- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2011


Only one of Washington’s pro teams — the Big Four, I mean — is much burdened by expectations: the Capitals. With the others, the fans’ mindset is entirely different.

Redskins fans just want the club to be respectable enough so they can show their faces at work on Mondays.

Wizards fans don’t even ask for that much. They simply hope their heroes can get through the season with a minimum of locker-room gunplay.

As for Nationals fans, they’re absolutely thrilled the team won 80 games this year, especially with Stephen Strasburg throwing almost as many rehab-assignment innings (20 1/3) as major league innings (24).

All three of those clubs are in various stages of rebuilding. It isn’t about the present with them, it’s about the future (however uncertain it may be). But for the Caps, it’s about the here and now. They’ve been division champs for four years running, not that they have much to show for it. So they’re not just dealing with expectations, they’re dealing with accumulated expectations, expectations that have built up over the past few seasons as they’ve flamed out, repeatedly, in the playoffs.

Accumulated expectations are the worst kind of expectations. They’re like compounded debt, like being maxed out on your credit card. Let’s face it, after being swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round last May — on the heels of a first-round loss to 8th-seeded Montreal the previous spring — they’re not quite the darlings they used to be. Besides, at a certain point, the bill becomes due and the leg-breaker appears at the door.

If the Capitals listen closely, they might hear Javier Bardem knocking. (OK, I’m being overly dramatic. It might only be Steve Buscemi knocking. But the pounding has never been louder.)

Not that Mike Knuble pays it much mind. “It’s a privilege,” the right wing says, “to be in a town where you’ve got a chance to do well and where people have hopes for you. As an athlete, you want to play in cities where it matters and where you have a chance to win. Our fans recognize that, and I think the guys in the room recognize it.

“The regular season has been the easy part for us. It’s all going to be about the spring and how we do there. For the fans, it’s still kinda like: Six months to go, ‘til we get to what everybody wants to see.”

Yes, it pretty much has come down to that for the Capitals. They’ve finished with the best record in the conference the past two years and the best in the league in 2010, only to watch lower seeds — Philadelphia (No. 7) and Boston (No. 3) — catch fire and advance to the finals, with the Bruins winning the Stanley Cup. Of course, the Presidents’ Trophy is plated with fool’s gold … unless it leads to a lengthy playoff run. The Caps, for all their glamour, haven’t been able to get out of the second round.

When they were done being electrocuted by the Lightning five months ago, Knuble said, “There will be different faces next year. That’s a guarantee.” But George McPhee resisted the urge to break out the dynamite, convinced that every young team — and the Capitals are still that — is going to suffer growing pains. There were no major subtractions from the roster (unless you count Semyon Varlamov, who, statistically, was their third-best goaltender), and Bruce Boudreau was brought back as coach. Instead, McPhee tried to make meaningful veteran additions, specifically forwards Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern, defenseman Roman Hamrlik and goalie Tomas Vokoun.

“When you add people like that,” Jason Chimera says, “you can’t help but get excited about a season. People have high expectations for us, sure, but we have high expectations ourselves. We want to win, and we realize how good a team we’ve got. We really don’t want to leave anything to chance. We want to stick with this team the whole year — and then, when the trade deadline comes, not make any moves and just keep rolling right through.”

If the Capitals are looking for encouragement, last season’s finalists, the Bruins and Vancouver Canucks, offer plenty. They, too, ranked high on the Accumulated Expectations Scale before finally breaking through last spring. It can take a while, no matter how talented you are, for everything to come together.

This year, maybe the San Jose Sharks will be that team — and all the pieces will fall into place. Or maybe Alex Ovechkin will go back to being Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom will go back to being Nick Backstrom, and the Caps will be that team. As Knuble says: Only six months of tiresome regular-season games until we find out.

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