The Washington Capitals have told themselves there will be another day. They feel confident that there will be another game beyond the winner-take-all, loser-go-home meeting with the New York Islanders tonight, the seventh and last in these Eastern Conference quarterfinals. They believe they will watch the next round while playing in it themselves, not sitting on their couches at home, stewing and wondering what could have been.
They have told themselves they will meet again inside this practice facility to scheme and watch video of the New York Rangers, the opponent awaiting whichever club emerges victorious from Verizon Center, and not to conduct exit interviews. Deep down, they insisted that all this work wouldn't be for naught, that what they accomplished in coach Barry Trotz's first season wouldn't be overshadowed by another early-round, Game 7 exit.
They convinced themselves of these things because concentrating on anything else would be to acknowledge the alternative.
"The main thing is having no regrets," forward Joel Ward said. "You don't want to have any shoulda-woulda-couldas."
One day before what might become their final game together this season, the Capitals gathered at their practice facility loose and looking ahead. Trotz had canceled practice, allowing one last group inhale before the final plunge. Ward joked about heading home to nap and watch "The Cosby Show." Everyone spoke about the excitement of confronting another Game 7 together and not the looming prospect of the end.
"It's kind of the game we all wait for," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "You don't want to have to be in any do-or-die games, but at the same time, it's super exciting because there's so much at stake and you see who can rise to that occasion, that challenge, and knowing you might have that excited feeling at the end of the game, it's something that drives you. It's a lot of fun."
"You just relax," Ward said Sunday. "Tomorrow will be more ramped up as it gets closer. Today's just rest and chilling."
Many had been here before, tempering emotions and tweaking assignments at such a critical juncture. Thirteen of them played in the Capitals' last Game 7, a 5-0 ejection into the summer of 2013 by the Rangers, and of them, only Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson didn't appear in the Game 7 before that, a narrow 2-1 loss to the Rangers on May 12, 2012.
These Capitals are far more familiar with seventh games than Trotz, the man hired to inject his experience into the franchise. Not since 1995-96, when he coached the Portland Pirates in the American Hockey League, has Trotz presided over a Game 7. He reached the postseason in seven of eight seasons with the Nashville Predators, never advancing beyond the second round and never again tasting what he did almost two decades ago. "That's when I had long hair and a mullet," he cracked.
He addressed the Capitals at a team meeting Sunday afternoon, laying bare his thoughts from their Game 6 loss at Nassau Coliseum, their only chance to clinch this series without the fear of getting eliminated, too. He discussed minor tweaks, like reinserting forward Curtis Glencross into the lineup after a three-game scratch, and hoped the players would control their passion after a chippy end that featured a brawl after the final horn blared.
But to a certain extent, as his counterpart, Jack Capuano, had declared the previous night, Trotz had done all he could. At a certain point, he needed to sit back and watch his charges work.
"I just want them to leave their best game out there," he said. "Leave your best game out there, and if it's good enough, you win, and if it's not, you can look back and say, 'Hey, I left it all out there. I don't have an ounce of anything left to give.' And if you do that, the result, good or bad, you can keep your head up high."