ARLINGTON, Va. -- For most of the Washington Capitals' younger players, this is how playoff series are supposed to end. Or, at least, how they do.
The team sat out the postseason from 2003 to last year and is embroiled in its third series in the past two springs. For the third time, Washington has come back to forge a Game 7 at home.
Although this series-ending game is a little different, coming in a celebrated matchup with the Penguins tonight and offering the majority of the Capitals a chance to advance to a conference final for the first time, they know their way around a Game 7.
"We learned a lot from Game 7 against the [New York] Rangers," center David Steckel said yesterday after an optional practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
That was a clinching, 2-1 win against New York April 28 in the first round.
"It has a calming effect," forward Brooks Laich said of having the experience of winning a Game 7. "I don't think mentally you can get too overworked about or stressed about it being a Game 7. People sometimes put too much pressure on themselves, and then that limits their play. For some reason, we play loose and free when we're facing elimination.
"We've been here before."
They also have visited the other side, which isn't so settling.
In the first round last year, Washington won Games 5 and 6 against Philadelphia, but Joffrey Lupul won Game 7 for the Flyers, 3-2, in overtime.
"When that goal went in, when Lupul scored, I sat on the bench, and it honestly felt like someone just ripped my heart out," Laich said. "We'd been on such a run for two, three months leading up to that. ... And all of a sudden we just felt like we died.
"It was the worst feeling. I don't wish it upon anyone. Your season crashes, and it's all over. That's why you play so hard to avoid it."
There also are legacies and legends to be built in such games.
Already, Washington has put star winger Alex Ovechkin (seven goals, six assists in the series) on display; introduced rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov, and spread the love to role players such as Steckel, who scored the winner Monday in a 5-4 overtime game that kept the team alive and forced Game 7.
Now, the ante rises.
"You have the same anxieties that you have in Game 6 with being able to be eliminated, but now both teams have got it, so it magnifies everything," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.
"It's what's going to make these guys great. It's what's going to make them remembered. No one's going to remember who lost in Game 7."
Many Capitals describe this as the biggest game of their career.
"Oh, yeah," Steckel said. "We said the same about Game 6, and Game 7 last series.
"When you keep winning, it seems that the next game is the biggest. It's a bigger stage, bigger consequences. Definitely, [tonight] is going to be the biggest game I've ever played in."
Steckel has played just two full NHL seasons, but veterans also had a hard time remembering a more important game.
"Definitely right up there," said defenseman Tom Poti.
"Back in the early days of my career, we had some good series in Dallas against Edmonton, but I think this one's one of the greatest."
Ovechkin hesitated to quantify the third Game 7 of his NHL career as his biggest contest -- mostly because he wants to leave room for bigger games.
"It's one of the biggest games of my career," he said. "I hope my biggest game is going to be this year a little bit later."
That doesn't mean Ovechkin is downplaying this matchup.
"I think [tonight] is going to be a pretty sick game," he said.
"It's going to be hard, a very interesting game, especially in the first and third period. It's going to be a pretty cool time to play hockey."
Unafraid to credit an opponent, Ovechkin finds the Penguins' 2008-09 marketing theme that he has noticed at Mellon Arena perfect for this game.
"It's a good day to play hockey," he said, drawing a correction from reporters on the exact phrase.
"Yes," he said, "a great day for hockey."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.