- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Washington Capitals wore matching T-shirts after practice Wednesday. “Next Level,” they said on the front, with greenish figures in Capitals jerseys surrounding the letters, which also appeared to ooze ghoulish sludge.

“I guess we’re zombies,” Jay Beagle said, giving only vague insight into the meaning of the new attire. “It looks that way.”

Zombies. The kind that come back from the dead?

“I guess so,” Beagle said. “I don’t really look too much into things. I put a T-shirt on and I go.”

The natural assumption is that the shirts are a reference to the Capitals‘ playoff demons. Washington begins this year’s playoff push trying to revive the corpses they left on the ice against Pittsburgh last April.

Compared with their first-round opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, they are the superior team in both talent and experience. They are the best team in hockey, but have nothing to show from past years when the same was true.

The Capitals carried similar expectations into the postseason last year and, though the ending was not what they’d hoped, coach Barry Trotz thinks it helped his team learn how to deal with pressure.

“There’s a way different feel this year than last year, a way different feel,” Trotz said. “Last year there probably was a bit more pressure, and I don’t think we were prepared, just because we had such a lead last year. I don’t think we played as sharp as we were down the stretch.”

Trotz’ counterpart in Toronto, Mike Babcock, thinks the pressure on the Capitals could work in his team’s favor. The way he sees it, if the Leafs get up a game or two, doubt will start sneaking in.

“Well that’s the whole key, as you know,” Babcock said Tuesday in Toronto. “If you let them get going, then they’re going and they’re loose and driving, but that ‘pucker factor’ is an unbelievable thing. Until you’ve been the best seed, until you have your whole city expecting, you don’t know what’s that like and how good a defence that is for the underdog. It’s unbelievable.”

“So my first year in Detroit I’d never experienced anything like it and I couldn’t believe how we couldn’t skate or pass. So pressure’s a wonderful thing when you’re the underdog.”

Babcock and Trotz know each other well, having coached against each other for years and together for Team Canada in the World Cup. In response to his friend’s words, Trotz said Babcock might just be engaging in a bit of gamesmanship.

“Well we had pressure the last couple years, and that’s been common here,” Trotz said. “That’s, again, I think we’re way better with it. I listened to Babs’ comments, he’s playing you guys with that, but I think we can understand that. We expect ourselves to do well, that’s the expectation that we put on ourselves. I don’t think that’s going to change. I think we’re way more prepared for that, maybe than we were last year.”

If the Capitals‘ choice of attire Wednesday is anything to read into, the team has a sense of humor about its postseason reputation. Trotz’ belief that the team has learned to deal with pressure will seem proven right if the group makes a deep playoff push, while Babcock will appear the sage if his team can knock the favorites back on their heels. In either case, the easy narrative will probably fail to capture the entire truth.

“We are trying to create the expectation to get to the next level and we haven’t won a Cup, and that’s something that this group has an opportunity to do. Other than that, we don’t have anything other than the opportunity,” Trotz said. “Now we’ve just go to go out there and play. Our group has accepted that.”

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