For large stretches of the season, watching the Washington Capitals was a joy. They were fun to watch because they were having fun on the ice. Winning has a lot to do with that, but it also can go the other way around. The more a team enjoys playing, the more likely they are to win.
Suddenly, the joy has gone out of the Caps. Bringing that back is how Washington plans to win Game 5 on Saturday.
“We've got to play really well, play with some joy in our game and not be jammed up or worried about the end result,” head coach Barry Trotz said following Saturday’s morning skate.
“I think we just realize we're gripping our sticks a bit tight and we need to just loosen up a bit and just play hockey,” Braden Holtby said. “That's when we're playing our best is when we're not worrying about anything, we're not thinking, we're just playing for each other and that's what it's going to have to take to get this done.”
A common theme throughout the locker room was the fact that the Caps thought they had played too “tight” against the Pittsburgh Penguins which is why they now face a daunting 3-1 series deficit. They were too much in their own heads which caused them to lose focus.
“You can't play well if you're tight,” Matt Niskanen said. “It's like if you're a sprinter, those sprinters are loose, your body works better, you have to have a clear head, you have to be determined, you have to be focused, but you can't be tight. I think just having a clear mind, focus on some details and your energy in the right areas and go after it.”
But finding joy and staying loose is a lot harder to do when facing a 3-1 series hole and playing with the knowledge that this could very well be the end of the season.
Add in Washington’s past playoff struggles and it is hard not to feel like the task may perhaps be overwhelming.
“Obviously with the history in this locker room, what's happened in the past, it can cause you to grip your stick a little bit tighter, cause you to just not make the normal plays that we're capable of making,” Kevin Shattenkirk said.
Despite the task at hand, however, the players insist they remain confident, almost defiantly so. There is still a belief that they are still the better team.
“We should be confident in our group,” Niskanen said. “We've had several long stretches in each game this series where we've been really, really good so we just need a lot more and we're going to need guys to play a little bit better in just about every area. We're going to try to go as hard as we can here and leave it all on the table.”
That’s the task at hand. Game 5 may be more of a mental game than a physical one. The Caps know they need to play loose and win confidence even though they trail the series 3-1 and have a history of playoff failures.
So Trotz, how do you keep the players loose in this situation?
“Throw in a couple jokes or something, I don't know,” Trotz said. “I think it's just, you know what? Let's go play with joy. Just enjoy the experience of just going out and playing. You get to play in a big game. Enjoy that experience.”