Wednesday, March 31, 2010

WASHINGTON | Owner Ted Leonsis was a late arrival Wednesday morning when the Washington Capitals gathered on the Verizon Center ice to take the official team photo.

By the time he got there, in his nice dark suit and red tie, the photo shoot was done and the players had started practice. Invoking the superstitious nature of the sports world, Leonsis smiled and figured maybe it was for the best.

“I’ve been in every photo,” he said, “and we’ve never won the Cup.”

Actually, the owner was simply behaving like his team. They’ve been showing up late for the past week, having been outscored 9-1 in the first period during a three-game losing streak.

“Maybe,” right wing Eric Fehr said, “we’re taking things too lightly right now.”

There are viewpoints aplenty as to why the NHL’s top team isn’t quite hitting on all cylinders as it completes the most successful regular season in franchise history. The Capitals have sewn up home ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and are closing in on the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the team with the league’s best record.

But life at the top isn’t simple.

Coach Bruce Boudreau recently invoked the Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals when discussing the pros and cons of resting players when a team already knows its playoff seed. Does he take extra precautions against injuries? How much should he tinker with the lines? When should he decide on a No. 1 playoff goalie? Is the recent slide a momentary blip, or have the Capitals subconsciously dialed it down a notch?

Then there’s the so-called Presidents’ Trophy curse: Only seven of 23 teams that have won that piece of hardware have gone on to win the Stanley Cup.

In short, the coach of the No. 1 team appears to get no more sleep than the coach of a No. 5, No. 7 or No. 16 team.

“The dilemmas when you’re in the bottom are easy,” Boudreau said. “You know what you have to do. Here, you over-question yourself, or outthink yourself sometimes, rather than just keeping it simple. These are questions coaches go through every day, they ask these different questions, and it’s the stuff that wears on you.

“But I’d rather be in my position, quite frankly, than a couple of other teams’.”

Several players have talked of avoiding a repeat of last year, when the Capitals were lackadaisical down the stretch and couldn’t flip the switch back on once the playoffs began. They lost the first two games of their first-round series to the New York Rangers before finally hitting their stride.

“Last year in the playoffs,” center Nicklas Backstrom said, “we weren’t ready the first two games.”

Boudreau isn’t ready to press that particular panic button just yet. He points out that last year’s Capitals finished the season against teams out of playoffs and played down to the level of their opponents as a result.

This year, the schedule has matched Washington against teams in the thick of the postseason chase, and that’s supposedly keeping the Capitals on their toes.

“I don’t think our level of play will be dropping, like it was last year,” Boudreau said.

Captain Alex Ovechkin has a different take. He pointed out that the Capitals of two years ago had to pull off a season-ending winning streak just to make the playoffs, leaving them drained for the postseason.

Then, last year, the Capitals held off New Jersey for the No. 2 seed over the final days of the season. Once again, Ovechkin said, the stress and strain took its toll.

“In first round we play seven games, the second round we play seven games,” Ovechkin said. “It’s pretty hard to do mentally and physically.”

Using that argument, the Capitals should be more mentally prepared for the playoffs this time around. Maybe, maybe not, says the coach.

“I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” Boudreau said. “We don’t have to fight because we know we’re the No. 1 seed, but at the same time we have to fight to stay at the level of competition we’re supposed to be at.”

Boudreau still has to decide who will mind the net at the start of the playoffs. Jose Theodore appeared to have the job locked up until back-to-back shaky outings. The coach wouldn’t touch the subject Wednesday.

“I’m not going to answer goaltending questions,” Boudreau said.

The Capitals do know they have to start playing better from the opening faceoff. A good time to start would be Thursday against the Atlanta Thrashers, a potential first-round opponent.

“I think players are irritated with what is going on,” right wing Mike Knuble said. “We’re certainly not proud of the way we’ve played the last couple of games. It’s a fine line. If it’s been working all year, you’re not going to change much. At the same time, you can’t bury you head in the sand and say it’s not there.”

The most adamant opinion on the mini-slump came from center Brooks Laich, who is expected to return Thursday after missing four games with a facial injury. While most players are willing to at least debate whether the Capitals have become guilty of going on cruise control, Laich would have none of it.

“People have been talking about that, and quite frankly, it (ticks) me off when they say we’re sailing through to the postseason,” Laich said. “We want to win hockey games, and when we don’t win hockey games, we go home frustrated and upset. And nobody wants that feeling, ever. We’re not throwing hockey games, we’re not coasting, we’re not taking it easy on teams. That’s nothing we ever do.”

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