- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

After three straight losing seasons, a Southeast Division championship and a dramatic season-ending run to the playoffs certainly qualifies as a success.

And maybe those did for the fans, at least once the disappointment of the Washington Capitals’ Game 7 overtime loss to the Flyers in the first round of the playoffs last season passed.

Inside the locker room, though, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would call the 2007-08 season a “success.”

General manager George McPhee still gets angry about it.

“We thought the officials took it out of our hands in overtime, and it was a bitter way to lose,” McPhee said. “It wasn’t a success for us.”

The goal last year was the same as the goal this year: win the Stanley Cup.

“I thought we were going to win the Cup last year,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “That is our goal this year.”

It is every team’s goal to win the Stanley Cup, of course. But realistically, isn’t progress a measure of success? Didn’t the progress of reaching the playoffs last year qualify as a success? And won’t reaching the second round this year qualify as both progress and success?

That may be the way fans rationalize the results of a season or the method by which marketers present their product.

But on the ice, the thinking is that a hot streak here or a break there suddenly can put you in the Stanley Cup Finals - the way it did the Caps in 1998.

The Caps looked at what happened last year in the playoffs - the Pittsburgh Penguins reached the finals - and saw a lost opportunity, not a successful season.

“We were disappointed in the outcome,” Mike Green said. “We felt that if we would have went on, we could have done some damage.”

Could have.

But by the time the young Caps figured out playoff hockey, they were down 3-1 in the series.

“Last year, about 90 percent of the players really had no idea what playoff hockey was about,” Boudreau said. “There was some shock. The same thing might happen this year, but at least we know how ramped up it is. I think we will be ready.”

Being ready may be as simple as recognizing the difference between nervousness and intensity.

“Last year, it was a dogfight to just get in, and when we got in we really didn’t have time to prepare,” forward Brooks Laich said. “This year, we have been preparing for a couple of weeks. Then it was just a matter of who we were going to play. We will draw on the experience from last year.

“Relax doesn’t mean nonintense. We are still going to play intense. We’re going to be fast. We’re going to skate. There will be body checks and momentum and emotions in the series. At the same time, when you have the puck, you want to be make plays. You want to be relaxed with the puck. You don’t want to be holding the stick so tight and forcing everything.”

It took a while for the Caps to loosen the grip on their sticks in the playoffs last year. After winning the opener 5-4, the Caps were shut out 2-0 and embarrassed 6-3. They got their grip right in Game 4, competing hard but falling 4-3 in two overtimes. They won Game 5 3-2 and Game 6 4-2.

They should have a cool grip this time around.

“The nerves aren’t there that were there last year,” Green said. “We didn’t have to fight for our lives to make the playoffs. We are better prepared than last year. I can’t wait to get on the ice.”

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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