ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals appeared to be in good spirits with a lot of playful chatter while trying to stay loose during their morning skate at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
The key for the Capitals will be to maintain that approach in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).
The Capitals trail 3-1 in the best-of-7 series and are one loss from being eliminated by the Penguins in the second round for the second season in a row. It's more than a familiar story for them.
It's almost the story of their existence.
They excel during the regular season, then play like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"You can't play well if you're tight," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "It's like if you're a sprinter. Sprinters are loose. Your body works better. You have to have a clear head. You have to be determined. You have to be focused. But you can't be tight."
There's a reason why the Capitals haven't advanced past the second round since they made their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998. It hasn't all been bad luck and, in many of those years, it wasn't a lack of talent.
Video: Capitals on the brink of elimination after loss
This is the second season in a row that Washington won the Presidents' Trophy and dominated at times during the regular season but haven't been able to find the same level in the playoffs.
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was acquired in a trade with the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 27, is a newcomer, but it didn't take him long to see the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
"With the history in this locker room, what's happened in the past, it can cause you to grip your stick a little bit tighter, cause you to just not make the normal plays that we're capable of making," Shattenkirk said. "In my mind, we've seen that it hasn't worked when we play like that. We're a pretty loose group when we're playing well, and I think we have to realize that. We have a lot of guys here who when they're not thinking they're almost playing better and that's what we need to get back to, just playing the game, reading, reacting and not focus so much on, 'Am I in the right spot? I have to make this play.'
"Sometimes you just have to take what's given to you."
After goaltender Braden Holtby was pulled to start the third period after allowing three goals on 14 shots in a 6-2 loss in Game 2, he spoke on the telephone the next day with John Stevenson, a former goalie coach turned sports psychologist who Holtby met when he was playing for the Saskatoon Blades in the Western Hockey League. Stevenson's message to Holtby was similar to what Shattenkirk said about not thinking too much.
"If you ask the best goalies in the world when they're on their 'A' game, if you literally did an interview with them right after, and you said, 'What were you thinking about tonight?' [The answer would be], 'I don't know. I can't tell you. I'm just doing what I do,'" Stevenson said in a telephone interview from his Edmonton office earlier this week. "So ultimately, what you want to do is have that quiet mind."
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Holtby acknowledged this series has been a tough one for him mentally. There have been times when the Capitals have controlled play for long stretches without scoring and the Penguins suddenly turned a mistake or a blocked shot into an odd-man rush or another quality scoring chance that Holtby wasn't able to stop.
That was the case again in the Capitals' 3-2 loss in Game 4 on Wednesday, when Holtby allowed three goals on 18 shots. Alex Ovechkin was critical of himself after that game, and coach Barry Trotz has talked repeatedly since then about the need for the top players to step up.
Holtby is part of that group.
"We're still a confident group and I think we just realize we're gripping our sticks a bit tight and need to just loosen up a bit and play hockey," Holtby said. "That's when we're playing our best is when we're not worrying about anything. We're not thinking. We're just playing. We're playing for each other and that's what it's going to have to take to get it done."
When asked what he can do to help his players play looser in Game 5, Trotz said, "I don't know. We'll throw in a couple jokes or something.
"I think it's just let's go play with joy. Just enjoy the experience of just going out and playing. You get to play a big game and enjoy that experience. We were pretty loose, I thought, today. I didn't feel that we were tight. Sometimes you say, 'What the heck. Let's just go for it.' And that's what we're going to do."