PITTSBURGH – It’s a simple question with a very complicated answer: After winning the Presidents’ Trophy, do the Capitals need to win their second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins to change the opinions of critics who believe anything short of an appearance in the Eastern Conference finals is considered a failure?
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Tuesday as his team again sat on the brink of elimination, trailing the Penguins three games to two entering tonight’s crucial Game 6 at Consol Energy Center. “I think (defenseman) Karl Alzner said it best. Every group is a different group.
“Organizationally, we would want to so you wouldn’t ask me that question every time I come up here. Realistically, we just gotta win this game and worry about that.”
The Capitals believe they answered their critics with Saturday night’s 3-1 win over the Penguins at Verizon Center. But they also believe that was just another brick in a foundation that Trotz began laying at the start of last season.
“Our team played well when we had some pressure,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Last game we showed it. We showed we have some trust in each other. The last game is over and tonight is going to be the biggest game of the year. We’re ready. We have (Brooks) Orpik back and it’s a good opportunity for us.”
Other than a potential Game 7 Thursday night at Verizon Center, there is nothing that can define the growth of the Capitals in the past two seasons under Trotz more than tonight’s game.
“We don’t know how the series is going to end, but we want to leave our best game out there,” Trotz said. “When our backs are against the wall a little bit we’ve been able to do that.
We don’t feel sorry for the position we’re in. We gotta get determined, come in here tonight and win a hockey game and see where that takes us.”
Tonight’s game is particularly important for Ovechkin, who desperately wants to shake the label of never having played in a conference final.
“Right now I don’t think about that kind of stuff,” Ovechkin said.
To be fair, Ovechkin has left his mark on these playoffs, not to mention a few Flyers and Penguins along the way. Through 11 games he has five goals and five assists and ranks first among NHL players in shots (56) and third in hits (55).
Evgeny Kuznetsov is still waiting to make his mark. After leading the Capitals and finishing seventh in the NHL with 77 points, the 23-year-old Russian has just one goal and one assist, along with a minus-4 rating in 11 playoff games.
“It’s not easy,” Kuznetsov said. “All I want is to win the game today. It doesn’t matter who scores. Maybe I score five goals. Maybe somebody else scores five. It doesn’t matter. We just need to win the game. Of course you want to score goals and make assists, but when you get older you understand if you do something good for the team goals and assists come.”
That has been the message Trotz has been trying to drive home for Kuznetsov since he took over as coach last season, their first full season in Washington.
“I’ve talked to Kuzy all series and all year,” Trotz said. “He trusts his instincts and his ability. As a coach, you try to stay positive with all the good things he does with the puck, without the puck. You try to reinforce those habits and if you keep doing the right things over and over you break through. I liked his game last game, I thought he had a pretty good impact.”
Kuznetsov said he feels like he’s been improving each game, but unless he and his teammates can extend this series to a seventh game on Thursday, it might prove to be too little too late.
“You can see we are staying positive,” Kuznetsov said. “Before last game, we were down 3-1 and 75 percent of people said we are going to lose that game right? But no. There are lots of (fortitude) in this locker room, you know? Today we have to focus on one game.
“We’re not in the best position right now, but we’re still positive and you can see how guys smile. Not every team is smiling when they talk to media. We’re still positive because we trust in each other and we’re confident.”