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A Cup for the Capitals?

It’s not unrealistic to think this is the season Washington wins it all

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2011

It's the dream of owner Ted Leonsis, who said he'd "cry like a baby" if it happened. It's the dream of public address announcer Wes Johnson, who said he wouldn't be able to hear himself if it happened. It's the dream of every kid who wants to play in the NHL.

Winning the Stanley Cup, hockey's Holy Grail, is no longer just wishful thinking for the Washington Capitals and their fans. It's the only real benchmark for a successful season.

Captain Alex Ovechkin has had time to adjust to a leadership role. Coach Bruce Boudreau taught his team how to win with defense. General manager George McPhee went out in the offseason and got a proven goaltender and patched some holes on a playoff club.

Nothing less than a celebration in June is acceptable.

"We're definitely setting the bar high this year," defenseman John Erskine said. "If we don't go all the way, I think it'll be a disappointment."

Visions of champions

Self-motivation is one part of the Caps' mantra, but nationally the expectations were ratcheted up over the summer when The Hockey News tabbed Washington as its pick to finally break through and win the Cup.

Senior writer Ken Campbell cited McPhee's moves of signing goalie Tomas Vokoun, defenseman Roman Hamrlik, forwards Jeff Halpern and Joel Ward and trading for forward Troy Brouwer as major reasons for the pick.

Some fans decried the magazine's prediction as a jinx, just like a picture last season that depicted the Caps in medieval garb having won it all. Defenseman Jeff Schultz called predictions "garbage" but conceded this is the best team he's been on and therefore the group with the best chance to make good of preseason expectations.

"If people are saying, 'You've got a chance to win,' I'm all for that. Picking us to win the Cup, that's nice, but I'm more interested in the process and getting this right and getting this team to play right all the way through," McPhee said. "And if you play it right all the way through, then you won't break down in the playoffs."

Another part of the hype centers on Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom, defeseman Mike Green and right wing Alexander Semin - the so-called "Young Guns" - growing up. They're not kids anymore, right wing Mike Knuble has said, and other veterans have preached accountability across the board.

"They're building themselves to [where] playoffs aren't really a goal for them," Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "There's only one goal for the Caps."

But the talent has been evident for a couple of seasons, so it's no surprise that from the inside there is confidence.

"We've had a team to win it the last few years and it just hasn't worked out," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "For me, every year is the year to win the Cup. Whether it's off of losing, getting swept in the second round, or not making the playoffs every year, you want to win it and you expect to win it."

'Never' again

Two seasons ago, the Caps captured the Presidents' Trophy with the most points in the NHL. Even last season, they made a run to finish atop the Eastern Conference.

Those were both supposed to be "the year," but losses to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round in 2010 and to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round in 2011 brought high hopes to an end in low-blow fashion.

Last year's sweep by the Lightning stung particularly hard. Boudreau talked over the summer about just wanting to get back on the ice to put the postseason behind him, and his players weren't able to forget.

"It wasn't fun for anybody. It was terrible," center Marcus Johansson said. "We never want to have that happen again, so of course you think about it."

Reasons for the early exit abound, from injuries to defensemen to stars not being able to match the intensity and production of Tampa Bay's supporting cast. Even now, it's still frustrating for many around the team to think about the missed opportunity.

"You just don't have that many chances as a group to do well," Knuble said. "You have to realize when you're a good team in a good position that the time is right and the players are out there, and you've got to take advantage of it."

All the right moves

NBC hockey play-by-play man Mike Emrick doesn't make postseason predictions until after the trade deadline. That's when, he said, you can see what a team has to offer in April, May and June.

At last year's deadline, McPhee acquired defenseman Dennis Wideman and center Jason Arnott and claimed wing Marco Sturm off waivers. It was the hope that those veterans would add the right voices in the room and the right play on the ice to win a title.

When it didn't work out, McPhee took a similar tone in free agency: Not blowing the Caps up but getting Ward, Halpern, Vokoun and Hamrlik after dealing away a first-round pick for Brouwer.

"I think [McPhee] did a great job. They didn't just go willy-nilly and pick free agents," Boudreau said. "They picked guys that they thought were not only really good but would be good fits for our hockey club."

