- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The clock started ticking late in April 2010 when the Capitals started packing up their lockers after the first-round exit to the Montreal Canadiens.

“I think we were all humbled a bit last spring,” veteran wing Mike Knuble said. “It is very humbling what happened to us, so guys have been carrying that around the whole year.”

Exactly 350 days elapsed between Game 7 of the Montreal series and Wednesday night, when the Caps opened the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs against the New York Rangers at Verizon Center.

The Caps wore shirts in training camp that read “Stay Angry.” But “it’s a different kind of angry,” Knuble admitted. “It’s something you put away and save for another time.”

That time is here, though the memories of last season still are present for most players given how devastating that seven-game loss to the Canadiens was.

“At first it was hard to believe, and it was just probably for some of the guys one of the worst things they’ve ever gone through,” defenseman Jeff Schultz said.

Coach Bruce Boudreau has bristled at the idea that this group is “better prepared” for playoff hockey than last year’s team, which piled up 121 points and won the Presidents’ Trophy for being atop the NHL after the regular season.

But that’s exactly what made it humbling.

“It’s always tough when you win the league and you lose out in the first round,” center Boyd Gordon said. “It obviously shows you’re not as good as you think you were.”

Much has happened since then. The Caps acquired veterans Scott Hannan, Jason Arnott, Dennis Wideman and Marco Sturm. They turned to the kids in goal with Semyon Varlamov, Braden Holtby and Game 1 starter Michal Neuvirth. And they implemented that much-discussed defensive style that allowed them to finish the season on a 16-3-1 tear.

Because of what 350 days’ worth of change can do, wing Alexander Semin said he forgot about the playoff defeat soon after it happened.

“Right now, it’s a different year and we have a different team. We approach games differently; we have a different mentality for every game,” Semin said through an interpreter. “Thinking about the past is not gonna do any good, so we’re just thinking about the future because everything is different now.”

But as several Caps said, there are lessons that they won’t soon forget.

“We’ve been talking about how we have to be focused in all our games,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “There’s many things we can talk about last year, but this is a new year and hopefully we can do better than last year.”