In years past, after annual disappointment rendered him and his Washington Capitals teammates spectators, John Carlson would experience a recurring insight. Having been dispatched from the playoffs by the second round at the latest, Carlson would watch the remainder of the postseason from his couch. Two or three weeks would pass by the time the Stanley Cup finals began, and Carlson would have the same notion.
“Man,” Carlson would think. “I can’t believe these guys are still playing hockey.”
In hockey circles, the Stanley Cup is regarded as both the ultimate prize and a survival test. It is called, to the point of cliche, “the hardest trophy to win in professional team sports.” As the Capitals have broken through their second-round hex and stormed to within one victory of hoisting the Cup, they have also discovered a physical and mental toll unique in sports.
Nearly the entire Capitals roster had experienced the Stanley Cup playoffs before, but only a dose that lasted less than a month. Thursday night in Las Vegas, where they can close out the Golden Knights and claim the first title in franchise history, the Capitals will play their 24th playoff game in 57 days. All hockey players understand and revere the cost of playing for the Stanley Cup. The Capitals now have a new appreciation for it.
“The longer you play in this league, the more you realize how hard it is,” forward Lars Eller said. “The road to get here is so long. There’s so many ups and downs during the way and so many things that have to go right that you don’t really have any control over sometimes. I don’t see any other sports where it’s harder to reach this point.”
The NHL playoffs require participants to test themselves in ways other sports do not, both physically and mentally, borrowing from the hardest aspects of all of them. They have the frequency of basketball, the random breaks of baseball and the physicality of football. Players launch themselves into one another at terrific speed, at peak intensity, and use their bodies to block a hunk of frozen rubber hurtling at velocities close to 100 miles per hour. They live and die with every goal, many of which are the product of lucky bounces.
“When the mind gets real tired, and you think that you can’t do it, you can’t,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “When your mind is strong — we have strong minds on our team — you’re able to go way further than you ever thought you could. That’s what you find out when you get these opportunities. You find out what you can take and how much you have to give. You find out that you can take a lot more and you can give a lot more. That’s one of the things that you learn.”
Veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik is the lone Capital who has lifted a Stanley Cup, winning it in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. After a morning skate before Game 4, he wore thick tape around both hands, his left pinkie covered in a massive wrap. Many hits have left Orpik sprawled on the ice since mid-April, but he has kept bouncing up.
“You try to take it day by day and not think about the end of the road,” Orpik said. “If you do it that way, you’re just tiptoeing toward the end. A lot of it is more in your mind than your body. Everybody is in such good shape, your body is capable of doing a lot of things you probably don’t think it can. It’s more kind of tricking your mind.”
The playoffs actually require fewer games than during the regular season, when teams sometimes play on consecutive days and extra off days for travel are not factored in. But the stakes make one playoff game feel like multiple regular-season games packed into one night.
“The emotional toll on your body is just way, way harder and higher,” Eller said. “It swings back and forth so much. It feels like it takes years out of your life. Especially with the OTs. It’s just like, sometimes you have to play almost a half game more. I don’t know any other sports like that. Those games, you are physically just depleted after.”
“The more that you focus on calming your brain down, calming your body down to be able to fully tell it to recover and not be on edge all the time, I think that’s a huge advantage that I’ve been wary of,” Carlson said. “You have to take care of your body all the time. When the mind shuts down, and it allows you to relax when you’re supposed to relax, you’re going to be better off.”
Capitals players altered their between-game conditioning routines, eliminating weightlifting and cardiovascular training to conserve energy. Coaches allow players to rest for portions of practices and skip some entirely, at their choosing. Trainers work extra time, constantly available for players to use hot tubs, cold tubs, foam rollers and massage tables.
“For the older guys, you probably have it dialed in a little bit more,” Carlson said. “You know that if you do this, you sleep this amount of time, do this workout, you’re going to feel a lot better than if you did nothing, or if you had an hour-long practice. Everyone’s little things are different. It’s all about just trusting yourself and what you know is going to make you feel the best.”
For some players, the extra diligence combined with the adrenaline rush makes the physical strain disappear. “Personally, me right now, I feel better now than I did at the beginning of the playoffs,” forward T.J. Oshie said before Game 4. “We’re rolling.”
The Capitals, after so many years of letdowns, are finally the ones left standing. They are learning how hard it is to still be playing hockey in early June, but they know for sure it beats watching from the couch.
“I think the people who play in this until four rounds, you just enjoy the moment,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Maybe you’re never going to have a chance to play like one time like that.”
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