Barry Trotz does not think the Capitals’ history of playoff struggles has created a mental hurdle for the team to overcome.
“I think they’re all past that now,” Trotz said to reporters at the team’s breakdown day. “I think it’s so overworked by [the media] and everybody else that it’s actually becoming a joke to the guys.”
Well, the Caps weren’t laughing after their Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In some ways, Trotz is correct. Losing to Jaroslav Halak in 2010 is not why Washington lost to Pittsburgh this year. Giving up a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers in 2015 is not why the Caps were shutout in Game 7 by the Penguins.
RELATED: Backstrom scores decisive shootout goal to win Worlds
But there does seem to be a mental hurdle the team has not been able to overcome and the players feel it.
“I just think mentally we have to just get over it and stop crumbling in certain situations,” John Carlson said.
“I think that a lot of it's mental,” Matt Niskanen said. “It's pretty clear that we could play really well in the regular season. It's either a mental thing or how we're built or how we play the game or something. We can't play well enough to advance as is.”
Even a player like Kevin Shattenkirk, who does not share the team’s history and was new to the Caps as a trade deadline acquisition talked about the cloud that seems to hang over the organization.
“You can feel it,” Shattenkirk said. “Of course you can feel it. It’s everywhere surrounding this team. It’s media. It’s the fans. It’s the players.”
Even before the players spoke, given how the Penguins series played out, it was clear the Caps were struggling with the mental pressure of the playoffs.
Washington lost its first two games against the Penguins, their archrivals and the defending Stanley Cup champions. Facing a must-win situation in Game 4 to avoid a 3-1 series deficit and with no Sidney Crosby, the Caps laid an egg and lost 3-2 in a game in which they never led.
Things changed when Washington went down 3-1. At that point, everyone assumed they were going to lose. With no pressure on them, the Caps looked like a completely different team winning Game 5 and blowing the Penguins out in Game 6. Suddenly with the series back within their grasp in Game 7, with all the pressure back on their shoulders, Washington collapsed again and failed to even score in a 2-0 shutout loss.
“I think once we got down 1-0, you almost felt it,” T.J. Oshie said of Game 7. “The building kind of got quiet, we kind of got quiet, and we didn't find a way to regroup and respond in time to win the game.”
Even Trotz, who was adamant this team’s history is not what is holding the Caps back, acknowledged that the Penguins clearly have a “mental edge.”
“They just believe that they can beat the Washington Capitals so that's the barrier, that's their advantage right now just because they've done it,” Trotz said. “… When everything's on the line, they believe they're going to get maybe that break where a team like us who haven't broke through, maybe we don't believe we're going to get that break.”
But here’s the problem: If the past has created a mental block, how can you overcome that? That’s the issue this team is now grappling with as it tries to determine what direction to go in and how much change is needed to finally get over that mental hurdle.
“There's really nothing we can do to change the past unless we do it in the future,” Carlson said. “I think maybe we've got to get over the fact that we haven't had that much success and that's all we talk about.”
“We can't play well enough to advance as is,” Niskanen said. “Something's got to change. I don't know what it is, but as is we didn't play well enough. That's the way it is.”
MORE CAPITALS: A bitter end to a better year