ARLINGTON, Va. – When Alex Ovechkin cranks up the DVD player to review his playoff debut, he’ll see some very un-Ovechkin performances.
Take last year’s Game 4 between his Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers. He played 28 minutes and took only one shot on goal – this from a player who has easily led the league in shots in each of his four NHL seasons.
Ovechkin entered that series with a breathtaking 65 regular-season goals. He had only one in the first five games against the Flyers before finally hitting his stride, scoring twice in the third period of a 4-2 win in Game 6 and getting another goal in the Game 7 overtime loss.
Lesson learned. Even a player as high-strung as Ovechkin needs a few games to get a handle on playoff intensity. He’s determined to be ready this time when the Southeast Division champion Capitals – the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference – host Game 1 against the New York Rangers on Wednesday.
“For me, personally, last year’s experience was pretty good,” Ovechkin said Monday. “I realized how I have to play in the last couple of games, so I remember it. I’m going to watch a couple of games from last year’s playoffs and think what I have to do better, think what I have to do mentally differently.”
The entire young Capitals roster has a much different frame of mind in 2009. Last year, they were happy to end the franchise’s four-year playoff drought, doing so with a late run that clinched a berth in the final regular season game.
This year, they’ve been one of the best teams in the league all season, securing the post-season berth with room to spare. Anything but a strong playoff run would be considered a failure, the disappointment far greater than it was following the tough series loss to the rival Flyers.
“Obviously not having success and the heartbreak we felt at the end of it, you never forget that,” centre Brooks Laich said. “On the flip side of the coin, how much fun it was. We had a fantastic run last year; getting in the playoffs was so fun. You just get on a roll where you feel like you’re unbeatable.
“This year I think we’re going to be a lot more relaxed. We’re going to be confident in our game. We’re not going to be squeezing our sticks really tight.”
Ovechkin again enters the post-season with the goal-scoring crown – 56 this season – and the cast around him has steadily improved. Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin are all potential game-changing players as well. The attitude is so different that even Ovechkin admits he was coasting down the stretch, pulling up on occasion when he could have levelled a bone-jarring check.
“Probably last 10 games, you’re in the playoffs and sometimes you think, like, if you have a chance to hit somebody, you just protect yourself (instead),” Ovechkin said. “You don’t want to be injured. … You just think about playoffs and get ready for it.”
The team’s easing-off-the-pedal showed in a couple of sloppy losses to non-playoff teams – 6-4 to Atlanta and 7-4 to Florida. Coach Bruce Boudreau hopes his players flip the switch back on against the Rangers, who have steadily improved since coach John Tortorella replaced the fired Tom Renney in February.
“Our mindset going into the last four or five games was obviously a little different than it’ll be Wednesday,” Boudreau said. “Whether we were playing at such a high tempo in the past and now we don’t know how high we have to turn it up because we haven’t faced that kind of competition? We’ll soon see. We’ll know by Wednesday at 10 o’clock.”