Why the Capitals still believe this year might be different

Capitals winger Tom Wilson says they'll continue to pound the rock and play the brand of hockey that got them to the top, because you have to win four games to advance.

ARLINGTON, Va. – Barry Trotz had heard this story about Justin Williams.

It came from the 2012 Stanley Cup final after Los Angeles had taken a 3-0 series lead against the New Jersey Devils, only to lose the next two games. There was tension in the hours before Game 6.

“(I heard) they were all sitting there real nervous,” Trotz relayed Friday. “Justin just started chuckling when it was pretty tense. … Everybody looked at him and he just said: ‘I’m going to enjoy celebrating a Cup with you guys tonight.”’

The rest is history.

Los Angeles scored three first-period goals and claimed the first championship in franchise history. The story about how Williams lightened the mood beforehand now gets passed around hockey circles over cold ones at the lake.

It is the precise reason why the Capitals signed the three-time Stanley Cup winner as a free agent last summer. It’s why they took a chance on his former Kings teammate Mike Richards by bringing him in midway through the year.

The Capitals were built with a moment like this one in mind – down 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins heading into Saturday’s game at Verizon Center.

They have played four one-goal games and the margins have been tight in each of them. They have to find a way to create the extra break or bounce or else their season will be over at least a month too soon again.

“I think this time of year, it’s the intangible qualities that the team brings together,” said Williams. “The confidence that everyone can bring. The not hanging your head attitude. The ‘go get it.’ You’ve got to err on the side of enthusiasm, not apprehension.

“We’re going to go out there and we’re going to plant our toes, not our heels, and hopefully it will work out for us.”

Trotz is intent on trying to work the odds a little more in his team’s favour.

He’ll enjoy the last line change in Game 5 and appears ready to employ different units – with Evgeny Kuznetsov moving up to centre Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie at Friday’s practice while Nicklas Backstrom formed an all-Swedish line with Marcus Johansson and Andre Burakovsky.

The Capitals coach described the shakeup as using the other side of his brain, adding: “You know, we don’t have anything to lose right now.”

What the changes might also do is give his team more scoring depth throughout the lineup, just like the Penguins have. Williams was one of Washington’s better players on the offensive side of the puck during the two games in Pittsburgh and now finds himself on a third line with Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera.

The great thing about the playoffs is that it offers players and teams the chance to author a new story each year. The Capitals entered this spring trying to shake the reputation of perpetually falling short of lofty expectations, and can do that in a big way if they manage to climb back in this series against Pittsburgh.

“This group is not afraid of where we’re at,” said Trotz.

“We’re not where we want to be but we have to accept the challenge,” added Kuznetsov. “We want to come out hard. It’s a new game for us and that’s what I love about it. I love that we have one more life left, you know?”

They will be leaning on the experience in the dressing room to make sure they deliver their best punch.

Williams has seen the circumstances of a series change quickly in the past. His 2014 Kings team pulled out of an 0-3 hole against San Jose. Once you string a few good periods together he believes you can “create doubt in their team.”

“I think if you look at a lot of the last Stanley Cup champions, it’s not all roses, it’s not all being up in every series and being in the driver’s seat,” said Williams. “You’ve got to push, you’ve got to have some adversity and you’ve got to find a way as a team to battle through it.

“And I know we can do it.”

He might even say so before puck drop.

It’ll probably depend on the mood or how the situation feels. Trotz has faith that his leaders will know what to do when the time is right – even if it only ends up being five or six words that put everyone in the right frame of mind.

“Sometimes that’s very powerful,” said Trotz. “It’s not a big speech, it’s knowing the moment I think. And we have guys that do that. … I trust this group. This group’s got a lot of resiliency, it’s grown, it’s going to leave everything out on the ice.

“That’s all you can ask at the end of the day.”

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