- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The word “vintage” is thrown around a lot in describing the Washington Capitals. When Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green lit up opponents in the final two months of the regular season, it began to look an awful lot like the glory days of the Rock the Red-era Caps.

After a victory over Tampa Bay late in the regular season that included two goals by Ovechkin, Backstrom was asked if it felt like the “good old days” when the franchise cornerstones powered a high-scoring team.

“It doesn’t matter if it feels that way,” Backstrom said. “It depends how it is in the playoffs. And we weren’t that successful in the playoffs in the past.”

In other words, don’t party like it’s 2009 or 2010. Those years brought records for offensive production and sellout crowds at Verizon Center.

But they never included a championship or even a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.

“Good old days? We didn’t do anything,” Backstrom said. “They weren’t that good. … Obviously we showed that we can be good in the regular season, but we haven’t shown anything else.”

That’s the task for the 2013 Caps: to forge an identity as a playoff team where so many previous incarnations failed. It’s as much forgetting the recent past as it is learning from it, because time is running out before these players get branded as regular-season performers who can’t get it done in the postseason.

“When you’re in the playoffs you’ve got to play your best hockey,” Backstrom said. “That’s something we haven’t done.”

Making it look easy

Once Bruce Boudreau’s Caps got past their brief Cinderella period in 2007-08 that required an 11-1 run to make the playoffs and win the Southeast Division, expectations began to mount. Ovechkin was running away with NHL trophies, as Backstrom, Green, Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin quickly moved into their primes.

Times were good in 2008-09 and 2009-10, the latter season including the Presidents’ Trophy and a franchise-record 121 points. The 2009-10 Caps led the league with 318 goals but allowed 233. They peaked as part of a 14-game winning streak and never seemed to be out of a game.

“We were obviously a great regular-season team and it was great the way were scoring,” right wing Eric Fehr said. “We felt like the game was easy for us back then.”

It was easy until the playoffs. The Caps went seven games before losing in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 and then were upset by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in 2010.

“This league’s not easy; you have to have the right bounces, the right timing,” Green said. “Things have to go your way a little bit.”

Boudreau can recall specific moments that didn’t go his team’s way. When injured defenseman Shaone Morrisonn couldn’t complete a shift in overtime of Game 5 vs. Pittsburgh, the Caps threw forward Sergei Fedorov back on defense and the Penguins scored. Washington went 1 for 33 on the power play against Montreal, and Boudreau blames himself for letting a travel delay affect his practice schedule that series, too.

But the Caps changed after the first-round exit and a losing streak early in the 2010-11 season. Elements of what made them great in the regular season weren’t considered pieces of playoff success.

“When people speak of those good old days, that wasn’t good playoff hockey,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “It was more selfish to get points.”

The Greatest Show on Ice got some roster alterations along the way, like the additions of grit in the form of Matt Hendricks, Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward, but the biggest change came when Boudreau was fired and replaced by Dale Hunter.

‘We never want to lose that’

Hunter’s no-nonsense persona came with the polar opposite playing style from what the Caps were used to under Boudreau. Block shots, battle, compete.

It wasn’t the most exciting brand of hockey, but when Game 1 of last year’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Boston Bruins began, everything clicked and a team that struggled most of the season looked like it was built for the playoffs.

“Guys that worked the hardest were getting those big minutes,” Holtby said. “That does a lot for team morale in order to win games. That’s what playoff hockey is about; you look at the teams that have won it the past, it’s not always the skilled guys that are winning the games. It’s those guys that have been working hard all year and not getting recognition for it.”

Ovechkin played a career-low 13:36 during Game 2 of the East semifinals at the New York Rangers, while checking-line center Jay Beagle skated 19:58. The Caps won, as Ovechkin scored the game-winning goal.

For 14 games, the Caps played hockey’s mind-numbing equivalent of Valium, slowing things down and blocking shots but always giving themselves a chance. That’s Hunter hockey.

“I know Dale had a different way of playing, but there was some value in that, too, in the way it taught this team to sacrifice and to block shots and to play hard,” general manager George McPhee said. “I’m glad he got that out of our team, and we don’t ever want to lose that.”

