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Caps cope with mental strain of fluke loss

| Monday, May 11, 2009

When the Washington Capitals needed to win every game in the final two weeks last season to make the playoffs, they did it. When they needed to win Game 6 in the other team's building last year against Philadelphia and last month against the New York Rangers, they did it.

If there's one thing that can be said about this club since Bruce Boudreau became its coach, it is that the Caps do some of their best work when pushed to the precipice of failure. So for the seventh time in 20 playoff games, Boudreau's team will face elimination Monday night at Mellon Arena.

"We have to draw from (past experience), and we have to believe it is capable of being done," Boudreau said. "You know, it is capable of being done. ... We're right there, no matter (whether) you can count shots and count chances. They may have outshot us, but I think we know by now that (tonight's) game will probably be decided in the third period or overtime."

Facing a fourth game in six nights, Sunday was a day of rest for nearly all of the players. Given the way Game 5 went, spending a day away from the ice might not have been the worst idea.

The Caps will need to find a way to move past a potentially psyche-damaging defeat Saturday at Verizon Center. If yielding a third-period lead only to salvage overtime but still lose wasn't enough, the fluky circumstances in which Evgeni Malkin was credited with the winning goal made it a night to forget for the franchise.

Still, there is reason for optimism if the Caps can overcome the mental strain of the defeat.

"It was the best game of our series for sure, but it is not as good as we can play," Boudreau said. "It's not like we've reached the pinnacle, and they didn't have (top defenseman Sergei) Gonchar and dressed seven defensemen and they still beat us. We can go better, and I know the character on this group. It is always, no matter who you play, the hardest game to win is the last game."

Added defenseman Brian Pothier: "I thought it was probably one of the best games that we played in the series. They worked hard in the beginning of the third period, and it seemed like every mistake we made, they capitalized on. They were very opportunistic. I think we made a few too many mistakes, odd-man rushes and a few too many turnovers. But other than that, I think they just scored when they needed to score."

One area of concern is the way the Penguins have dictated the pace in the third period of the past two games. Washington scored the lone goal of the second period in Game 4 to cut a two-tally deficit in half, but the Caps failed to maintain momentum.

On Saturday, Nicklas Backstrom gave them the lead heading into the second intermission, but the Penguins quickly took control in the final period.

"The games before, they got the better of us in the first, and we got the better of them later on," Boudreau said. "Once they got the lead, I thought we played a lot better. We were almost more comfortable coming from behind. With a young group, sometimes you get ahead and you get a little nervous and you play not to lose. In those situations, you don't usually succeed."

There have been four one-goal contests in what has already been a captivating series, exactly what the league was hoping for when its two most-marketed superstars crossed paths in the playoffs for the first time.

Sidney Crosby did not have a big impact on Game 5, but his team is one win from the Eastern Conference finals. Alex Ovechkin had a three-point night and shook off the knee-to-knee collision with Gonchar in impressive fashion, but his team again faces the prospect of having no more hockey to play after tonight.

"What is there to say• This is our only chance," goalie Simeon Varlamov said through an interpreter. "There's nothing else that we can do. We've got to win this game.

"If we don't win it, we go home."

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