ARLINGTON, Va. – Find that fast-forward button and press it down hard. The Washington Capitals already know how to handle the regular season; it’s the playoffs that have become their bugaboo.
So, even though it was a mild September morning Saturday as the Capitals gathered at their rink atop a suburban shopping mall for the first day of training camp, the players couldn’t help but think of the high-intensity games they’ll surely be playing at the downtown Verizon Center in April.
“Let’s start ’em tomorrow,” defenceman Tom Poti said.
Too bad the Capitals can’t do just that—skip the 82-game grind and get straight to the heart of the matter. They accumulated an NHL-high 121 points last season and could be even better this season as their young talent matures, but their three straight Southeast Division titles have translated into just one series victory in the post-season. They’ve once again become the team of spring heartache, just as they were for much of the 1980s and 1990s.
“We know that part of the deal here this year,” right-winger Mike Knuble said, “is that everybody’s going to be waiting to see what happens in the playoffs, and there’s not much you can do about it. You’ve got to live with it. And when that time comes, that’ll be the time to answer the critics and the people who don’t think we’re good enough, and I guess the only way to do that is to win in the playoffs.”
Five months ago, the Capitals became the first top-seeded team to blow a 3-1 series lead against a No. 8 seed, losing in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens. The memory of that series lives on in the slogan on the back of this season’s training camp T-shirts: “Stay angry … believe in yourselves.” Settling down to concentrate on December games against teams like Florida and St. Louis could be a challenge.
“It’s going to be tough,” Poti said. “But we’re all professionals and we’re just going to have to use it as a motivator to make sure we do peak and we are ready at the right time for the next playoffs.
“We’re an angry group in here from what happened last year, and at the same time we’re still a young group and we chalk it up as a learning experience and we can learn a lot from what happened.”
After the first-round exit to the Canadiens, questions arose as to whether the Capitals’ high-scoring style was suited for the playoffs, and whether the team had the right leadership in place to win a championship.
General manager George McPhee felt there was no need to panic. The presumptive opening-day roster that skated at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Saturday looks a lot like the one that lost to Montreal. The one substantial change is that there is no proven NHL veteran goaltender: 22-year-olds Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth will compete for ice time in front of the net.
“We had a fabulous season last year, and for about 6½ months we were a terrific team,” McPhee said. “And in five days, we lost it.
“I can’t allow five days to get in the way of what we think is a terrific team, so we’d like to keep them together and see how they do this year.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau takes exception to the notion that the regular season doesn’t mean anything, saying his team takes a lot of pride winning the Presidents’ Trophy last season. It’s his job to make sure that “Stay angry” mantra doesn’t fade as fall turns to winter turns to spring.
“We’ve got an anger still of what went on and how we lost,” Boudreau said. “And I hope we’re carrying that chip on our shoulder throughout the course of the year.
“We think we’re a better team than what we got credit for, when it’s all said and done.”
Also in charge of pushing that message is perennial MVP-contender Alex Ovechkin, who took over as captain during last season and faulted himself after the collapse against the Canadiens. Still, Ovechkin knows even the greatest regular season of all time won’t mean a thing if the Capitals don’t make a run at the Stanley Cup.
“We just want to play every game, and when it’s going to be close to the playoffs we’re going to see where we are,” Ovechkin said. “And see if we’re a regular-season team—or a playoff team.”