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Gajtka: Hey Penguins, Aggrieved Capitals Look Poised to Crumble

The Capitals are angry, and they very much wanted you to know that during a dramatic Thursday.

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The Capitals are angry, and they very much wanted you to know that during a dramatic Thursday at PPG Paints Arena.

From T.J. Oshie griping at length about the Tom Wilson suspension, to Braden Holtby lamenting non-existent goalie interference on Evgeni Malkin‘s go-ahead goal, to Nick Bäckström firing his stick at the wall and an F-bomb at the league, Washington didn’t come close to projecting calm, cool or confidence in and around Game 4.

Yes, they’re mad as hell, even though the conventional narrative around them this year was that the pressure was off, much in the same way the pressure was off for the post-hype Sharks of 2016. And look what San José was able to do that spring after being unburdened of high expectations. It’s a nice theory, at least.

I’m not one to dwell on amateur psychology in most circumstances, but I don’t discount the mental factor when it comes to high-level performance. I don’t think hockey players ‘choke’ in the sense that golfers and place-kickers do, simply because they don’t have time to think.

But there are special cases. If I’m a Capitals fan, I’m not liking how this team has reacted to circumstances during this best-of-seven. With this second-round Stanley Cup playoff series heading back to Washington on Saturday night, the Capitals very much appear to be a team teetering on the edge of a meltdown.

Maybe they’ve already gone over the edge.

Oshie’s leaping check attempt at Kris Letang — and subsequent fight — in the dying moments of Thursday’s festivities seemed to indicate that something about how this series is playing out has dug into the Capitals’ collective psyche. Not to speak for everyone on the Washington team, but when team leaders can’t contain their emotions, it’s tough to swim against that current.

Looking for Leadership

I pin a lot of this on Barry Trotz. Unlike his counterpart in Mike Sullivan, who sounded like it pained him to lobby for supplemental discipline after Zach Aston-Reese‘s jaw was broken in Game 3, Trotz isn’t much of a deflector in media situations.

That’s great for us in this business, because Trotz makes for an interesting quote, but I’m not sure his fanning the flames of controversy in the case of Sidney Crosby‘s fabricated loogie is doing his team any favors. (Kudos to depth winger Brett Connolly for denying any validity to that ‘story.’)

For a team with the Capitals’ recent history — especially in this round against this Penguins team — one would imagine that hockey would be the priority.

Maybe tactics are tops behind the scenes, but Oshie’s airing of grievances at Thursday’s morning skate indicates a player having a difficult time moving past a past-due suspension to Wilson, mixed with the usual disdain that builds over a playoff series. Throw in the Penguins’ utter stymie of the Capitals’ attack in Game 4 and we get Oshie’s eruption and Bäckström’s tantrum in full view of several reporters.

If the Penguins and Capitals switched coaches for the remainder of the series, I think Sullivan’s straightforward approach could do wonders for Washington. Instead, Trotz’ distractable personality and lame-duck status leave the Capitals without much of a rudder heading into Game 5.

That leaves quite the burden on the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Bäckström, Holtby, Oshie and Brooks Orpik.

Home Sweet Hell?

And while most teams would treasure the opportunity to re-take control of a series on home ice, the Capitals are not most teams. Home hasn’t been much of a haven for them against the Penguins, who have gone 5-3 in D.C. over the past three playoff years. It’s not going to take much of a start for the defending champs on Saturday to transform Capital One Arena from frantic to funereal.

Mournful would be an appropriate emotion for Capitals fans if their team drops Game 5, because after a dramatic week for Washington, this has all the markings of a team on the brink. One more Penguins push might be enough to do the job.

The Capitals’ apparently fragility is of their own making, too. We hear from athletes and coaches all the time that they can only worry about the aspects of a game they can control. Hard to tell if the accumulated disappointment for this franchise is too much of a load for its leaders to bear, but it’s apparent to me that the past is more than prologue for this bunch. whether it’s from 2009, 2016, 2017 or the current series.

If this is visible from my outside perspective, I’d have to imagine the Penguins can sense that. Game 5 might as well be a closeout situation, not just for this year’s Capitals’ team, but for the core of players they’ve assembled.

Talk about an opportunity for the Penguins. Judging from the trajectory of this series and how they locked down a critical Game 4, I get the impression they will take advantage.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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