WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Just how much do the so-called playoff demons dance in a player's head at this time of year when he's faced with adversity?
It's a question worth asking for the next couple of days, before the Washington Capitals, the NHL's top team by a mile during the regular season, face elimination Saturday night (7:15 ET) in Game 5 against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Capitals are a franchise with playoff baggage. This was supposed to be the season they finally jettisoned it. And it might still be.
Former Caps winger Mike Knuble, for one, doesn't put much stock in the notion that the past gets into the heads of current players.
"As a player I never believed that,'' Knuble said by phone Thursday. "Ghosts of the past don't play hockey. They're not out there making plays and scoring goals and making saves. As a player you [couldn't] care less about what happened before; that's out of your control now. The only thing you worry about is what's happening right now. You're living in the present.''
Maybe that was the case for Knuble, but is it for every current Washington player? The Caps have never gotten past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era. How do they balance between living in the moment and trying to forget the past?
"I would say it's a combination," said former Capitals coach Adam Oates, who was behind the bench in 2012-13 and 2013-14 before being replaced by current coach Barry Trotz in May 2014.
"I think that's one of the reasons they made those moves. They brought Justin Williams in for that reason, to try and fight through hiccups. But I also think they're a way better hockey club than they were before. They're a way better hockey club than the lineup I had, I know that. They're more experienced. I would hope that when they play Saturday they can put it past them and win a game. Because if you win one game then you go into Pittsburgh, and that's the series. I'm sure that's what their coaches are saying. These are the tests that challenge guys their whole career.''
Oates knows a lot of players in that room. The last guy he's focused on when it comes to battling the ghosts of playoffs past is Ovechkin.
"He's not the guy you have to worry about," Oates said. "Most superstars you don't. He's more like Brett Hull -- he can forget yesterday. It's more of the conscientious guys that you have to worry about. Is it eating them up? Is it bugging [Nicklas] Backstrom he doesn't have many points?
"That's why I always believe the power play is a cure-all. Because right now Washington is down 3-1, but if Backstrom had two more points, he'd feel better about his game, [Evgeny] Kuznetsov would feel better about his game. They still might be down 3-1, but they're feeling OK.''
Knuble sees a Caps team that has very much been in this series despite the overall deficit.
"It's a hard-fought series right now and [they lost on] kind of a fluky play [Wednesday] night," said Knuble, who was with the Caps from 2009-12. "It's been a pretty even series. As a player, you've just got to believe that you can do it. Sometimes, you're down 3-1 and you still want to win the game, but you know you don't have the horses. But I think guys in that room right now think they do have the horses. It's a giant task. It sucks right now for those players, but at the end of the day you've got nothing else to do but pull up your boots and try to fight your way out of this.''
Enter Dr. Trotz. The Capitals coach has to use the next few days leading up to Game 5 to massage his players' psyche, and to remind them of how well they played in Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh despite not getting results. To point out how dominant they were all season. To encourage them come to the rink with swagger on Saturday.
"We're going to stress the positives in a couple ways,'' Trotz said Thursday. "You just have to worry about winning the next game. We were in a reverse situation last year where, you know, in Game 5 we had a team basically pretty well down and out, and they threw a puck to the net and it hits one of our defensemen, goes in and they end up winning in overtime and that sort of changed it. Right now, everything's come a little harder for us. Pitt's doing a really good job. I'm not going to take anything away from them. ...
"But we have to find another way to not really reinvent the game, but just execute better, be a little sharper. If we get a chance to score, we've got to bury our chances. Those are the things that are going to matter, and then we've got to stay with it. You've got to have the belief that if you win one -- win the first period, keep going. If you win one, then things can change. I mean, we were prime candidates to see it firsthand in the Rangers series last year. Hopefully, all we can do is just look at the game in front of us and just take it from there."
The Caps were up 3-1 on the Rangers last year but lost the series in seven games. Yes, it's a reminder that they can do the same to the Penguins, no doubt.
It's also a reminder of another playoff that ended in the second round.
Look at it this way: If the Caps pull off the series comeback against the Penguins, it will be the ultimate tonic for a decade of frustration