- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

Only when they’ve faced elimination and a long summer of trying to forget an early playoff exit have the Washington Capitals started to play hockey the past two postseasons.

Last year, the Caps fell behind Philadelphia 3-1 and reached Game 7 before losing in overtime. This year, the Caps fell behind the New York Rangers 3-1 before becoming the 21st team in playoff history to complete the comeback.

As they prepare for their Eastern Conference semifinal series against Pittsburgh, the Caps know they’ve used their 2009 playoff mulligan. The Caps rallied because New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist became human, the Rangers’ power play was impotent and the Caps’ personnel were superior.

If they start slow against Pittsburgh, the Caps are cooked.

“You’re not going to go too far if you keep digging holes like that,” defenseman Tom Poti said after practice Thursday. “We want to get a quick jump on the series.”

Said wing Brooks Laich: “We have to find a way to play our best without using the elimination as motivation. We have to be motivated to be great from the start. We can’t wait against these guys. They’re experienced, and they’re going to come out flying.”

The Caps were great at Verizon Center in the regular season (29-9-3) but are only 4-4 the past two postseasons. Are the Caps too tense on home ice? Or is there not a sense of urgency?

The Caps were as tight as a knot in the first two periods of Game 7, far and away their weakest stretch of the series. But Sergei Fedorov’s third-period goal allowed them to survive.

So how will the Caps start this series? One theory floated around the locker room is that the Caps can exhale now that they’re out of the first round.

“Maybe we can play a little more relaxed and play our game,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.

But being relaxed - or content - is what got the Caps in trouble last year. Alex Ovechkin helped steal Game 1 before the Flyers won three straight.

The Caps need to find an acceptable medium - being relaxed enough to play their north-south game but having the right amount of urgency to make Games 1 and 2 important.

“This particular group of guys has a history of being satisfied with how we did and how well we played and maybe not kept it going,” center David Steckel said. “Two years in a row, that’s something that has lingered around.

“It was great we made the playoffs last year, and it’s like we didn’t come out prepared [for Philadelphia]. We don’t want the same thing to happen and say, ‘We’re in the second round; we’re just happy to be here.’ We didn’t work hard for 82 games to lie down in the second round.”

The Caps worked hard for 82 games so they could open as many rounds as possible on home ice. Against the Penguins, they’re confident the momentum generated from the comeback against New York can be duplicated and that they won’t dig themselves a new hole.

“We want to come out better than we did,” defenseman Shaone Morrisonn said. “We have home ice for a reason, and we have to be ready from the get-go and play with the passion and energy we did the last three games.”

The Caps play better when leading a game, but they also want to experience a series lead. A quick start only will increase their confidence and give them an additional wave of momentum.

“Every team wants to play with a lead,” Laich said. “You want to make the other team change their game plan and take away their confidence. That’s why we need a better effort in Game 1 and Game 2.

“We need to establish home-ice dominance.”

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