Beginning Thursday night in Boston, the Washington Capitals have a huge mountain to climb, one taller, even, than Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. But that's good. In fact, that's very good.
Why? Because too often in recent seasons, the Capitals have gotten to the playoffs and proceeded to play as they had already reached the summit — and needed only to plant the franchise flag. They were mistaken, of course, as a succession of lower-seeded opponents (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Tampa Bay) reminded them. The Presidents' Trophy, which the Caps won two years ago, is nice, but it's little more than a hood ornament in the grand scheme of things. The division title, which the Caps won four straight times, is worth even less than that. In the NHL, it's all about what happens in April ... and beyond.
Perhaps the Capitals have finally gotten the message. We'll know soon enough. Their architect, general manager George McPhee, certainly hopes so. "We may have learned something in the Buffalo game a couple of weeks ago [a 5-1 home loss] and in the playoffs in the past," he said. "In the big games, the games of hype, the players because they're young probably made them too big. [You should] just follow your normal routine and play. ... Just go out and play."
And so the Capitals will try to just go out and play, unburdened by the expectations of the past few postseasons. They're the seventh seed this time — not first or second or third — and the odds for a seventh seed are long indeed. Put it this way: Only twice in the last two decades has a seventh seed even reached the Eastern Conference finals, never mind won them.
Being the seventh seed also means the Capitals figure to start every series on enemy ice. And their road record (16-21-4), I'll just point out, is the worst of any playoff club in the East. (Florida is next at 17-17-7). But this, I'm convinced, also is good. The last thing you want these Caps to do, judging from their history, is feel too comfortable.
So I won't even bring up their 3-1 record against the Bruins in the regular season. That might breed complacency. Nor will I mention that Boston probably is overseeded, that it finished with only the fourth-best record in the conference — while playing in the second-weakest division in the league. That might give the Capitals a false sense of security, too. And you didn't hear from me that, with Nick Backstrom and Mike Green back in the lineup, the club is as healthy as it's been in ages. Mum's the word.
No, if the Caps are to have any success, they must continue to play with the desperation they've played the past few weeks. It's not "a whole new season," not for them. It's an extension of the previous one. And unless they want to be on the golf links in a couple of weeks, they have to keep doing the things that got them this far — grinding, hitting, blocking shots. Above all, they have to remind themselves as often as possible that, collectively, they haven't accomplished diddly.
The Capitals say they've learned from their past disappointments, "learned that the little things make a big difference," as Jason Chimera put it after Monday's practice at Kettler Iceplex. "In the Tampa series [last year], we had a couple of games go against us for reasons as simple as: get the puck out [of the defensive zone] or get the puck deep [in the offensive zone]. Just little plays. You've gotta be on the ball all the time and not give 'em any freebie chances. That's the biggest thing."
But we've heard this stuff from the Capitals before. Indeed, we've heard it every year since 2008. We're older, smarter, better. It won't happen again. Well, show us. The Caps reached the playoffs even though McPhee refrained from throwing them their Annual Life Preserver (e.g. Sergei Fedorov and Jason Arnott) at the trade deadline. That's an encouraging sign. But now they have to move on to Step Two — and put together a Stanley Cup run with a veritable novice, Braden Holtby, likely in goal because of injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth.
If the Capitals are looking for excuses, in other words, they have one. How often do you win a Cup with a netminder who has played in only 21 NHL games? But after coming up short the past four postseasons, the Caps have used up all their excuses. It's time for them to find a way, Holtby or no Holtby. It's time for them — Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the bunch — to take off the training wheels.
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