When the Caps take to the ice on Saturday for Game 5, it could be for the final time this season. After standing atop the NHL standings for the majority of the season and building a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Caps are facing elimination for the first time in the 2015-16 campaign. And, as they trail the Pittsburgh Pengins 3-1 in their best-of-seven series, Washington faces long odds of advancing to the conference finals.
It's a challenge the Caps say they are ready to face.
"This group's a confident group," Jay Beagle said. "We've been building towards this all year. We're going after them [on Saturday]."
"We got some work to do but we're excited about the challenge," Tom Wilson said.
That doesn't exactly sound like a team with its back against the wall.
Despite the position the Caps now find themselves in, there is still a lot of confidence in the locker room. That's because rather than shy away from the challenge ahead of them, the Caps seem to be embracing it.
"We're not where we want to be but it's still life, you know?" Evgeny Kuznetsov said. "We have to accept the challenge and play like a Game 7 every game."
"This groups is not afraid of where we're at," head coach Barry Trotz said. "We know where we're at, we're realists, and at the same time we know that we won a lot of games this year and it didn't happen by accident and you've got to take it one game at a time."
There is a certain level of liberation that comes when a team has nothing left to lose. At this point, the Caps not only face elimination, but the odds are overwhelmingly against them in the series. In order to advance, Washington will have to beat the NHL's hottest team in three straight games including one in Pittsburgh. For those on the outside looking in, losing the series to the Penguins seems like a foregone conclusion.
But for a team that has struggled to put away teams in the postseason, perhaps they will prove to be more adept at coming from behind. After all, the last time the Caps faced a 3-1 deficit, they came back to win the series, defeating the New York Rangers in 2009. The time before that, they managed to force seven games from the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008.
As a result, in some weird way the Caps seem to be approaching Game 5 with a positive sense of liberation.
"It's not frustrating," Alex Ovechkin said. "You are in this position and if you're going to be frustrated you're probably not going to have a chance to bounce back and win the game. We just have to win game by game."
Washington also heads into Saturday's game with veteran leadership that this team has lacked over the years.
Justin Williams was brought in for moments like these. The veteran winger's struggles in this series to this point have been well documented, but all that will be forgotten if he can help the Caps stave off elimination.
This is where he really earns his contract.
Williams is a player who knows a thing or two about having the right mindset in the playoffs and he says this team will be ready for Game 5.
"You've got to err on the side of enthusiasm not apprehension," Williams said. "We're going to go out there and play on our toes, not our heels and hopefully it'll work out for us."
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