Capitals look to rally around ‘leader’ Niskanen in Game 6

Matt Niskanen talks with reporters about why he blames himself for the three goals the Tampa Bay Lightning scored in Game 5.

TAMPA, Fla. — Matt Niskanen sat in his visitor’s stall after Saturday night’s loss in Tampa, and the veteran defender took a deep breath, and then he took all the blame.

“It was pin-balling around in the neutral zone,” the soft- and carefully-spoken 31-year-old said, describing the play that led to that first goal, just 19 seconds in. Niskanen looked at the floor, then came that deep inhale and exhale.

“I stepped up, didn’t get the man or the puck, they got a 2-on-1 out of it and scored,” he said, matter-of-factly. “The first three goals were all my fault. I had a tough first 20 minutes and 30 seconds, so I’ve got to be better next game.”

The only part of that statement that rings true is the last bit—Niskanen, along with the rest of the Washington Capitals, all have to be better in Game 6 of this Eastern Conference Final. It’s a do-or-die, backs-against-the-wall, all the clichés in the book match-up to earn a chance at Game 7 and a shot at the trophy they’ve never won.

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But leave it to big-bodied Tom Wilson, who has stirred up the most drama of any Capitals player this post-season (thanks to head shots), to put things in perspective.

“I think he’s probably being a little bit dramatic,” Wilson said, with a grin, just after he acknowledged how integral Niskanan is to this team. “There’s five guys on the ice. I didn’t see it that way. I don’t think many guys did.”

We’ll let Braden Holtby break it down, just to hammer the point home.

“I think that’s just Matt being a real professional and a real leader for our team,” the goalie said, minutes after Saturday’s 3-2 loss, which gave the Lightning a 3-2 series lead. “I think that the first goal is definitely not all on him, that’s a lost battle before that, and a guy makes a great play diving and putting it into the middle. It just happens.

“The next one he’s put into a tough situation, because Orly [Dmitry Orlov] got tripped. He’s caught there, it’s a 2-on-1 if he can gap up, that’s not an easy play and he takes away everything and [the puck] somehow finds its way through him,” Holby continued.

“It’s not on him, that’s just the way hockey goes sometimes. He’s been an absolute rock and he’s gonna be, just like the rest of us, in Game 6.”

Niskanen has been on the right side of plus-minus the last seven years of his NHL career and he’s no doubt a big reason the Capitals have come this far, on that first D-unit, along with Orlov. It was Niskanen’s point shot, deflected by Evgeny Kuznetsov, that got Washington on the board Saturday, that spurred a comeback that was too little, too late.

“He’s a stand-up guy,” coach Barry Trotz said. “He doesn’t run from anything. We do it as a team. I do sort of honour his ability to stand up and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t have a great game.’ There’s other factors. He wasn’t the only guy. We win and lose as a team, as an organization, all those things.

“He’s very valuable to us,” Trotz continued. “He’s been a rock for us, not only on the ice, off the ice. He’s been exceptional. Matt is one of those guys, very low maintenance, never have to worry about.”

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Niskanen faces the media after every single loss. What stands out about him is the fact he takes a moment to think before he gives his answers, which is both a novelty and a treat. It also means he probably thought long and hard about his words following Game 5’s loss, maybe taking ownership to protect his teammates, or maybe because he truly believed it.

“Nisky is one of the best teammates,” Wilson said. “He doesn’t say much obviously. He works so hard. He’s a huge factor for us. It’s not easy at this time of year to come out and say that…

“If he feels that way, I’m sure he’ll be stepping up for the next one. That’s what leadership is. He’s definitely a big-time leader. We all got to have each other’s back, go into this one as a team, make sure we get it done.”

The chance comes Monday, back in Washington, or else the Capitals’ season will be over.

And then, who’ll be the one to shoulder the blame?

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