frequently been in the Capitals‘ favor. Each game has been decided by one goal, including a 4-3 loss in Game 6 on Sunday in which Washington trailed by three early in the third period, then attempted 32 shots, and scored twice, while holding the Rangers without a shot attempt over the final 14:55.

Goaltender Braden Holtby picked up his second career postseason shutout in Game 4, which amplified a stretch of one goal allowed over 192:12. Then there was the goal by Jay Beagle in that game, which went off a defenseman’s stick and the goaltender’s skate, and one by Joel Ward in the opener, when the puck crossed the goal line with 1.2 seconds remaining.

There is an element of seizing the opportunity in each situation, which the Capitals have done. Their task now is to extricate themselves from the past, learn from its parables and, as they preach, feed the right wolf.

“We, this group, can do something, and we want to change history,” Trotz said. “We want to change perception. Just go out and do it.”

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