- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Nothing the Washington Capitals do Monday night at Verizon Center can make up for those awful six days last spring, when the Tampa Bay Lightning swept them out of the playoffs. So let’s put that thought out of everybody’s mind right now. Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin could score a goal for every letter in the Cyrillic alphabet, chase Dwayne Roloson halfway back to the St. Pete Times Forum, and it wouldn’t balance the scales. Wouldn’t even come close.

“We’re not going to get revenge on them by beating them [in this first meeting of the season],” center Brooks Laich said. “We’re never going to come full circle like that. But we obviously know what happened last year, and we’re not happy about it.”

The Capitalsshouldn’t be happy about it. But even though they have a Paul Bunyan-sized ax to grind, this game is much more about the future than the past — the future of the Southeast Division. The Caps have taken the title the past four years, sometimes handily, but the Lightning showed in May that Washington’s reign might be over. After finishing just four points out of first in the regular season, Tampa Bay took Ovie and Co. apart in the playoffs with its pesky neutral-zone trap and opportunistic scoring.

It’s one thing to lose in seven games, as the Capitals had done the previous three years against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Montreal. There’s still pain, sure, but you can always fall back on the a-goal-here-and-a-penalty-there defense. When you lose 4-zip, though, there’s nowhere to hide. You either look at yourself closely in the mirror — and try to address your shortcomings — or risk a repeat performance (or worse) the next season.

For the Caps, honesty seems to be the preferred policy. As left wing Jason Chimera puts it, “It wasn’t necessarily the way Tampa played. It was the way we played. We did all the right things against the Rangers — and then kind of got away from them against Tampa. A lot of the goals came from our problems and not from what they created.”

Chimera is getting to the heart of the matter there, the idea that the Capitals‘ real battle isn’t with the Lightning (or the Canadiens or the Penguins or the Flyers), it’s with themselves. Or to put it another way: If it’s always something with a team — and with the Caps it is — then that “something” is probably, well, the team.

During the offseason, whenever Laich thought back on the Tampa Bay series, the word that kept popping into his head was: hustle. “I think we were outhustled,” he said. “And hustle is hard work. There’s an old saying: Talent only beats hard work when talent works hard. I thought that 1 through 20 on their team, all their guys played really hard in that series, really hustled. And they played such a strong team game.”

The Caps, most observers would agree, certainly are skilled enough to go deep into the playoffs. Their issue always has been that four-letter word: grit.

The Lightning had more of it. The Habs had more of it. The Penguins had more of it. And the Flyers had more of it.

George McPhee, the Capitals‘ general manager, keeps trying to solve this deficiency by bringing in veterans such as Sergei Fedorov, Mike Knuble, Jason Arnott and, this year, the quintet of Tomas Vokoun, Roman Hamrlik, Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer.

Whether the roster has enough grit now or whether McPhee needs to shop for more will be determined in the months ahead, though Monday night’s skate with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and friends might offer some clues. Never mind the scoreboard; who wins the hustle competition? That should tell you plenty.

So Game 2 of the 2011-12 season isn’t about payback for the Caps. It’s about meeting the challenge posed by Tampa Bay and, while they’re at it, trying to confront their own demons.

It’s about one other thing, too. “This is a new season,” Laich said, “and we want to establish from the start that we’re going to be a very tough team to beat. More than that, if you look around the league, the so-called top teams in the East are already winning. Philly’s [2-0] already winning. Buffalo’s [2-0] winning. Teams are getting off to good starts. So if we want to be in that group, we’ve got to keep winning, too.”

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