- The Washington Times - Monday, April 27, 2009

NEW YORK

A hockey team is such a multicultural entity, kind of like the U.N. on skates. It has Russians and Swedes and Czechs and Slovaks and Canadians and Americans. So how can we even begin to understand the Capitals’ collective mindset, what causes them to fall behind the clearly inferior Rangers 3-1 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals before raising their play to the required level - a year after pulling the same stunt against the Flyers?

It wound up costing the Caps against Philadelphia, who beat them at Verizon Center in Game 7. But here they are 12 months later with a rare second chance, an opportunity to show they’re the kind of club that can win not just the big games but the biggest. Better not mess up again, guys.

The Capitals put themselves in this position by overrunning the Rangers again Sunday, this time 5-3 at eerily subdued - except for the gnashing of teeth - Madison Square Garden. Thus, a series that appeared to be slipping away after New York won the first two in the District is now firmly within the Caps’ control. Their last three victories have come by a combined score of 13-3, and their 20-year-old goaltender, Simeon Varlamov, is outplaying Henrik Lundqvist, a veritable brick wall early on. All they have to do is what they didn’t do last season: Finish what they’ve started.

And let’s face it, the second round seems so much closer now than it did a year ago. The Flyers, after all, were every bit the Capitals’ equal (and indeed, went all the way to the conference finals). The Rangers, on the other hand, got by with grit and Lundqvist in the first four games but haven’t had much of either going for them lately. If they don’t score the first goal - so they can fall back on their strength, defense and waiting for mistakes - it’s hard for them to win.

Granted, Game 7s can be capricious affairs - a penalty in overtime led to the Flyers’ series-ending goal last spring - but all indicators are pointing in the Caps’ direction. Alex Ovechkin, goal-less in the first three games, has scored in the last three, and Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green finally found the net Sunday after more than two weeks of searching. With The Kid looking so solid between the pipes (and Tom Poti and the rest of the defenders playing so determinedly in front of him), Bruce Boudreau’s club has that second-round-bound air about it.

Which, Boudreau said, is what has him “worried” - and rightly so. The Capitals’ biggest foe the past two postseasons hasn’t been Philly or the Rangers, it’s been overconfidence, a tendency to ease their way into a series and let their opponents get the upper hand. Sometimes a team can have a little too much faith in its own abilities, and the Caps, young and talented, have unquestionably been guilty of that.

Green talks about the Capitals’ experience facing elimination - they’re now 4-1 in such games (15-2 if you count their mad dash to the playoffs at the end of last season) - and says, “We know what it’s like to play desperate hockey. Maybe that’s why we’re calm” in these situations. But the larger issue is: Why does the club keep getting itself in these situations?

Remember, too, that the Caps relaxed a bit, in Boudreau’s opinion, after tying the Flyers series 3-3 last year - thinking the home-ice advantage would carry them through - and “Philly took it to us,” he said. The coach is hoping his players “might have learned” from that miscalculation and will play “our best game” Tuesday night.

The whole dynamic of the series, he pointed out, has flipped now. “When you’re down 3-1, there’s no pressure on you, in a sense, because nobody expects you to win. Now we’ll see how they handle it when people expect them to win. … Winning three in a row, when you think about it, is a difficult task.”

Boudreau is trying to find the right buttons to push, but who knows which buttons those are in a locker room filled with so many nationalities, such a variety of hockey temperaments. Heck, he’s hardly spoken to Varlamov, who has only become the key to the Capitals’ playoff hopes. The first few times he decided to start The Kid in goal, he had Ovechkin relay the message.

So he might have been comforted to hear Poti, another of Sunday’s goal-scorers, say, “I really don’t think about momentum” going into Game 7. “Whoever comes out and plays the most perfect game is going to win.”

Ovechkin was of a similar mind. What the Caps have to do, he said, is “forget this [sixth] game. It’s done, we bounced back and the next one [will be] a war.”

This is where the Capitals get to show how much they’ve grown, show that they’ve extracted the necessary lesson from last year’s disappointment and become a mentally stronger team. The alternative is to gain a reputation as Regular Season Pretty Boys - guys who, for whatever reason, can’t get it done when it matters most.