ARLINGTON, Va. -- After taking a 3-0 lead on Tuesday, the Capitals watched as the Winnipeg Jets came storming back to tie the game at 3-3. Suffering from a prolonged slump since the end of December, the game was unfolding into another ugly loss for a team that, despite its talent, just could not seem to find its way. This time, however, the collapse was halted. The Caps did not lay down and managed to battle to a 4-3 shootout win.
While blowing a 3-0 lead is nothing to celebrate, the team showed more resiliency than they have shown for two months and forward Garnet Hathaway knew why.
“It's after the trade deadline,” he said. “The guys in this room are the guys that we're going to win with. So that's the mentality right now, we've got to stick to our guns and play to our identity.”
The trade deadline is a time of uncertainty for many players around the league, many of whom don’t know when they wake up on Monday morning if they will still be playing for the same team by 3 p.m. or suddenly have to uproot themselves and their families.
That uncertainty is not just limited to each individual, it can affect an entire team.
“I think with everybody in here, I would say there's definitely a lot of guys probably have a good feeling, 'OK I'm not going to get traded or I am getting traded,'” center Nic Dowd said. “But I'd say the underlying issue is, I hope they don't bring anybody in that's like myself. That's probably what everyone's kind of looking like. As soon as they see 'Washington Capitals trade for' you're like, 'oh, who is it?' and 'is he my position?'”
“I think that players will very rarely discuss the fact that it's bothering them or they're thinking about it, but they're only human as well,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “I think it's a deep sigh of relief for players and now we're ready to move forward knowing this is our group and this is what we're going with.”
Washington is a team with its sights set on a Stanley Cup. That meant they were a team looking to add. But even with the majority of players knowing they would not be moved, the deadline still brings with it uncertainty; uncertainty over where you stand in the lineup, uncertainty over which teammates will still be around after the deadline, uncertainty over what the team will ultimately look like at 3:01 p.m.
Once the deadline passes, however, that distraction is gone and suddenly a team can regain its focus knowing now is the time to focus on the task at hand.
“Now we know that there isn't anymore moving parts,” Reirden said. “Sure, we're going to have to deal with injuries or any other issues, suspensions or different things that go on. That's hockey. But, for the most part, this is our group that we believe in and we think has a really good chance. It's a different vibe after. I can tell you that for sure.”
“The trade deadline pretty much is just kind of a distraction a little bit for everyone,” defenseman Nick Jensen said. “So once that's kind of out of the way, there's a sense like it's back to focusing on this final stretch before playoffs. Every team, they're set for the rest of the season. Every team's trying to make their push for the playoffs so there's kind of that sense like, here we go. This is it.”
That certainty also brings with it a sense of unity.
Nothing can replace the bonding that happens between teammates over the course of a full 82-game season, but after the trade deadline has passed comes the realization that this is the team. Whatever happens from here to the postseason and beyond is going to happen with the players who are now on the roster.
There are no more reinforcements coming.
“This is our team, this is who we're going with,” Jensen said. “It's time to bear down and put yourself in as best position as possible to compete in the playoffs.”
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