Kettler Iceplex on Tuesday was a far cry from the atmosphere before the Capitals’ last Game 7 – a 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on April 28, 2010. That proved a stunning conclusion to the best regular season in team history and was the end result of a tense, anxious two days following a Game 6 loss in Montreal.
The current relaxed group of Caps means nothing, of course, as Washington travels to Boston for Game 7 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series on Wednesday night at TD Garden. The Caps could win 4-0 or get their doors blown off in the first 10 minutes. No one knows – not even the players or coaches. So the approach over the two-day break since Game 6 was to embrace the moment and enjoy it. Dale Hunter was almost giddy when talking about Game 7 – this one and those he participated in as a player or as a coach with London in the Ontario Hockey League. That’s not a side of Hunter’s personality his players ever see, as Troy Brouwer noted.
"I don't know if I'd ever describe Dale as giddy," Brouwer cracked. "But every hockey player loves playing in these Game sevens. They're just a lot of fun to play in. Obviously, you want to come out on the winning end of it. But going into it is so exciting - one game to continue your season."
And so a relatively loose group exited the ice believing it can again go into Boston and win – something it has already done four times this season, including twice in this series. Matt Hendricks jokingly announced his availability to reporters as he sat alone at his locker stall with several of his teammates taking up the call and laughing.
“We’re just trying to embrace as much as we can. I know everyone is saying that we’re trying to have fun, but it’s kind of the truth. That’s the way we’re approaching it,” forward Joel Ward said. “Playoffs are a fun time- you just have to be patient and stay in the moment. I find a lot of the games have been like NCAA tournament games with momentum swings. I think it’s just a matter of staying in it, and knowing that you’ll get chances.”
Part of that is staying away from any and all negative thoughts. Yes, your season could be over in 24 hours. For some players it will be their final game with the team or others – like 39-year-old veteran Mike Knuble – it could be their final game, period.
“I think it’s a constant challenge to keep your mind not thinking about the negatives,” rookie goalie Braden Holtby said. “That’s human nature – to think more about the negative things in life than the positives, and that’s one of those things where, whenever something negative creeps in, you just have to replace it with some positive thought, and that usually pushes you forward and makes you want to be more successful.”
Knuble said he’s never played in a series where every game was this close. No blowouts, just tight-checking hockey where one mistake proves the difference. After six games where both teams have scored 14 goals, where no one has seized the initiative at home, where both goalies have provided sustained excellence, it probably should come as no surprise that we needed a decisive Game 7. The Bruins were the No. 2 seed entering the playoff and the Caps struggled to grab a No. 7 seed. But through 10 games this season the two teams are even at 26 goals apiece.
“There might be other people around that thought we were going to be out in five or six or something like that. There weren’t too many prognosticators picking us to win it,” Knuble said. “But here we are. We have a real good chance. Won in the building a couple of times already this series. It’s a 50-50 series and at this point somebody’s going to tilt it 51-49 at the end.”
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