RALEIGH, N.C. — Washington fourth-line center Nic Dowd stood in the bowels of PNC Arena after the Capitals’ 5-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday night. Out of his pads and wearing casual team gear, he watched highlights from the game on a nearby TV.
Standing in silence, eyes fixed on the replays in front of him, Dowd’s demeanor mirrored the rest of the Capitals’ dressing room after their Game 3 hiccup. From center Nicklas Backstrom, to forward Lars Eller to captain Alex Ovechkin, the veteran group was calm. More than anything, the Capitals knew this game doesn’t decide the series, and Washington showed no sense of panic heading into Thursday’s Game 4 in Raleigh with its two-game series lead cut in half.
"[Monday] was a little step back for us, and now we have to take a step forward the next game,” Eller said. “We know what we’re capable of.”
As defending Stanley Cup champions, the Capitals know how to regroup, move forward and bounce back. With a veteran team still holding a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series, the group has the experience and self-awareness to recognize its errors and what it takes to fix them. The Capitals won’t throw away the tape from the disappointing Game 3, Coach Todd Reirden said. Instead, they will use it, like Dowd was trying to do just minutes after the game.
“You’re obviously going to have your ups and downs through the playoffs, highs and lows, but overall you’ve just got to make sure you manage the game and make sure you do the right things at the right time,” Backstrom said. “As this group maybe proved last year, we kept calm. If anything happens — you score a goal or you let in a goal — you’ve got to keep calm, I think, and make sure you stick to the game plan.”
The Capitals are no strangers to playoff adversity. Last year, they climbed out of a 2-0 hole to open the first round against Columbus, vanquished their demons by finally beating Pittsburgh in the second round, lost three straight after opening a 2-0 series lead against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals, and then, at last, bounced back after a Game 1 loss to Vegas in the Stanley Cup finals to win four straight en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
“We’re more prepared mentally and emotionally to handle stuff than we’ve ever been,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said before the playoffs. “Having success in those critical moments, I think, gives everybody a little confidence that they can handle it. You look at teams that are always looking to add guys who have won before. We have a team full of them. That’s obviously a positive sign.”
Reirden said he expects his leadership group, which he called the strongest in the league, to spearhead the response in Game 4. This team knows where its cracks are and how to fix them.
“We’re far from a finished product at this point,” Reirden said. “We’re just looking to try to get better every day, and we took a step back in some areas in Game 3 and I expect us to make those improvements and put forth a better result and a better outcome on Thursday.”
Multiple inefficiencies were spotlighted Monday, including the Capitals’ defensive struggles, their inability to get the puck out of their end, the lack of production from their bottom-six forwards and struggles on the power play after a strong Game 1.
“They’ve been better at [the power play] than us the last two games, and we need to have a different, better plan in place to be able to capitalize in those situations when we get on the power play or need a big kill at the right time of the game,” Reirden said.
Most telling Monday night was Carolina’s ability to combat Washington’s physical style. The Capitals were still bruisers throughout, but Carolina stayed on the Capitals with an aggressive forecheck that has started to give the Capitals fits in the offensive zone. Washington has been used to being the more physical team in the playoffs, and that played a major role in why they were able to win games last spring.
“They came out hard, and they played physical,” Backstrom said of the Hurricanes in Game 3. “That’s the way they did it. I think we just have to learn from it and make sure we adjust and get better and go at them on Thursday.”
And the Hurricanes know that the Capitals won’t have any chance of coming out flat again. The two days off between games will provide a chance for the players to recover and refresh themselves before they hit the ice again.
“I think when you are a veteran team that knows how to win and has won, sometimes, they know they are still up 2-1,” Hurricanes Coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “They are halfway through that game going — and you can see it — they kind of went, ‘all right,’ and they were thinking about the next game. So we weren’t, and that’s why you get it to look like that. We understand that it is going to be a whole new game [Thursday].”
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