Commentary

Caps showing mental toughness

Updated: May 5, 2012, 7:42 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- A year and a day ago, the Washington Capitals were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was a series that seemed to begin and end at almost the same time, and it was a series that seemed to sum up perfectly the Capitals' perplexing inability to respond to adversity.

From a bad line change that led to a Vincent Lecavalier goal to defensive breakdowns and individual play, that series against Tampa reinforced the widely held notion that as talented as they might be the Caps had no push-back, no intestinal fortitude.

On Saturday, the Caps took another step toward erasing that identity by squeaking out a 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers to even their Eastern Conference semifinal series at two games apiece.

The win, decided by a Mike Green power-play goal with fewer than six minutes left in regulation, marked the 10th one-goal game the Caps have played this spring. They are 6-4 in such contests and have not lost two games in a row in regulation since the middle of March.

They turned in another workmanlike performance in Game 4, made more impressive because it followed a gut-wrenching triple-overtime loss. The Capitals are a remarkable 3-0 in games following overtime losses, which suggests there is more than a little resolve residing in the team's locker room.

But things did not come easily on Saturday, as the Rangers tied the score twice after the Caps had taken one-goal leads.

Watching Washington celebrate, it was hard not to imagine that this was exactly the kind of game the Caps would have found a way to lose in the past.

Capitals forward Brooks Laich suggested the difference comes from the personality of coach Dale Hunter.

"I hear you guys talking about it and you ask about a different mental toughness," Laich said. "It's a different makeup of a team a little bit. It comes from our head coach and he's a very calm, composed guy behind the bench and he really, I said it from day one when he got here, he runs a tight ship and he's a guy that we draw from."

It is one thing to talk about mental toughness as a concept or something that you aspire to have, but it is quite another to see it come to life.

With a little more than two minutes to go in regulation, Matt Hendricks blocked a big shot from the blue line. Then, with Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist on the bench for a sixth attacker, Marcus Johansson, Troy Brouwer and Laich all blocked shots to help preserve the win.

In all, the Caps blocked 26 shots, while the Rangers were credited with just seven.

"That's the way it went in the first series, too," Laich said. "It's a grinding game. We're a grinding team now. Our identity is kind of flipped, but we try not to give up much defensively and keep pucks out of the middle and along the boards, and we've been successful at that.

"Maybe in talking to friends and family they're sitting at home biting their nails and pulling their hair out and they're just dying for a four or 5-0 win, but I keep telling them those days are gone a little bit. I think they're going to be tight like this the rest of the way. That's our identity and we feel comfortable in these games. If we just can keep finding that goal when we need it, it'll take us a long way."

That the Capitals were able to parlay this new mental stamina into a seven-game series victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions was impressive. But, hey, that was the first round, wacky things happen. The second round is often where water finds its level; some teams fade, whereas others build momentum. It is so with the Los Angeles-St. Louis series, where the Kings have been dominant and lead 3-0, and likewise with Nashville-Phoenix, where the Coyotes have assumed a 3-1 series lead.

But after falling behind in this series 1-0 and 2-1 -- as they did against Boston -- the Capitals remain very much on topic.

On Saturday, they got production from their big guns as Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin scored -- just like in the old days. But they also limited the Rangers to 20 shots on goal and took only two minor penalties, both of which they killed.

"It definitely comes from experience," defenseman Karl Alzner said.

The team got sick of losing, the feeling of losing, he said.

"For us it was going through an up and down year. We were all so frustrated that we know now how to deal with getting scored on or losing a game," Alzner added. "We've lost more than we wanted to this year, so we know what it feels like. It's just all about playing hockey. We don't worry at all about a loss. We're on the right track. It's very nice to see, refreshing to see I guess."

The Rangers are no strangers to these types of games, either, with eight of their 11 postseason games decided by one goal.

They are 4-4 in one-goal games, but the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season has shown a surprising inability to take advantage of its own successes this spring. The Rangers led Ottawa 1-0 and 2-1 but wound up having to win two in a row to escape the first round in a seven-game set.

Saturday, the Rangers could have pushed the Capitals to the brink but instead looked sluggish to begin with and chased the game the entire time.

Were the Rangers on the wrong end of some questionable calls? To be sure.

The penalty call on Carl Hagelin (for slashing John Carlson's stick) that set up the Green power-play goal late in the third period was weak. And officials missed Mike Knuble gloving the puck over the glass, which should have been a delay of game penalty shortly after the Green goal.

But winning teams invariably overcome those situations.

"Two good teams were playing. They aren't just going to lay down and give it to us," Lundqvist said.

"I think they came out way more aggressive, but like I said, we played a really good second half. I don't really have a good explanation. We're playing good teams. It's going to be a battle until the end."

Game 5 is Monday night in New York. The Capitals are 4-2 on the road this spring, another sign of a team that doesn't let much bother it.

"It's do or die so you're putting everything on the line and playing playoff hockey, and it's important to stay mentally strong and keep pushing and every shift go out and do what you can do to help win that shift," said Washington defensive specialist Jay Beagle. "And I think that's the mentality of the team and that's why we're not letting much faze us."