- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2013

When the Washington Capitals’ season ended in 2010 with a stunning first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens, general manager George McPhee faced the question. After Bruce Boudreau’s run-and-gun Caps dominated the NHL for most of the regular season, it was all over in seven games.

No Stanley Cup, no nothing. If the best team in franchise history can’t win it all, how soon until the “window of opportunity” closes on Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and the Capitals?

“I said then, three or four years ago, no. And I don’t believe in that kind of stuff,” McPhee said. “I don’t know how anyone could. It would be a tough way to come to training camp thinking that the window’s closed on your team.”

It’s not an open and shut case. There’s no textbook definition of how long a team has to win a championship.

The tools are still there. Ovechkin is 27 and could experience a career renaissance under rookie coach Adam Oates. Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green are healthy after a tumultuous 2011-12 season. Braden Holtby could be a legitimate No. 1 goaltender. And young defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner are playing like veterans.

So it’s easy for someone like NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire to make the case that the window is still open, even if “it’s been open for a while.”

“Their window’s nowhere near being closed, I can tell you right now, because at key positions they’re really amped up to go a long way,” McGuire said.

But this isn’t the first time people have believed in the Caps. The Hockey News picked them to win it all last season, and instead Washington had the Dale Hunter experience and a second-round exit.

Now, expectations are all over the place, thanks in part to how much other teams in the Eastern Conference improved. The New York Rangers acquired Rick Nash, and the Carolina Hurricanes scooped up Alexander Semin and traded for Jordan Staal.

Meanwhile, Washington retooled like a team on the cusp of winning the Cup. McPhee let Semin go and added depth around the core of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Brooks Laich.

But the Caps don’t believe other contenders have passed them by.

“The way I kind of look at it, and it might sound a little arrogant, but I feel like teams have always looked at us that way because of guys like Ovi, Nicky, Greenie, Semin,” Alzner said. “Maybe now it seems more like a level playing field, almost in a way. I know we haven’t had any playoff success, but I think that all the teams are starting to realize you have a couple of those big-name guys to score often and then you’ve got to find the rest of the pieces.”

Alzner’s point that stings is that the Caps haven’t gotten past the second round with this group. It looked like the right mix each time, but something went wrong.

In 2010, Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak flustered them. In 2011, a barrage of injuries to defensemen hampered them. In 2012, Hunter’s ultraconservative style that gave the Caps a chance every night wasn’t enough to outlast the Rangers.

“All the years, we have a pretty good team, we have a good group of guys in the locker room. We just miss something; sometimes we just miss luck, sometimes we just relax when we get the lead,” Ovechkin said. “We’re just growing up like persons, I think. Everybody understand right now the chances you have every year, you have to use it.”

Those chances aren’t infinite. Even with McPhee’s patience and owner Ted Leonsis’ goal to have a generationally great team, changes will eventually come if the Caps don’t make progress. Already Semin is gone, and left in the wake of his departure is a void of scoring that someone will need to fill.

In hiring Oates and trading for center Mike Ribeiro, McPhee is still trying to find what Alzner called the “right, exact mix.”

Forget most of the hockey world looking at the Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and defending champion Los Angeles Kings as Cup picks. The internal expectation has not changed.

“I expect that we’ll be successful. How do we measure success? We want to go a long way,” said Oates, who will make his NHL head coaching debut Saturday night at the Tampa Bay Lightning. “Obviously, the goal’s a Stanley Cup. You want to win the Stanley Cup. They had some success last year, but they were still a long way away from winning the Stanley Cup. So we’ve got to improve on last year and see where it takes us.”

Ovechkin won’t make any grand proclamations about where this season will take the Caps. He has been around long enough to see the ebb and flow of Washington as a hockey town with eyes on a championship and the disappointment of falling short.

Three years ago, the dream was not just of winning a Cup but winning more than one with this group. The window appeared wide open for that.

“I think you have a window to have a dynasty,” Oates said. “But I think anybody can win any one year.”

Asked if he believed the Caps could still do it, Oates said: “Why not? You’ve got some guys that have been in the league a couple years, and they’re ready.”

For a franchise with one trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 37 seasons, though, any talk of a dynasty is premature. Ribeiro has watched the Caps the past few years and won’t entertain talk about the next few seasons.

“Every time I watch these guys, they’re top five to win the Cup, and then you get in playoffs and make it, or you go after the first round,” he said. “You have to take this year. You cannot start thinking about the next three, four years. Let’s think about this one here and trying to do something right.”

It will take until late June, after a lockout-shortened 48-game regular season and another playoff sprint, to find out if the Caps are worthy of being considered perennial title contenders.

That’s not something McPhee worries about; he loses sleep over everything else. But he’s at peace with this team keeping the Cup window open.

“Each year’s a challenge, and that’s what makes the business what it is and why we’re in it,” he said. “We like a challenge and like to see if we can solve the riddle.”

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