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Capitals playing to avoid the pain

by Dan Rosen /
Washington Capitals Playoff GearARLINGTON, Va. -- Washington left wing Brooks Laich will never forget that feeling of losing Game 7 last year to the Philadelphia Flyers. If he has a worst enemy, he wouldn't be cruel enough to wish that kind of pain on that person.

"When (Joffrey) Lupul scored I sat on the bench and it honestly felt like someone had just ripped my heart out," Laich said. "We had been on such a run for two or three months leading up to that. We had won our last seven in a row to get into the playoffs. We had battled back from down 3-1 (to the Flyers) and all of a sudden it just felt like we died. It was the worst feeling and I don't wish it upon anybody. Your season crashes and it's all over, and that's why you fight so hard to avoid it."

The Capitals are staring at another potential heartbreaking or uplifting Game 7 Wednesday night at Verizon Center when the Pittsburgh Penguins come in to complete this historical best-of-7 Eastern Conference Semifinal series (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS).

They buy into the drama that goes into a Game 7 from the fans and media point of view, but when the puck drops they're still just hockey players and it's still just a hockey game. They've done this thousands of times … or, at least, that's what the Caps are telling themselves going into this Game 7, which will be their third in a row dating back to that crusher against the Flyers last year.

They're 1-1 in the final showdown, but never before have the Capitals played in a game that is drawing the monumental pre-game hype that this one is.

"To me, it's what is going to make these guys great and it's going to make them remember," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "No one is going to remember who lost in Game 7, but they have the ability, and this is what I told them (Monday), to create history again. They did it in the first series (defeating the New York Rangers in Game 7). It's not done very often to stave off elimination and we're going to try it again."

Even though hockey players are creatures of habit, Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom admits the mindset of a player leading up to Game 7 is different than it is for any other game, be it in the regular season or the playoffs.

"I think you have to think that it's a normal game because you're doing the same things and you have to prepare the same, but maybe it's a little extra because it's a Game 7 and you're a little more nervous," Backstrom said. "That's kind of normal I think. You're mostly nervous before the game, and when you play the game you're just normal."

They do, however, feel what the fans and the media both feel.

"You feel the crowd," Backstrom said. "It's crazy out there."

"You have the same anxieties that you have in Game 6 with being able to be eliminated," added Boudreau, "but now both teams have it so it magnifies everything."

That microscope, center David Steckel said, "makes you play simple," which is how most hockey teams win championships.

"I'm not going to say it's another game, but in playoffs everything is magnified so much so you get accustomed to intensity and how important everything is," center Boyd Gordon said. "Everyone here is aware of that."

Which is why as the game goes on it becomes less about the potential finality of a season and more about just being a hockey game. The nerves go away because the players and coaches don't have time to think about being nervous.

They react in the moment while understanding the ramifications.

"Quite frankly, the only time you're nervous is when you're ahead," Boudreau said. "You're too busy thinking, 'What do I have to do to make changes? Do I switch the lines? Do I quit matching? Do I continue matching?' There is not a lot of time to be nervous unless you get a lead. If you're trying to go through the last eight minutes or so with the lead, every time Sidney (Crosby) or any of them touch the puck you're biting your nails."

If Boudreau's cuticles are bleeding Wednesday night, he'll be smiling.

"It's just another survival game for us," Laich said.

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