Washington Capitals Coach Barry Trotz was almost alone near midnight after his team had forced a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals Monday. Slowly, Trotz focused on two central issues. What extra burdens do his players carry, many not of their own making? And what have they done to get past that extra weight? Oh, and will it be enough, with one more win, to reach the Stanley Cup finals?
Piece by piece, he tried to explain why he is convinced that his current team, whatever its result Wednesday night at Tampa Bay, has gotten to a place where it can play freely, creatively and explosively in moments that, in the past, have paralyzed previous Caps teams, including his own, with caution and doubt.
“We’ve learned not to worry about what people think. We believe in the process and stay in the moment. We believe in ourselves, believe in the group, and we have all year,” Trotz said. “In the past we would be nervous about this Game 6. We would be, not conservative but cautious. We’ve learned that these are special moments, and you get a chance to live in those moments and not be afraid of them.”
Certainly, in Game 6, the Capitals distinguished themselves not merely with their 3-0 result, but with every aspect of their play from Braden Holtby’s goaltending to efficient penalty killing to disciplined play that minimized Tampa Bay’s high-percentage shooting chances. But there was another element that will be essential in Game 7. As was the case in wins in Games 1 and 2 on the road, the Caps played with confidence and relentless aggression.
It is not often that Lightning gets hit. But the Bolts were struck all over the ice in Game 6 by Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Devante Smith-Pelly and, more important, by every other Capital, including finesse players such as Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
“Everybody hits today,” Kuznetsov said afterward, his forehead covered with bumps and abrasions. “Early in the game, we all look at Alex coming to hit [them]. I’m pretty sure it is not comfortable for them.”
For the Caps, hockey’s version of violence, within the rules, seems to clear their minds. A full-speed collision focuses your attention wonderfully.
Only by lasering on the next split-second do the Caps have their best chance to ignore 33 years of playoff anguish and start a new franchise narrative and legacy.
“This team is actually embracing the moment and the challenge,” Trotz said after the Caps had performed at their best in exactly the circumstances when they often collapse.
“It’s a pity that the city so wants us to win that there’s pressure. . . . You have to get rid of some of the self-pity — ‘I am the victim’ — that has piled on in this market for years. Some of it is self-inflicted, no question. [But] that [history] has always been thrown in this group’s face,” Trotz said. “It’s hard getting them to understand that . . . [pause] . . . no one can kill you. We’re playing a game we like. We have a great chance to embrace that opportunity and live in that moment.’
Then, almost as surprised as delighted, Trotz said, “And they are having fun.”
This franchise, and its fans, are synonymous with sports suffering, not joy. The Caps always have been the team that, if it rode a beam of light out into the universe for an infinite time, as Einstein suggested, would end up right back where it started: blowing a two-game lead in the playoffs.
They’ve done it 10 times. If they lose Game 7 against an excellent Lightning team, the total would be 11, with this squander falling in the two-games-to-none blown-lead category, rather than the more traditional flop when leading three games to one.
This mark is sublimely hideous because the Capitals didn’t enter the NHL in 1493, but 1974, a mere blink in time. And yet they have done something unimaginable.
This season, for example, has been the best for the Caps in 20 years, no matter what happens next. They ended the Penguins’ playoff hex over them and became the first major professional Washington team to reach the final four in its sport since the 1998 Capitals lost in the Stanley Cup finals. For this, Trotz deserves to continue as coach.
Yet if the Caps don’t reach the finals in Ovechkin’s 13th season, it will be another blotch on his era. In the wide-open NHL postseason, it’s not just Presidents’ Trophy winners (three for the Caps), but any good team that makes the playoffs that has a decent chance at the finals. These Caps would still be O-Fer.
Both are truth, but each makes it harder to see the other clearly.
Trotz and the entire Caps organization have, in recent years, attacked this triple-narrative confusion by trying to blow it all up and, instead, focus entirely on the briefest possible narrative: the story of the next shift, the next check and the next split-second.
“We must focus on the next event,” Trotz said after Game 6. “Focus on the inches, not the yards and miles ahead of us.”
You can’t shake a tree without a coach in some sport preaching process as the method to beat pressure. Oh, it’s true. But, in every game, the best antidote to a tense obsession with the final score is to be the underdog. Maybe it’s atavistic, something to do with large mammoths and small cave men in need of food.
The Caps have that underdog psychological edge now based on Tampa Bay’s better regular season record and its trips to the Stanley Cup finals and conference finals in two of the past three years. Yet the Caps know they have outplayed the Lightning in four games already and have outscored them 19-15 overall. Only the Bolts know if they have taken more lumps. It seems like it.
Game 7s are a world of their own, in which unlikely heroes and goats materialize and luck often mocks analysis or superior story lines, such as, “It’s Time for Alex to Play for a Cup.”
Whatever the outcome, Trotz remains proud of this “special” team.
“The Stanley Cup playoffs might be the hardest thing in sports, physically and emotionally,” Trotz said. “This was our 18th playoff game and our 100th game of the year. We’ve played five overtime games. Figure out the emotional and physical investment behind that.
“No one has any idea how tough this is. But because these guys are embracing it, it’s becoming fun. That is the hump to get over. They’re all in.”
At the top levels of sport, strong, resilient team character isn’t always enough. The other team may have it, too. But staying in the moment, welcoming the challenge of pressure and relishing the violent fun of a game you have always loved is certainly the right place to start. And, perhaps, a novel one for the Capitals.
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