As the Washington Capitals sat in the dressing room at their Arlington, Va., practice facility ahead of a flight to Boston for a final showdown with the Boston Bruins in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, the mood was noticeably loose.
Players lobbed well-intended jabs at one another, exchanged jokes with reporters and seemed relaxed to the point that an uninformed observer might not have believed the team will be fighting to keep its season alive tonight in Game 7 at TDGarden.
There's no reason to be anything but calm, the Capitals said. Most have been here before — facing a game that ultimately will determine the success or failure of everything they've accomplished to this point. Even those with minimal NHL playoff experience endured an often-unpredictable, sometimes tense 2011-12 season that tested the group's ability to come together and find an identity within a defensive system under the guidance of a rookie head coach.
While the Capitals certainly haven't followed any script laid out for them, they are one win away from advancing to the second round past the defending Stanley Cup champions. All that remains is to trust in one another and the system for what should be another tight game.
"We're content with where we are. It's kind of who we are," veteran Mike Knuble said. "And so I'm excited to go, excited to get it under way. Guys are comfortable and confident, and that's what you want going into Game7. You look around the room and know that everybody's going to be in this game and everybody's going to show up."
Since they returned to the playoffs in 2008, the Capitals are 1-3 in Game7s. Washington lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008, defeated the New York Rangers in the first round before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven in 2009, and lost to the Montreal Canadiens in 2010. Seven players remain on the roster from that series against the Flyers four years ago, but only five — Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Brooks Laich — played in each Game7.
Washington's postseason disappointments weren't limited to those do-or-die contests, as several younger players realized the disappointing sting of elimination when the team was swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round in 2011.
"We've learned from [the previous exits]," said defenseman Jeff Schultz, who is expected to get back into the lineup tonight. "We know when we get to the last five minutes of the game to be calm out there if we're holding a lead or need a goal. Guys know not to get too jacked up."
There are undeniable differences between this year's team and previous incarnations, from the addition of new players to the presence of coach Dale Hunter and the defense-first mindset he brought to a group that was accustomed to run-and-gun.
Learning to adhere to Hunter's style of play was an arduous process. During the regular season, Washington would play cohesively one night, only to be dysfunctional the next.
By the time they scraped their way into the postseason, the Capitals were grounded in their game. Washington has been at its most consistent under Hunter in this series. The violent swings in the team's ability to execute that dotted the regular season are all but absent, enabling the Capitals to weather the emotional flux of the playoffs with relative ease.
"I think everybody feels better," Backstrom said. "Everybody's working for each other and that's what you've got to do. If we keep doing like this, I think we'll win tomorrow or we'll have a good chance."
Said Troy Brouwer, "When we've been getting down a goal or two goals, we're staying composed."
The Capitals' ability to remain poised and unflinching in their dedication to the type of play that helped them reach this point will hold sway over their fortunes in Game 7 against the Bruins. There's no point in getting uptight.
"There's no point in having nerves right now," rookie goalie Braden Holtby said. "This is fun. This is what we're hoping for. We're still the underdogs here. We're going into Boston, and I know we like that energy in our dressing room right now and we're going to use that to our advantage."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun