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'Mature' Capitals ready to fight off recent playoff heartbreak


'Mature' Capitals ready to fight off recent playoff heartbreak

SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Some of what you will read in this story may cause nausea, headaches, vomiting and the urge to bury your head in the muck of the Potomac.

Over the past 32 years, the Capitals have reached the Stanley Cup playoffs 25 times. They have been eliminated in the first or second round 23 times.

RELATED: Gormley's playoff predictions

With captain Alex Ovechkin, the Caps have reached the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons. But seven of those 11 playoff series with Ovechkin have ended in losses. On top of that, the team has blown a two-game series lead four times, including last season — when they went up 3-1 on the Rangers — only to lose three straight, including Game 7 in overtime.

So why will this spring be different?

“It’s a different team, a mature team,” said Ovechkin, 30. “Mentally, I think we’re more ready for taking a big step this year than we were last year because last year it was a new coaching staff, a lot of change. Right now we’re excited. We have a goal we’d like to do and our team is ready.”

Aside from 24-year-old defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt, every player on the Capitals’ projected opening night playoff roster has Stanley Cup playoff experience. And even though many of those playoff runs have ended in crushing losses, defenseman Karl Alzner says he believes there are silver linings.

“We’ve been able to understand how much every little second of every game matters,” Alzner said. “Every second of your practice, of your home life, it all adds up to what you can do in the playoffs. We can’t take a night off, a meal off. You have to make sure you’re always building for that next game. I think that’s the maturity of this team now. We understand that. We had chances in the series last year in the second round to close things out (against the Rangers) and we didn’t. Those are the building blocks we’ll keep with us and hopefully do better this year.” Capitals right winger Justin Williams is looking to become the first player in NHL history to win four Stanley Cups with three different teams.

He believes “come playoff time, it’s not talent,” Williams said. “It’s the intangible qualities that make the difference. It’s making big plays at the right time. Everyone on this team has been through heartbreak, has been through failure, and hopefully that’s a springboard to our success this year.”

Williams hopes his playoff success rubs off on the Capitals but reiterated what he said back in September, that he is not a savior for the Capitals.

“I’m just a cog in the wheel here and hopefully a part of the solution for us. I feel like we can do something special and it starts with one game. It starts Thursday.”

The Capitals led the NHL in goals per game, ranked second in goals allowed, fifth on the power play, second on the penalty kill and accrued 24 more points than the eight-seeded Flyers during the regular season.

But of the past 29 teams that have won the Presidents’ Trophy, 11 have made it to the Stanley Cup Final, eight have won the Cup and 12 have been eliminated in the first or second round.

“We all know the Presidents’ Trophy just gets you home ice,” Capitals left wing Jason Chimera said. “But your record in the regular season means crap, really. You see No. 8 seeds beat No. 1 seeds. You see No. 1 seeds destroy No. 8 seeds.”

Perhaps that’s why the Capitals will begin the playoffs wearing navy blue T-shirts that read: “Entitled To Nothing.”

“There was some pain and hurt (last spring) and I think guys recognize how special it is to play in the playoffs,” Caps coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s not a right. You have to earn your way, and once you earn your way you have to earn every inch you get out there. At the end of the day there is going to be one happy team and 29 very disappointed teams.”

This year, after 40 seasons of heartache, the Caps believe they will be that one team. Do you?

RELATED: Looking back at our preseason predictions

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3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

You may think this was an ugly four-game road trip for the Caps, but with a 3-2 win in Buffalo on Monday, Washington managed to earn five out of a possible eight points.

Here is why the Caps beat the Sabres and managed to save the road swing.

A missed high-stick (maybe) from Ovechkin

Ovechkin scored the first goal of the game in the second period as he deflected a high-shot from Christian Djoos down past goalie Chad Johnson. But did the deflection come on a high stick? The play was reviewed and the goal was ultimately upheld. According to the NHL, it was determined that "video review supported the Referee's call on the ice that Alex Ovechkin's stick was at or below the height of the crossbar when he tipped the puck into the Buffalo net."

NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May broke the play down during the second intermission and made his case for why the NHL actually got the call wrong.

Was that a high stick? I don't know. As compelling an argument as May made, it still looks inconclusive which means the review made the right call. What surprises me is that the referee did not disallow the goal on the initial call.

Whether the review is truly inconclusive or flat out wrong, Washington was fortunate to walk away from this sequence with the goal.


A centimeter of ice

Hockey is a game of inches and it took less than an inch to put Washington up 2-0. When an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot hit off the boards and bounced back to the front of the net, it sparked a scrum next to goalie Chad Johnson. Eventually, John Carlson was able to get a swipe on the puck sending it trickling to the goal line, but Kyle Okposo was there waiting and appeared to kick it out to safety just before it crossed. A review triggered by the Situation Room, however, revealed that the puck had just barely managed to cross the goal line before Okposo got to it.

Here's the view the NHL released after the review:

Philipp Grubauer's third period

After dominating the first 40 minutes of the game and taking a 2-0 lead, Buffalo predictably made a late push in the third period with two goals to pull within one. Washington outshot the Sabres in the first and second periods, but Buffalo reversed that trend in a big way in the third as they outshot the Caps 17-6. Grubauer turned aside 15 of those shots and was impressive after barely being tested in the first two periods.


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3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

Coming off an ugly 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a Buffalo Sabres team missing star Jack Eichel was just what the doctor ordered for the Caps to get back on track. Washington dominated the first two periods and then survived a late surge from Buffalo for the 3-2 win.

After battling to a scoreless first, Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson spotted Washington a 2-0 lead in the second. They then held on in the third period as Buffalo began to tilt the ice in their favor, with Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the empty-netter to put this game out of reach. Evander Kane would pull Buffalo within one, but with only three seconds left it was too little, too late.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Alex Ovechkin: Ovechkin opened up the scoring in the second period as he deflected down an innocent shot from Christian Djoos past Chad Johnson.

Ovechkin also set a physical tone as he battled with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen all game long. After taking a high elbow from Ristolainen early in the game Ovechkin skated up to Ristolainen prior to the faceoff on his next shift and let him know that it was on. 

2. John Carlson: Carlson had a hand in both of Washington's first two goals. He recorded a secondary assist on Ovechkin's goal as he made a blue line pass to Djoos which Djoos fired on net and Ovechkin deflected. Carlson then managed to hit the puck past the goal line in a scrum next to Johnson. It looked initially like Kyle Okposo had managed to kick out the puck just before it crossed, but Carlson was awarded the goal as a review showed the puck had completely crossed the line.

3. Philipp Grubauer: A Sabres team that ranks last in the NHL in scoring and that was also without its leading scorer did not test Grubauer much in the first two periods. Facing a 2-0 deficit, however, Buffalo made a third period push to try to tie the game, but Grubauer was up to the task as he turned aside 15 of the 17 shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. He finished with 32 total saves on the night.