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Insider

How Caps can pass resiliency test

5/9/2012
Dale Hunter and the Capitals have kept an even keel after tough losses this postseason. Geoff Burke/US Presswire

Rob Scuderi doesn't remember the exact words or who said it. Maybe it was Dan Bylsma. Maybe Sidney Crosby.

But in 2009, during the Stanley Cup finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins suffered a Game 5 loss that could have been devastating for a team trying to break through against a veteran Detroit Red Wings squad that was attempting to cement a place in hockey history.

Pittsburgh was blown out at Joe Louis Arena, losing 5-0. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled. Pavel Datsyuk was back in the lineup after missing 18 days with a foot injury and looked dominant. It was a crushing loss that put Pittsburgh on the brink of elimination, down 3-2 against a team that knew how to close out a series.

After the loss, the Penguins looked around that visitors locker room and made a statement.

"The message was, 'Let's come back here,'" said Scuderi, now a key part of the Los Angeles Kings' defense playing in the Western Conference finals. "Everyone felt the same way."

Scuderi provided a glimpse into the psyche of a hockey player. While we overanalyze every moment of every game during the postseason, they don't. They move on much better than we do.

"I think we got over it pretty fast," he said. "You're in the playoffs. You can't really think much past the next game. We got over it and in the end, it's just worth one notch."

Scuderi's Penguins won the next two and hoisted the Stanley Cup on enemy ice.

The stakes are nearly as high in D.C. tonight, as the Washington Capitals try to put a devastating overtime loss in Game 5 behind them. The attitude is very much the same. Get this series back to New York.

The one thing Scuderi said the Game 5 loss provided the Penguins was an extra edge of desperation. The Capitals, down 3-2, have shown remarkable poise and mental toughness during these playoffs. They rebounded from a triple-overtime loss. They don't lose two games in a row.

That added desperation could be the difference in what's been an incredibly tight series.

"You only have one more chance," Scuderi explained.

It wasn't that long ago former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau questioned the mental toughness of this group of Capitals. It was a team that seemed to collapse at the first sign of trouble. He wondered if mental toughness was something that could be coached into the team, but the reality is that it had to come from within.

It's now here. This playoff run has revealed the character of guys like Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Mike Knuble and Joel Ward. Alex Ovechkin may have the C, but he's received incredible support from a leadership group that has shown remarkable resiliency.

Nobody questions the mental toughness of the Capitals anymore.

"We don't get shook up by a whole lot," Laich told a small group of us last week, following the Capitals' devastating triple-overtime loss. "We're pretty resilient, pretty calm, pretty composed, but a lot of that comes from our head coach."

If you haven't seen it, go back and watch Dale Hunter's postgame news conference following Monday's Game 5 loss at Madison Square Garden. There was no sign that his team's heart was just ripped out of its chest. He had already shrugged the loss off, chalking it up to a phrase he said often. That's hockey.

Hockey. We're talkin' about hockey.

"It's just hockey. Don't overanalyze it," Hunter said. "It's playing hockey, guys, that's all it is."

We don't know if the guys he was talking to were the media or his own players, but they certainly picked up on his attitude. They noticed that response.

"Look at his comments after the game," Laich told reporters at Capitals practice yesterday. "He's not panicking. He says, 'Stuff happens, it's how you react and you move on.' We've been down this road before ... we're going to keep moving forward. Nothing changes for us."

On the way to winning a Stanley Cup, every team has to overcome those moments where things look grim. Coach Claude Julien was probably an overtime loss away from losing his job if his Boston Bruins didn't rally from down 2-0 to beat Montreal in the first round last year. The Chicago Blackhawks had no business beating the Nashville Predators in Game 5 of their 2010 first-round series, with Patrick Kane's game-tying short-handed goal with 13.6 seconds left marking his second-most-important goal of that playoff run. They never looked back. And then there were Scuderi's Penguins. They dropped the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals along with that ugly Game 5 before winning in seven games.

It's never easy. If these Capitals are truly a Stanley Cup contender, tonight's game is the kind they win. It's the one we look back on and say that's the moment we knew it was real.

"We'll bounce back," Hunter said. "We have to. It's like, it's hockey."

Notes

• It was interesting to chat with Scuderi about the road ahead for the Kings. They face a Coyotes team in the Western Conference finals that has been the biggest surprise of the postseason, unless you think the Kings fit that description.

"When I look at the Coyotes, I see a reflection of us," Scuderi said when we chatted on Tuesday afternoon. "They've had great goaltending like we've had. They've played great team defense -- bend but don't break. They don't give you a whole lot of scoring chances. When it comes to their offensive side of the game, they use their defensive game to set it up."

There are certainly similarities between the Blues and the Coyotes, but Scuderi said he didn't remember Phoenix being quite as physical during the regular season as the Blues were. "St. Louis was a very physical team. I can't think of too many times you'd go for a loose puck and not feel a body on you," he said. "That might be a fairly big difference."

• In watching Zach Parise help lead the New Jersey Devils to another series win last night, I was reminded of just how strong Team USA's leadership group will be at the next Olympics. We had the debate on Twitter as to who should captain the American team, and these playoffs have provided plenty of candidates such as Parise, Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan and David Backes.

When I presented the question, the overwhelming response from hockey fans was that Callahan was the front-runner right now, although a few fans pointed out that I left off guys such as Ryan Suter, Joe Pavelski, Jack Johnson and Ryan Kesler as options. And then, of course, there's Patrick Kane ...

• Joel Quenneville held a conference call last night with the media in which we got to listen to him explain the decision to fire assistant coach Mike Haviland. There's been plenty of speculation that there is dysfunction in Chicago right now, and Quenneville was honest in saying that played a role in the decision. "I felt a change was necessary going forward," Quenneville said. "Not an easy decision."

This is something that must be completely addressed from the front office on down if the Blackhawks want to return to prominence in the NHL. It's hard enough to win in this league with the parity; it's even harder when everyone in the organization isn't on the same page. This may be the first step in that direction for Chicago.