Toughness for the skaters and experience all around was the common theme. Except for Brouwer, who won it all with the Chicago Blackhawks two seasons ago, none have had team success in the playoffs.

But all fit the bill of leaders either vocally or quietly as the Caps look to squeeze more out of the entire team come playoff time. And the Caps brought back Laich at $4.5 million per year because he fits into the mix as a leader, too.

"We believe that we have the group that can win in here, Laich said.

'C' is for pressure

Brouwer talked about not trying to be the captain in Washington. That job is already filled, as Ovechkin goes into just his second full season with the "C" on his chest.

Increased maturity has been a noticeable part of Ovechkin since he returned to the area in August. Questions about him being out of shape were quickly extinguished as the highest-paid player showed off some renewed commitment in on-ice drills and sprints.

And he's approaching this season as captain differently, willing to sacrifice some offensive firepower for team success.

"It doesn't matter - personal stats is personal stats. Everybody forget I was 65-goal scorer a couple years ago and everybody talking about Boston or Chicago because they were Stanley Cup champions," Ovechkin said. "I think for this team right now it's most important thing is just raise the Cup and bring it home like everybody wants in all organizations."

Like the Penguins' Sidney Crosby before him, Ovechkin was made captain in addition to already being the face of the franchise.

"Unlike the traditional Scott Stevens/Mark Messier types, now you have [the trend] that the best player winds up being the captain," Emrick said. "Only the guys in the room can tell you is he the best leader?"

The Caps certainly hope Ovechkin can take preseason progress and turn it into results next spring, because that question will go a long way toward determining whether the Russian left wing will be lifting the Stanley Cup over his head.

The right ingredients

It takes something special to win a Stanley Cup, something that's hard to define. Obviously talent is a major part, and having great or at least very good goaltending is essential.

But plenty of teams, like last year's Caps, put that mix together and came up short.

"I think the word 'will' is the most important. You have to have all 22 guys or at least the key players they have to have the will to win," said Blackhawks defenseman Sean O'Donnell, who won the Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. "Playing in the league is great, making a lot of money is great, but guys have to feel like their careers aren't complete until they win one."

Only two players in the Caps' locker room - Knuble (Red Wings, 1998) and Brouwer (Blackhawks, 2010) - own Stanley Cup rings. Plenty have won at the AHL level, as Boudreau did with the Hershey Bears. But it's just not the same.

Halpern knows the pain of losing in the playoffs perhaps more than anyone, having never been on a team that won a playoff series.

"If you have any sort of weakness, it gets exploited in the playoffs," he said. "You can cover it up sometimes with goaltender or speciality times, but things definitely surface in the playoffs."

The Caps know that feeling all too well, and yet there's an optimism that this could be the chance.

'You never know'

During Halpern's rookie season, Ulf Dahlen pulled him aside to deliver an important message: "You never know when you have a good chance at winning a Cup," Halpern recalled.

Now 35 years old after a tour of four other NHL teams, the ex-Caps captain sees this as his best chance to do just that.

On paper, it's hard to doubt the depth of two goaltenders with proven success, seven defensemen with plenty of experience and at least three lines that can score with reliability. And don't doubt the desire, either, after how things went last year.

"They're a group that wants to win, believe me," Knuble said. "People that think they don't, they're vastly mistaken and they don't know them."

National analysts are mixed on whether this is "the year." Emrick thinks the Caps can again finish atop the Eastern Conference in the regular season, while Adam Proteau of The Hockey News wrote that this is the time for Washington to "put up or blow up."

When the Caps were eliminated by Tampa Bay, some expected Boudreau to be handed a pink slip. It's fair to reason that without a deep run in 2012, the popular coach could be in trouble.

That's added pressure on a group that is already feeling the weight of expectations. Boudreau won't be the only one whose seat is hot if things don't go well.

"Let's wait to see what happens in the playoffs," TSN analyst Bob McKenzie said. "They can't really prove what they've got to prove until the playoffs."

Leonsis came out recently and said the Caps need to make sure they remember the regular season is important, too. But more than anything else, it's a means to an end getting into the top eight in the East to exorcise the demons.

This is the one shot, the one opportunity to put it all to rest.

"If they don't step up now and play the game at a high level," McKenzie said, "then one could suggest that they never will."

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