Unburdened by previous playoff baggage, Capitals' young players help carry the load

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Christian Djoos is just one of the fresh faces that have helped spark the Capitals. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Washington Capitals were flying high on their trip home from Pittsburgh, having just clinched a first conference finals berth in 20 years, when forward T.J. Oshie looked over at rookie Shane Gersich beside him on the plane and shook his head in amusement. Gersich had just signed his first NHL contract in late March and here he was in the third round of the playoffs, a first for a veteran like Oshie, too. “These damn young guys,” he said to 37-year-old defenseman Brooks Orpik.

“It took me 10 years just to get to this point,” Oshie said. “Month and a half and [Gersich] is in the conference finals. Must be nice. You never know how many times you’re going to get this opportunity, and I do know it’s hard to get here having this be my 10th go-round.”

Perhaps that naivete helped the Capitals’ collection of rookies and then rubbed off on their older teammates. Though Washington’s stars and veterans have lead the way, several players have acknowledged that the infusion of unburdened youngsters helped loosen up a team that’s known for getting tight this time of year. They were removed from the repeated second-round playoff exits that have haunted the Capitals for years, and the absence of those scars meant excitement trumped nerves.

After Washington won the first two games of this Eastern Conference finals in Tampa Bay, the team dropped Game 3 in Tuesday’s 4-2 loss. They’ve recovered from similar setbacks well this postseason, which could have something to do with their rookies’ short memories.

“As you get older, you definitely wonder if it’s going to happen,” Oshie said, referring to a long playoff run. “You realize you’re not going to play forever, and so I think you can take a little less pressure knowing that, these guys, it’s some of their first kicks at the can and they’re here and it probably feels like they’re going to get there every year, which if we’re all together in this organization, I hope we do. But I think you can bring a little bit of positive arrogance, I guess, in it being your first time.”

The inexperience was considered a flaw for these Capitals going into the season. The summer was full of roster turnover, and for Washington to navigate around its salary-cap constraints, more rookies on inexpensive contracts had to be thrust into the lineup. Four played regularly, and more were added to the roster as the playoffs started.

“I feel like a lot of coaches in hockey world thinking that more veteran guys you have on the team, the more experience you have, but for me, I believe the opposite way,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “I believe the more young guys you have, the less pressure you have, you know? They don’t feel that pain when you lose. All they feel is they just want to play hockey and they don’t think about the result. …

“The younger the team you have, they don’t sit back, they don’t think about that. Players who play like 10, 15 years in this league, they know what that feels like when you lose in the playoff and your season’s over. But the young guys, they don’t know that. They don’t care about that. They just want to win every time. That’s what I like, that positive mood.”

The Capitals also signed free agent depth forwards Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson before the season, and though those new faces weren’t rookies, they also “didn’t have that baggage that we had,” center Jay Beagle said.

Smith-Pelly has tallied three goals this postseason, and Chiasson scored Washington’s lone regulation goal in the series-clinching, Game-6 win against the Penguins last round. Because the Capitals were without three top-six forwards that night — Tom Wilson was suspended while Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom were injured — they played five rookies. Wilson and Burakovsky have been back in the lineup for the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Backstrom seems to be nearing a return from a right-hand injury that’s considered “day-to-day,” so there hasn’t been quite as much youth on the ice for Washington in the past three games, but the team tied a franchise record this postseason with six rookies making their playoff debut.

Even as the season had its bumps, in part because of the inexperience throughout the lineup, any cynicism from veterans was quickly quashed by their young, wide-eyed teammates, giddy to see a new rink or city. They also injected the team with a healthy competition.

“I mean, you never want to get outworked by a younger guy,” Oshie said.

“It was different for everybody with the younger guys,” Orpik said. “Instead of just worrying about ourselves, we had younger guys to bring along. It was fun at times. Those guys, I think sometimes when they come up, they’re so excited to be here that they don’t really have time to think or be nervous. I think in a way, it maybe relaxed the rest of the group a little bit.”

Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said Backstrom is like a “father figure” to several players, and perhaps no one more so than 23-year-old defenseman Christian Djoos, who grew up in the same town as Backstrom in Sweden and used to watch him play for the local team. Orpik would often give the 6-foot, 169-pound blue-liner tips about which players on the opposing team would be looking to lay a big hit on him, encouraging Djoos to be aware so he could protect himself. Rookie Chandler Stephenson and Wilson, a four-year veteran, were linemates together at a Canadian under-18 camp, and with this Stephenson’s first full season in the NHL, Wilson suggested Stephenson move in with him.

“We trade off cooking and go get groceries together,” Stephenson said. “It’s a little bromance we’ve got.”

Those “damn young guys” needed the veterans to guide them throughout the season, and when the playoffs arrived, there was something about the kids that helped the Capitals’ experienced core lose the weight of past postseason runs.

“It brings a little bit of a youthfulness of kind of a fun, younger feel around the room,” Oshie said. “It’s been a great mesh, and they’ve been a big part in that.”

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