On the eve of his final game at Nassau Coliseum, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin was in a reflective mood on Friday, thinking back to his first time in the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2008.
“Most of the guys had never played in the playoffs,” Ovechkin recalled of that first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, which the Capitals lost in seven games after winning Game 1. “For us it was new. I think we won the first game and in that moment we didn’t have that kind of experience to handle the pressure and hold the lead.
“Right now you can see how we’ve grown up. We have experienced guys who know how to play and know how to win and that helps us.”
With their 5-1 win in Game 5, the Capitals grabbed a 3-2 series lead over the New York Islanders and can clinch a berth in the second round of the playoffs with a win at the Coliseum on Saturday [2:30 p.m. pregame, CSN].
Each of the Capitals’ last three playoff series has been decided in seven games and the Caps talked Friday about seizing the opportunity to close out the series in the most hostile of environments.
Two years ago the Caps found themselves with a 3-2 series lead on the New York Rangers, but lost Game 6 in New York and Game 7 at VerizonCenter.
Troy Brouwer, now in his fourth season in Washington, noted that all three of his playoff series have been decided in seven games.
He said he believes that with the arrivals of coach Barry Trotz and defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, this year’s Capitals have a better chance of closing the deal in Game 6.
“We have to find a way where we can close teams out,” Brouwer said. “I like the pedigree of our team. I like how we’re embracing the situation right now. We know tomorrow night’s going to be our toughest game in a long time because that elimination game is extremely hard to win because the other team is extremely desperate. We have that same attitude as well, because we know what it’s like to exit the playoffs early and we don’t want to be doing that again this year.”
Orpik said he’s noticed a resilience in the Capitals that has served them well in this series. He pointed to the Islanders’ first goal as an example. Several Capitals thought Islanders captain John Tavares deserved a penalty for covering the puck with his hand in the moments leading up to Josh Bailey’s early goal.
“I think a lot of teams in that situation would have panicked,” Orpik said. “I think we did a really good job staying the course and not letting a missed call rattle us.”
Instead, the Capitals ran off five unanswered goals, including two by rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov, to run away with their most lopsided win of the playoffs.
Trotz said there is little he can say behind the bench that carries more weight than the playoff experiences his players have already been through.
“Players will follow other leaders within the room a lot farther than they’ll follow the coach,” Trotz said. “I really believe that. The bond in the room is what you follow. The coach is sort of the director of it, but the players in the room have to buy into it.
“I think you have to go through a lot of stuff and you do remember. You don’t get any experience until you go through it. Sometimes having no experience is a good thing because you’re naive to the magnitude of stuff. But I think when you put everything in perspective and you know what’s coming, the guys that have gone through it.”
He may not have intended it, but Trotz was really referring to the Islanders, most of whom were given their playoff baptisms two years ago, and the Capitals, many of whom have been in playoff battles since 2008.
On Saturday, the Capitals have the unique opportunity to close out a series and a building on the same day.
Asked if it that may give his team any extra motivation, Trotz was succinct.
“No,” he said. “We’ve got to win a series tomorrow. There’s no bonus. Winning the series is the bonus.”