- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 24, 2011

Several hours before he even stepped onto the ice Saturday, Karl Alzner was getting chirped. Someone on Twitter sent him a message asking if he and the Capitals were ready to choke again.

When they didn’t and instead finished off the New York Rangers in five games to move on to the Eastern Conference semifinals, Alzner knew that person - and the rest of the world - would have nothing left to say.

“There’s a bit of relief,” Alzner admitted. “But it is just one series, so we need to make it through the next one.”

The Caps exorcised demons by ending a series in fewer than seven games and by putting last season’s Montreal Canadiens debacle behind them. But as much as pressure was lifted from Bruce Boudreau and his players’ shoulders, this could just be the beginning.

“I think we learned a lesson [from last year],” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We were so disappointed last year. But this is just the first round - we have higher goals than this.”

No one’s planning a parade for getting out of the first round, something the Caps managed to do by allowing just eight goals in the series. That’s thanks to a penalty kill that was 19-for-20, a defense that frustrated Marian Gaborik and company and, of course, goaltender Michal Neuvirth.

Neuvirth, starting his first series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, compiled a 1.38 goals-against average and a sublime .946 save percentage.

“Goaltending is such a huge factor in the playoffs. You got to have a hot goalie and he’s got to be playing well,” center Jason Arnott said. “He played calm and collected the whole series and played real well for us. He needs to be our backbone.”

If Neuvirth continues this kind of play in the second round, there’s no reason the Caps can’t make a significant run.

Of course, getting through a physical Rangers series quickly could also make a big difference.

“All the teams who’s been winning has had one short series,” Backstrom said. “This time of the year, you want to get the little extra break and make sure you practice good.”

Backstrom’s right; every Cup champion since the lockout has enjoyed at least one series of five games or fewer.

It’s specifically important for the Caps, who saw forward Mike Knuble get hurt in Game 3 and defenseman Mike Green go down in Game 5. With defenseman Dennis Wideman hoping to come back soon as well, some time off is a big advantage.

“Guys put everything on the line in the playoffs and there’s a lot of bumps and a lot of bruises,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “There’s a lot of things that need rest - need ice bags, need to re-boost the energy, the psyche and everything.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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