How the Washington Capitals' infusion of youth helped them forget old pain

WASHINGTON, DC -- The kids have been alright for the Washington Capitals this postseason.

"They're not kids," corrected Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Technically, this is true. Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker are 24. Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey are 23. Jakub Vrana is 22. Shane Gersich is 21. All of them are old enough to buy their own ticket for "Deadpool 2." If they're kids, it's only in hockey parlance. Like the fact that none of them had played a game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before this postseason.

So we'll call them "young players who contributed mightily to this deepest Washington Capitals playoff run in 20 years," thanks to their skill, their speed and their good fortune of not having marinated in the disappointment of prior postseason failures.

"I like how young we are. Guys are laying it on the line for each other. We've been good at overcoming some stuff, with a never-say-die mentality. In past years, we might feel a different way. Maybe had a different aura in the room. This year is just different," said defenseman John Carlson. "Newer guys. Guys that haven't been around."

It's undeniable that something has been different about these Capitals through three rounds of the playoffs, from a mental toughness perspective. When adversity struck in the first two rounds against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington pushed through it.

"This group has been resilient as hell all year," said coach Barry Trotz, as the Capitals attempt to rally again in the Eastern Conference finals, down 3-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning heading into Game 6 on Monday.

Some of that resiliency came from the stellar offensive play of Alex Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Some of it came from a timely save or three by Braden Holtby, at least earlier in the playoffs. But much of it came from a supporting cast of players from the AHL and outside the organization -- including relative veterans Devante Smith-Pelly (25 years old) and Alex Chiasson (27) -- who didn't understand that, as tradition holds with the Capitals, they were supposed to meekly leave the postseason when their opponents deemed it was time.

They hadn't taken part in those playoff runs that stumbled in the semifinals. They didn't know any better. "Some of these young guys, they think this is how it is every year," said Trotz. "But that's where you want to get to as an organization."

Where the Capitals wanted to get as a team was younger, faster and more competitive after last season.

The Capitals finished last season on a typically soul-crushing note, ending what their general manager called a "three-year build" to challenge for the Stanley Cup. They had brought on veterans like Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik. They made their dramatic move for trade-deadline prize defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

They were all-in. And then they were out in seven to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

GM Brian MacLellan said that despite the result, a reboot of the roster didn't interest him.

"I don't think it makes sense in my mind just to blow it up or make a major change. As soon as that Game 7 finishes, everybody's angry and that shouldn't happen and we should have played better in the game -- I get all that, but how do you address that? It's a good team. And there's issues too. Obviously, there's some issues and they need to be addressed internally," he said last May.

The team wasn't blown up, but the roster was pruned a bit. Shattenkirk, Williams and Karl Alzner all left via free agency. Marcus Johansson was traded. In their place, a youth movement: The Capitals had six regulars 23 years or younger, when you factor in returning pieces Andre Burakovsky (22) and Tom Wilson (23).

"They gave us a boost for sure, just fresh energy, different look. I think the guys that have been there are leading the way, but we're getting the boost at times from young guys," said defenseman Matt Niskanen.

What this youth movement created, beyond an infusion of naïve enthusiasm in a jaded dressing room, was something the Capitals hadn't had on their roster in a while: competition. Bowey (51 games) and Djoos (63) fought for time on defense. Vrana (73) and Stephenson (67) did the same at forward. Complacency was no longer an option for some on the Capitals roster, who glanced over their shoulders and saw younger (and cheaper) workers. Even if it took the newbies a while to find their way around the office.

"At the beginning of the year, we weren't playing nearly as well as we are now because there was an adjustment period," said Carlson.

It was a learning experience for both the veterans and the rookies.

"It's just been a good mix. Guys have been here so long that they know what they need to do and what the team needs to do to find success," said Stephenson.

Carlson said the veterans have to guide the younger players a bit differently.

"You have different conversations, there's a different feel in the room. But ultimately it comes down to trying to be a positive influence on the kids. Show them work ethic, that sort of thing. But get them engaged, show them what it takes to play in this league. Everybody comes in with a boatload of skill, but it's about grooming the personality to fit with the game," he said.

Of course, bringing a bit of personality to a team mired in postseason heartbreak can be a good thing, too.

"It was different for everybody. With the younger guys, it was fun at times. I think sometimes when they come up, they don't really have time to think, or be nervous. In a way, it relaxes the rest of the group a little bit," said Orpik.

