As the days and weeks passed this summer, Matt Niskanen thought less and less about the Capitals’ second round playoff loss to the Penguins.
The disappointment faded. The deep down hurt, though, never completely disappeared.
It never does. And that, Niskanen said, can be a good thing, particularly as the monotony of offseason workouts sets in around mid-July.
“I thought about it less and less as the summer went on,” Niskanen said of Washington's postseason ouster, an excruciating overtime loss in Game 6. “But that hurt, it lingers.”
“I think that you can use that as motivation, personally, to kind of push yourself through those training days when you don’t really feel like going to the gym,” Niskanen said. “That kind of stuff creeps into your mind and it pushes you.”
The Penguins, of course, went on to claim the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup.
Some say losing to the eventually champion blunts the pain somewhat because, after all, you got beat by the league's best/hottest team. Niskanen, though, does not fully endorse that sentiment.
“Maybe,” he said flatly. “I can’t say I’m happy with that result. You’ve got to say that they deserved it; they played the best at the right time of year. So, we did get beat by the hottest team.”
“But,” Niskanen added, “there’s no silver linings.”
The passing of time helped Niskanen put the gut-wrenching defeat in the rearview. But there was something else that helped him move forward: A couple of weeks after Nick Bonino’s goal sent the regular season’s best team quietly into the offseason, Niskanen got tapped by Team USA play in the World Cup of Hockey.
The call, Niskanen said, came as a surprise even though he enjoyed a strong season, leading the Capitals in ice time and posting 32 points.
“I was proud of the year I had last year and to be rewarded with a spot there, I was surprised,” Niskanen. “I thought, for sure, there would be a few other guys they took a look at before me. But I’m honored by the opportunity. And when I get there, I’ll accept my role and go as hard as I can.”
The unexpected honor also forced the 29-year-old to accelerate his usual offseason training routine.
“There’s that extra motivation to prepare sooner,” Niskanen said. “You talk to enough hockey players [and they’ll tell you] this time of year is the worst time to be a professional hockey player because it’s the preparation stage and you don’t really get the payoff to play the games. [But] we get to get into playing real, meaningful games sooner, which is always a good thing if you ask most guys.”
Niskanen will join fellow Capitals T.J. Oshie and John Carlson on the American squad, which begins practicing for the eight-team tournament on Monday in Columbus, Ohio.
Then it’s back to Washington to prepare for the grueling 82-game NHL regular season, which, for Niskanen and his teammates, begins Oct. 13 with another dose of motivation: watching the Penguins raise their championship banner into the rafters at Consol Energy Center.