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Entering do-or-die game, Capitals ‘need to loosen up a bit and just play hockey’

Braden Holtby looks at the crowd at PPG Paints Arena after a Pittsburgh goal in Game 4. (John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

With the Washington Capitals‘ promising season on the edge of ending, it’s natural that the team is feeling pressure. The issue is that the stress over struggling in this Eastern Conference semifinal series has been bleeding into the Capitals’ play, and has often been the very cause of their struggles.

So as Washington prepares to play Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night and try to climb out of a three-games-to-one hole, part of the formula for success is the team getting back to its fun-loving identity.

Caps vs. Pens: Everything you need to know for Game 5

“We just realize we’re a group that’s been a bit tight,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We need to loosen up a bit and just play hockey. That’s when we play our best, when we don’t worry about anything. We play for each other and that’s what it’s going to take to get this done. …

“If we had the magic secret, it wouldn’t have happened. That’s life. That’s human nature. It’s about how hard you fight through it in the end. I think we’re on the right track. But it’s going to show tonight. Mentally, we’re in the right place and focused. I think we have the right group to do it.”

The Capitals have outshot the Penguins, 142-93, in this series, but they’ve scored just nine goals in the four games. Washington’s Game 4 loss on Wednesday night felt especially like a wasted opportunity with the Capitals recording 20 more shots on goal than Pittsburgh and still unable to beat a Penguins team missing its best player in captain Sidney Crosby. Crosby, who suffered a concussion in Game 3, is a game-time decision for Game 5.

Pens’ coach: Crosby passed baseline concussion test, has ‘had a number of really positive days’

That Washington’s players feel uptight is understandable. The NHL’s best regular season team two years in a row, the Capitals lost to the Penguins in the second round last season, and this represents a last chance of sorts for this roster with 11 players entering either restricted or unrestricted free agency this summer. The team has also been constantly reminded that it hasn’t advanced to a conference final in 19 years.

“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,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “In my mind, we’ve seen that it hasn’t worked when we play like that, so we’re a pretty loose group when we’re playing well, and I think we have to realize that.

“We have a lot of guys here who, when they’re not thinking, they’re almost playing better. That’s what we need to get back to, just playing the game, reading, reacting and not focus so much on, ‘Am I in the right spot?’ or, ‘I have to make this play.’ Sometimes, you just have to take what’s given to you.”

Shattenkirk can attest to the power of that. Earlier in the series, he acknowledged he wasn’t playing well. “The most important thing for me to do is have fun, and I think that’s something I’ve lost along the way here,” he said before Game 3. Shattenkirk was traded to the Capitals in late February, and he looked to his teammates for encouragement. He then scored the overtime game-winning goal in Game 3 to spark the joy back into his game.

“You can’t play well if you’re tight,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It’s like if you’re a sprinter, 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.”

Defenseman Karl Alzner agreed that “it just seems like we need to have more fun” and that the Capitals are “a skilled team that plays just a fun style of hockey and if we’re too tense, then we don’t play that way.” The team got a chance to clear its head by taking Thursday off before returning to the ice on Friday and Saturday morning. Coach Barry Trotz said he sensed Washington was tense in the first two games of the series, but he thought that dissipated when the teams moved to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4.

How can he lighten things up before a pivotal Game 5?

“I don’t know, throw in a couple jokes or something?” Trotz said. “Let’s just go play with joy. Let’s enjoy the experience of just going out and playing. You get to play in a big game, and enjoy that experience. I think we were pretty loose today. I didn’t feel that we were a little bit tight. Sometimes you say, what the heck, and just go for it. That’s what we’re going to do.”