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Caps' Kevin Shattenkirk hits the reset button on his mental approach

Caps' Kevin Shattenkirk hits the reset button on his mental approach

PITTSBURGH — Kevin Shattenkirk acknowledged Monday that he’s struggling, but the Capitals defenseman was also quick to say he’s optimistic he can turn things around.

“Not well,” he said, asked to assess his postseason play to this point. “Last game was really bad. But I’m focused on tonight. That’s all I can worry about.”

Shattenkirk has three assists through eight postseason games, but he is also saddled with a playoffs-worst rating of minus-7.

Much has been made of his misplay on Matt Cullen’s shorthanded breakaway goal in Game 2. He was also in the box for putting the puck off the rink when the Penguins took a 4-1 lead early in the third period Saturday night. 

“I’m my hardest critic, so I’m not really listening to what a lot of what people are saying,” Shattenkirk said after the morning skate at PPG Paints Arena, “but I know it hasn’t been good.”

RELATED: Barry Trotz remains committed to Braden Holtby

Shattenkirk said he’s identified some areas that were in need of immediate attention — and it had less to do with his on-ice execution and more to do with his mental approach and how he's internalized the pressures of the postseason.

“This time of year it’s tougher to flush it,” Shattenkirk said. “The games means so much. You beat up on yourself a little bit more.”

The 28-year-old trade deadline addition continued: “The most important thing for me to do is to have fun. And that’s something I’ve lost along the way here.”

Shattenkirk said he’s hopeful that getting a day away from the rink and the playoff pressure-cooker — the team was off on Sunday — will serve him well as he attempts to get back on track individually, while also helping the Caps claw their way back into the second round series.   

“I think having a couple of days to take a step back, it made me realize I wasn’t enjoying it like I should be,” he said. “That’s important. We’re professionals but we’re still playing the game that we love, and I think this is a great opportunity for me tonight to just go out there, enjoy the atmosphere, not think and just play. That’s when I’m at my best.”

Shattenkirk also said he’s received an outpouring of support from his teammates.

“I expect a lot out of myself,” he said. “I want to prove myself to these guys. I can be hard on myself at times, and that’s something I have to work on. But I have a great support cast in here and guys who have been picking me up the last few days, just getting me back to smiling again and having some fun.”

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In a game that was all about offense, it was a penalty kill the sealed the win for the Caps

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In a game that was all about offense, it was a penalty kill the sealed the win for the Caps

The big story out of Wednesday's win was the return of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as linemates. The new lines sparked the Caps' offense as they jumped out to a 4-0 lead over the Ottawa Senators. But despite the offensive burst, it was a key penalty kill in the second period that won the game.

Midway through the second period, Ottawa forward Ryan Dzingel finally stopped the bleeding with a goal to make it 4-1. At that point, the game was still seemingly well in hand. Washington had dominated to that point and there was no reason to think the Senators would come back. Even when Dzingel scored the goal, it did not feel like momentum was shifting back in the Senators' favor.

That all changed 30 seconds later.

Alex Ovechkin was called for high-sticking and when play was stopped, Nicklas Backstrom tussled with Ben Harpur and both players were sent to the box leading to a 4-on-3 for Ottawa. Just 44 seconds in, Tom Wilson was called for a slash giving the Senators 1:16 of a two-man advantage to work with. Just one goal would have made it a game. The deficit would have been cut to 2 with over a period remaining.

A game that had seemed all but over suddenly seemed to be somewhat in doubt. Yes, Ottawa still had a steep hill to climb, but a power play goal would have made a comeback seem possible.

But then, the Caps' much-maligned penalty kill unit stepped up and killed off both penalties to keep the lead at 4-1.

How important was that kill?

"When we're on 5-on-3 that was huge," Barry Trotz said after the game. "They didn't score there, I knew we were going to win. I didn't know just by how much, but I knew we were going to win."

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Why now? Barry Trotz explains his decision to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom

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Why now? Barry Trotz explains his decision to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom

Barry Trotz did seemingly everything he could to avoid it, but secretly he was thinking just as much about reuniting Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as you were. He surprised everyone on Wednesday by putting the two back together on the top line and the move had instant results as the Capitals battled to a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators.

A 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames on Monday highlighted the team’s top-six struggles at even strength. Ovechkin, Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov all were struggling to produce at the level the Caps need in order to be successful.

You can talk about wanting to avoid making the team too top-heavy all we want, but in the end, being top-heavy is better than not producing at all.

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So with the team’s top players still struggling, the talk after the Calgary game all focused on whether Trotz would consider putting Ovechkin and Backstrom back together, a combination that has been incredibly successful for the Caps in the past.

Trotz, however, seemed hesitant to make the move.

The lines remained unchanged at practice. When asked why not reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom, he told reporters after Tuesday’s practice that he didn’t feel like it. He told the Sports Junkies on Wednesday that Ovechkin can be difficult to play with and that it was hard to find matches for him.

And yet, when the players took to the ice for warmups on Wednesday prior to the game against Ottawa, Ovechkin and Backstrom were together again.

“I've been thinking about it for a while,” Trotz said.

It is obvious why Trotz would put Ovechkin and Backstrom back together. Their chemistry was evident in Wednesday’s game. But Trotz has avoided making that move up to now through the first quarter of the season.

“[Ovechkin] demands such presence,” Trotz said. “He's the greatest goal-scorer in his generation, I've said that many times, and you need a very intelligent player and you have to get used to playing with him because when he gets into those areas … he can score in those tight windows which any other players can't. It's as much getting used to playing with someone else and all that.”

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“By playing [Evgeny Kuznetsov] for such a long time with [Ovechkin] too,” Trotz added, “It opens up some windows so that we have those options.”

Basically, Trotz’s reasoning is that players need to adjust and learn how to play with Ovechkin. He always knew he could go back to Ovechkin-Backstrom, but it is much harder to start with Ovechkin-Backstrom and split them up out of necessity.

As Trotz would later put it on Wednesday, “If you love something you set it free, if it comes back it was meant to be.”

Clearly, it was meant to be as there’s just no denying that when Ovechkin and Backstrom are together, their play ascends to another level.