That’s part of why, even though Hunter went back to his junior team in London, Ontario, after last season, McPhee doesn’t regret hiring the former captain to be the coach. Defenseman Karl Alzner said it taught the Caps the value of “perseverance” and how hard playoff hockey can be.

“I think our big thing was commitment last year and during the playoffs,” defenseman John Carlson said. “From the puck drop against Boston to the end, I think that we really committed our game all over the ice. And now our game is just a little bit different, but we need to have that same commitment level to do the little things that help us win.”

Capital chameleons

Coach Adam Oates’ system encourages aggressive, entertaining play and he doesn’t want his players laying out to block shots. It’s not up and down the ice like Boudreau’s style, but it’s certainly more entertaining than what Hunter wanted from the Caps.

“I prefer this one,” McPhee said. “I like playing the up-tempo game and trying to pressure the other club into making mistakes, and make the mistakes in their end instead of our end. But I think our system really generates offense. It’s an exciting way to play. It’s a fun way to play for the players.”

It took awhile to translate into victories. Once it did, a 2-8-1 start became just a stumbling block in retrospect to a team that went on an 11-1-1 run to clinch a sixth straight playoff appearance.

This was unlike any recent Caps season.

“I think it’s just mentally different,” Ovechkin said. “System was different. We have a slow start because maybe somebody was not ready physically, mentally, and right now we’re all-in. Everybody feels pretty good and has confidence.”

Part of that confidence comes from Oates, the rookie coach whose mix of playing experience, teaching acumen and positivity played a major role in the regular-season turnaround. It has a lot to do with the way he has the Caps playing, which can dictate how opponents play.

But Oates also knows his team can be a chameleon and adjust on the fly.

“I think we’ve shown that we can play a lot of different ways,” Oates said. “And that has been something that I think the structure’s allowed the guys to do. At the end of the day, we still want to come out from our goalie first, protect our goalie first, protect our D, and you’ve got to be willing to win a 2-1 game.”

Boudreau’s Caps were certainly capable of winning 2-1, but more often they scored a plethora of goals and allowed plenty. Oates’ philosophy begins in the defensive zone.

“That’s hockey. That’s playoff hockey,” he said. “I think I’ve shown the guys that we’re still going to score goals; we have no problem scoring goals. We have to prevent them.”

It’s a similar system to the one the Devils rode to the Stanley Cup Final last season with Oates as an assistant.

“It worked really well for New Jersey last year, and I’m hoping we’ll get the same results,” McPhee said.

‘A whole different team’

Why the Caps think it’s different this time around has to do with more than just Oates. Backstrom pointed to Holtby’s play in the 2012 playoffs, which might have been just as important as how the skaters worked together and bought into Hunter’s style.

It never hurts to have a hot goalie, and Holtby is one year older with plenty more experience. That’s true of the whole team after getting within one game of the conference finals.

“Every year, you grow a little bit and you just take experiences that you’ve had in the playoffs,” Beagle said. “You see what it takes to win those games. Those experiences are only going to help you going forward, and they’re going to help us this year.”

Fehr said he didn’t want to dwell on the past and what didn’t work out in the playoffs. Center Mike Ribeiro, left wing Martin Erat and several key contributors weren’t around for the good old days, and they’re a part of this being a different group.

“We haven’t had this atmosphere in the dressing room and on the ice in a long time,” Green said. “It’s not about comparing it to the past because it’s a whole different team and morale and maturity level. We can’t compare it to the past.”

The stars are a little older now and the pieces around them have more defined roles. Everybody’s got a job, and the chemistry doesn’t seem to be an issue.

“The team that you’re on, you feel, is the best team that you’ve been on,” Holtby said. “That’s what you believe and I believe that we have the best chance to win the Stanley Cup, a better chance than we had last year, and you go from there.”

Athletes are programmed to believe they can do the impossible. It’s why, even when the Caps were floundering, McPhee didn’t look at the standings or what it would take to make the playoffs “because it’s too daunting at some point.”

Changing an identity made by five straight early playoff exits is daunting, too. But it’s a challenge these players willingly accept.

“It’s time for us to really show what we’re made of,” Backstrom said.

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