In turn, the veterans relaxed the rookies. The young players were welcomed into the locker room and given sage advice: Like, for example, Orpik telling the young defensemen which forwards in the NHL hit the hardest, in an effort to spare them injury. There was no old-school Capital making their lives hellish. They were allowed, by the veterans and the coaching staff, to make mistakes.

"The old guys have been very supportive on and off the ice. Leading by example every day. And the young guys are trying to take in as much as we can," said Stephenson. "The older guys know when to keep it loose. But they also know when to be dialed in."

Kuznetsov, who is the embodiment of that aesthetic, was happy to see the rookies settle in for one particular and very Kuznetsov-like reason.

"If young guys feel comfortable, they can make jokes. And they can handle bad jokes," he said.

After contributing in the regular season, many of the young players have had a moment to shine in the Capitals' postseason.

Vrana, a Prague native and the 13th overall selection in the 2014 NHL draft, had a goal and two assists playing with Ovechkin in a critical Game 5 win over Pittsburgh.

"Obviously it means a lot when the coach trusts you for a player. You just get confidence. It's a big responsibility. You've just got to make sure you go out there and get those little details right," said Vrana.

Stephenson, a 2012 third-rounder from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, had an assist and a shorthanded goal in the Capitals' series-clinching win over Columbus.

"He's a guy that didn't start on the team at the start of the year, so it's kind of cool to see a guy come in and take advantage of his opportunity. He's gained a lot of trust from the coaching staff, both offensively and defensively," said forward Brett Connolly. "He's been good for us these playoffs and we're going to need him to keep going and keep playing well for us to be successful. He's definitely made big strides this year; he's a really good guy, works hard."

Even Nathan Walker, the Aussie forward with nine games of NHL experience, drew in for Game 6 against the Penguins and set up Chiasson's tempo-setting opening goal, in a game the Caps played without Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson.

"I'm really happy about the guys stepping up," said Kuznetsov, "like Nate Walker, you know, he played unbelievable, that little motherf-----r. That's the only word I have for him."

Even when they're not in the lineup, the younger Capitals have kept things light and positive, while keeping their teammates confident that they can rise to the occasion if called upon.

"It's always hard staying in it, staying in the moment when you're practicing away from the team and away from us a little bit. But we've done a really good job at keeping these guys with the group and skating with us at pregame skates and practices and stuff," said center Jay Beagle. "Just everyone that's here, we know. We know everyone. They've played games with us in the past and have been in the organization for a bit. So anyone who needs to step in we feel comfortable with, and skating with them today, they're ready to go. They're going hard out there and it's fun. They're young and it keeps it a lot of fun when you go out there and you get to skate with just the young guys."

Young guys that, for the record, have gone further than their Capitals elders have in the postseason.

"If you can win at any level, it helps the comfort level," said Trotz.

He's referring to the 2016 run to the Calder Cup Final in the American Hockey League for the Hershey Bears, the Capitals' affiliate. They lost in the championship round, but their loss was a gain in experience for many of the young players who have populated the Capitals' roster this season: Boyd, Walker, Vrana, Stephenson, Bowey and Djoos were all there.

"Going to the finals in Hershey obviously helps. To get a taste for it, the level of how much higher a pace it is in the regular season. But I mean, the NHL is a lot different in terms of speed and strength of guys," said Stephenson.

"It helps a lot that I played with some guys in Hershey too," echoed Vrana. "We had a really good group of guys over there. With a bunch of those guys here ... it's definitely better than being alone. They're nice guys."

Maybe it was some of their postseason glory that transferred over to the Capitals this season. Maybe it was having some blazing fast young legs in a league that puts a premium on speed, legs that can push veteran players in practice or for ice time. Maybe it was just the exuberance of youth, and the benefit of not having marinated in the toxicity of postseason failures of the past.

Whatever it was, this young supporting cast for the Capitals were like featured players on "Saturday Night Live": unrecognizable at first, unappreciated in contrast with established cast members, but at the end of the season you couldn't imagine the show happening without them.

And then you begin wondering who they bring back for another season. Because as Capitals owner Ted Leonsis bellowed after the Game 6 win in Pittsburgh, the first time they eliminated the Penguins in the Ovechkin Era, the kids, er, young players, would be an indication Washington isn't done yet.

"We had five rookies in the lineup tonight. So the future is bright," he said. "I thought our window was closed, and that we were an old team!"