The Washington Capitals were down, clearly outplayed in the second period, but as Evgeny Kuznetsov looked around the locker room during the second intermission, he loved what he saw. He has seen tense expressions in that room before. The majority of Washington’s roster has sat devastated in that room after past second-round-series games. But that second intermission was different.
“I wish you could be in the room,” Kuznetsov said. “You can see those eyes. Everyone was chilling. Everyone was on the same page.”
Kuznetsov scored less than a minute after the Capitals came out of the locker room for the third period, tying the game en route to Washington’s 6-3 win in Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the team returned to the locker room after the game, players said their “belief” in each other never wavered. They’ve tossed that word around a lot these playoffs, and in a season that tested the Capitals with more injuries and off-ice drama than Washington had seen in its first three years under Coach Barry Trotz, the team got closer and stronger through the adversity.
That might be why these Capitals, who acknowledge they’re less talented, less deep and less experienced than those past seasons, are one win away from advancing to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 20 years. They’ve been without top-line right wing Tom Wilson for two games because he was suspended for an illegal check to the head. Skilled forward Andre Burakovsky hasn’t played in a game this series because of an “upper-body” injury that required surgery. On Saturday night, Washington played most of the third period without top center Nicklas Backstrom, who suffered an “upper-body” injury that’s put his status in question for Monday’s Game 6. As they did throughout the season, the Capitals have endured the bumps and pressed onward.
“It’s hard to quantify,” Trotz said. “I look back at a number of teams I’ve had. I’ve had some teams that have been very, very talented, and they weren’t necessarily the best teams. They were the most talented teams. Some of the best teams, if you talk to any coach who’s coached, it doesn’t matter what level, they’ll tell you about a team that was a better team than maybe just skill and stats and all that, and they became a real good group. I think the belief in the group, or the chemistry in the group, is the intangible.
“This group has a good chemistry about it.”
Captain Alex Ovechkin deserves credit for believing from the first day of training camp. “We’re not going to be suck this year,” he said then, a quote that’s since been immortalized on a T-shirt. External expectations were low after Washington’s roster had been decimated because of offseason salary-cap constraints and the Vegas expansion draft. The Capitals had to replace two top-six forwards and three defensemen with rookies and inexpensive free agent additions. Then just five games into the season, defenseman Matt Niskanen broke his left hand, and Burakovsky broke his thumb three games later. It was fair to wonder whether Washington’s playoff hopes would survive the early-season injuries after the Capitals had been the league’s healthiest team the year before.
But the low point came after Niskanen had returned to the lineup. During a November road trip to Nashville and Colorado, the Capitals were badly beaten in both games. In the visiting locker room after the loss to the Avalanche, Trotz tore into his team and called some players out by name. Trotz had sensed his team needed some space to start the season because last year’s second-round loss to Pittsburgh had been so heartbreaking that it lingered through the first 20 games of this campaign. But he felt like the grace period had lasted long enough.
“It was a lot of truth to all that was said,” Trotz said of that November conversation. “We didn’t really hold back, but we didn’t make up stuff. There wasn’t anything made up. It was right there. They took the initiative of saying, ‘You know what? He’s right. And we’re going to get this done as a group.’ They started, everybody lining up correctly. From that point forward, we were able to go forward. Sometimes you can’t until you clear the air a little bit.”
Trotz had a similar airing of grievances during his first year as coach in 2014, but what he said then that he couldn’t this time was that he wasn’t going anywhere. His lame-duck contract status has hovered over this season, and as the Capitals started to slide during that November stretch, a coaching change was plausible. Fueling speculation was that top assistant Todd Reirden had another year left on his contract. Trotz had avoided playing Ovechkin and Backstrom on the same line to that point, and equating the team to a family, a person familiar with the situation said that some “family drama” between the organization’s two longest-tenured superstars had led to Trotz’s hesitation. It was seemingly resolved as he reunited them a week after that loss in Colorado, and the Capitals then won 11 of their next 13 games en route to a third straight Metropolitan Division crown.
As past playoff runs came to a too-early end, players had acknowledged that perhaps things had come too easily for them. They crumbled under the postseason pressure. For all the flaws this team had, that wasn’t one of them, and its biggest test is the next one, closing out the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Penguins.
“There’s a lot of belief in this room,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “We know the history. We know what’s happened to us in the past. But right now, we have a lot of belief and a lot of trust in each other. …
“I imagine this will be one of the toughest games any of us have ever faced.”