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How do the Caps plan to win Game 5? By adding joy back into their game

How do the Caps plan to win Game 5? By adding joy back into their game

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.”

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In a surprise twist, Barry Trotz takes The Hot Lap ahead of Game 7

In a surprise twist, Barry Trotz takes The Hot Lap ahead of Game 7

TAMPA—Head Coach Barry Trotz skated the hot lap prior to Wednesday’s Game 7 at Amalie Arena, taking over the superstitious tradition from captain Alex Ovechkin.

Why the change?

The Caps lost Game 5 here on Saturday. And when the Caps lose on the road—the only place where the morning-skate-starting hot lap takes place—a new skater is selected.

The weird tradition began in the first round at Nationwide Arena in Columbus when Jay Beagle grew tired of waiting for the ice to freeze over following a fresh Zamboni cut. Beagle's teammates implored him to wait a little longer for the ice to cure, but he grew impatient and took it upon himself to kick off the skate by racing around the rink, a la the fastest skater competition at the All Star Skills competition.

Ovechkin took it over prior to Game 6 in Pittsburgh because the Caps had lost Game 4 at PPG Paints Arena.

Ovechkin proudly carried on the tradition as Washington won three in a row—Game 6 in Pittsburgh and Games 1 and 2 of this series vs. Tampa Bay.

Following the Caps’ 3-2 defeat in Game 5 here, though, it was expected that a change would be made.

And on Wednesday morning the baton changed hands, with the least obvious of all the Caps busting his 55-year-old hump around the rink much to the delight of his players and assistants.

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Regardless of what happens in Game 7, these are not the 'same old Caps'

Regardless of what happens in Game 7, these are not the 'same old Caps'

These are not the same old Caps.

Heading into Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Monday, there was a lot of handwringing around Washington and with good reason. The Capitals were facing elimination for the first time this postseason. Of course the fans were on edge; no one wanted this run to end.

But even though the Caps are competing for the conference crown and have gotten past their archrivals to get here, the refrains leading into Game 6 were the same ones we’ve heard from past years.

 “They don’t want it enough.”

“There’s no heart.”

“Totally outcoached.”

“Chokers.”

And perhaps most damning, “Same old Caps.”

Stop it already.

Seriously, how can anyone have watched this postseason and walked away thinking this is the same Caps team?

Does no one remember the start of the season? Some people didn’t even think they would make the playoffs. Others were advocating the team trade Alex Ovechkin and start over. Yet here they are.

Finally, finally they got past the second round hump. They beat the Pittsburgh Penguins—ending their two-year reign as Stanley Cup Champions—and handed Mike Sullivan his first ever series loss as the Penguins head coach.

And no, Mike Wilbon, just because they made it past the second round doesn’t mean it’s OK to lose in the Conference Finals. But considering how they got there, they showed they have at the very least changed the narrative surrounding the Capitals.

Washington lost the first two games of its series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round and went on to win four straight to advance. In the second round, they faced the two-time defending champions, a team they had beaten only once in the playoffs in franchise history and a team that had not lost a playoff series since 2015.

And they won.

And yet, people are acting like nothing changed with the Caps. Why? Because they lost three in a row to Tampa Bay?

OK, you've got a point. What kind of a team loses three straight in the playoffs? Hard-nosed teams with tough coaches that play the right way like Columbus or Anaheim wouldn’t let that happen to them. Oh, actually Columbus lost four in a row to the Caps and the Ducks got swept in the first round. Never mind.

Well, certainly not a team with a championship history like the Los Angeles Kings. Oh wait, never mind, the got swept by Vegas. Bad example.

Well, surely an original six team with a championship pedigree like the Boston Bruins would never let that happen. Oh yeah, they lost four straight to the same Tampa Bay team.

OK, OK, but were any of those teams really contenders this year? I mean, none of those teams were as good as Winnipeg and they won’t let themselves lose three in a row in the playoffs.

That’s because they lost four straight to Vegas in the conference final.

You see where this is going, right?

It just boggles the mind that anyone could see the game plan Barry Trotz put together in Game 6 in Pittsburgh, without three top-six forwards including Nicklas Backstrom, and win in overtime and still complain that he is always outcoached in the playoffs. He certainly wasn’t outcoached in that game or that series.

It’s baffling that anyone can see how Washington rallied past Columbus after losing Game 1 and Game 2, recovered from a disastrous Game 1 to Pittsburgh and won the first two games in Tampa Bay against a favored Lightning team and complain that this team “doesn’t want it enough.”

Chokers don’t advance to the third round. Chokers don’t beat the two-time defending champions when no one else could. Chokers don’t force seven games against a Tampa Bay team that finished off both of their prior series in just five games.

Just stop. Find a new storyline to push because this one is lazy and played out. It’s been done.

Don’t get me wrong, losing four in a row after winning Game 1 and Game 2 on the road would have really stung. With the history this team has, the fact that they finally got past Pittsburgh gave this team a feel of destiny. If they go on to lose Game 7 and end their run without a Stanley Cup or even a conference crown to show for it, that would be disappointing. No question about it.

But to say these are the “same old Caps” if they lose to Tampa Bay? That’s ridiculous. They have already put those demons to rest. Three straight losses to the Lightning don’t change that and neither will whatever happens in Game 7.

Regardless of what happens on Wednesday, whether the Caps win or lose, no one should come out and say these are the same old Caps. They have already proven that’s not the case.

Those Caps are gone. Now let’s see how far these Caps can go.

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