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.
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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?