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Nate Schmidt ready to make 'next jump' into the Caps' top-4

Nate Schmidt ready to make 'next jump' into the Caps' top-4

The playoffs were a major disappointment for the Capitals as a team.

The playoffs, however, were very good for Nate Schmidt as an individual.

The 25-year-old’s postseason journey began the same way the regular season had ended—with him slotted as Washington’s spare defenseman. But that all changed in Game 3 of the opening round when Karl Alzner was unable to suit up due to injury.

Schmidt played so well that he never came back out.

“I thought the playoffs were really good for me personally,” he said recently. “I thought I could have brought a little bit more, especially in the last game. [But] I think that hopefully the management or the staff believes that I can make the next jump and move up to that ever elusive top-4.”

He certainly made a strong argument in the playoffs.

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Schmidt registered assists in each of his first two games vs. Toronto and finished the postseason with a goal and three assists in 11 games. He also led the team with a +6 rating.

That strong playoff performance followed a tough second half of the regular season for Schmidt. He was bumped out of the lineup altogether when Kevin Shattenkirk was acquired at the trade deadline. Schmidt showed well in the final four games of the regular season as a fill-in for John Carlson, who was injured at the time. But as the playoffs began, Schmidt was once again the odd man out.

As hard as that was for Schmidt, he accepted his role, worked hard to stay prepared and waited patiently for another shot.

As it turned out, he didn't have to wait very long. Alzner suffered a broken right hand in the playoff opener and by Game 3 was unable to suit up.

Schmidt got the call and never looked back.

“You have to make an impact,” he said. “When I played with John in the Toronto series, I thought we made an impact. When I played with [Shattenkirk] at the end of the [Pittsburgh] series, I thought we made an impact when we were on the ice. And that’s all I really wanted to do—just go make an impact.”

In the wake of the Caps’ elimination, Schmidt has struggled with a couple of conflicting emotions. He’s pleased that he played well. He’s devastated that the team came up way short of expectations.    

“You never want to hit the rewind button [because] everything happens for a reason,” he said. “But that’s probably the first time where I got off the ice and I didn’t really believe it had happened and that it was all a bad dream, especially those couple of minutes at the end [of Game 7] when we didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities to score. You just realized that was the way the game was going to go.”

He added: “It’s definitely on us. That’s the reason it hurts so much more [than 2016]. You see how banged up [the Penguins] were. We had a chance to beat them…”

As another offseason begins a month earlier than anyone in Washington expected, there’s a lot of uncertainty swirling. Schmidt is a restricted free agent and due a healthy raise, as are many of his teammates. He also figures to be a tantalizing option for the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft.

Assuming he returns to Washington, though, Schmidt is confident that he solified his worth and proved he's ready for more responsibility in 2017-18.   

“That’s where you want to be,” he said of sliding into the top-4, a move Dmitry Orlov made a year ago. “That’s the next step for me. That’s what I want to do, and I think I put myself in position to be that type of defenseman for our team.”

MORE CAPITALS: Free agency presents Alzner with first taste of unknown

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Caps players acknowledge there is a mental block holding them back

Caps players acknowledge there is a mental block holding them back

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

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Nicklas Backstrom scores decisive shootout goal as Sweden wins World Championship

Nicklas Backstrom scores decisive shootout goal as Sweden wins World Championship

Nicklas Backstrom won't be lifting the Stanley Cup this June, but he is not leaving this hockey season empty-handed as Team Sweden defeated Team Canada 2-1 in a shootout on Sunday to win gold in the IIHF World Championship. Backstrom scored what proved to be the decisive shootout goal against Colorado Avalanche goalie Calvin Pickard.

The goal salvaged what had been a rough day for the Backstrom who took two minor penalties in the game. He finished the tournament with three goals and four assists in five games played including Sunday's shootout goal. Per IIHF rules, game-winning shootout goals are recorded as goals in the tournament's official stats.

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In addition, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov are coming home with a bronze medal after Russia’s 5-3 win over Finland. Russia relinquished a 2-0 third period lead to Canada in Saturday’s semifinal loss. On Sunday, Russia jumped out to a 4-0 lead over Finland and then gave up three straight goals before Nikita Kucherov put it away late.

In five games, Kuznetsov scored one goal and two assists while Orlov recorded one goal.

Washington’s fourth representative, Philipp Grubauer, saw his tournament end in the quarterfinals as his native Germany fell to Canada 2-1 despite Grubauer recording 48 saves in the effort. Grubauer finished the tournament with a 2.42 GAA and .938 save percentage in two games played.

MORE CAPITALS: Backstrom has become vocal leader of the Caps