Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Out With the Old, In With the Habs

Maybe this is just what the Washington Capitals need.

Fair or not, whenever April comes around discussions about the Caps seem to revolve around past playoff failures, most of which occurred in the late 1980s or early ‘90s and featured players who are old enough to be the dads of some of the guys on this year’s team. And yes there have been some epic collapses by teams with rosters consisting of Hall of Fame-caliber players such as Rod Langway, Mike Gartner, Scott Stevens, Peter Bondra and Larry Murphy.

But when you look at Washington’s playoff history, one thing jumps out at you: They haven’t faced many different opponents. You see Pittsburgh, the team that has provided Washington fans with the most postseason heartache, over and over. Early on it was the New York Islanders who seemed to rain on the Caps’ postseason parade (and everyone else’s) on a regular basis. The Rangers appear frequently in Caps’ playoff annals along with the Flyers and Devils sprinkled in occasionally.

Just going from memory, other than those teams, the Caps only have faced the Bruins twice (once in the conference finals and once on the way to the Cup finals), Buffalo once (1998 conference finals), Ottawa once (1998 conference semifinals), Tampa Bay once (2003, won the first two on the road and lost four straight) and Detroit once (1998 finals).

So it stands to reason that whenever the Penguins, Rangers or Flyers rear their heads in D.C. come April, all talk turns to the past. The tension builds among the fan base and the pressure mounts on the players, some of whom were either toddlers or not even born when Pat LaFontaine’s Easter morning spin-around slapshot beat Bob Mason to end the Caps’ season in the fourth overtime of Game 7 in 1987. These guys never even knew that the Caps of the past had blown multiple 2-0 and 3-1 series leads until the questions of the franchise’s haunted past started popping up the past two years.

Even though they had absolutely nothing to do with anything that has gone on before them, after answering the same questions about postseason struggles over and over you have to think that players start to wonder as soon as the breaks begin going the other way. And believe me when I say that you can feel the tension inside Verizon Center with every near miss, opponent goal and missed penalty call. There is no description for the explosion that erupted or the feeling of relief that shot through the building when Sergei Fedorov’s late third-period Game 7 slapper eluded Henrik Lundqvist to propel the Caps into the second round last year.

So while certainly not a walk in the park by any means, at least this year’s opponent, the Montreal Canadiens, is a new postseason foe, which shouldn’t elicit any talk about the past. Truth be told, this young Washington team now sprinkled with some gritty, seasoned vets shouldn’t be anything but confident heading into this year’s playoffs. Over the past two years the Caps have made the kind of progression that you often see as young professional teams mature and emerge as annual championship contenders.

Two years ago Washington rallied to win its final eight games and sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 2003. The Caps fell behind3-1 that year to a more battle-tested, playoff-ready club from Philadelphia before rallying to force a Game 7 and then falling in overtime. Last season they again had to reconstruct their game to a style more befitting playoff intensity after dropping the first two contests at home to the Rangers and then rallied to win in seven. Then, after trailing Pittsburgh 3-1 in Round 2, they came all the way back to force another seventh game before falling to the eventual champs.

Washington has followed that up with a remarkable 2010 campaign in which it has only lost 15 times in regulation, has lost by more than a single goal just once in more than 30 games and put together a 14-game win streak en route the Presidents’ Trophy and home ice advantage all the way through the playoffs.

“This whole year we’ve built toward doing something in the playoffs …” head coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I think it’s probably the toughest goal to achieve in all of sports, but we are going to try to win it … The focus is there. The players will arrive at practice (today) knowing what they are here for.”

Last year the immature Caps cruised into the playoffs, dropping games and giving up goals in bunches to non-playoff teams down the stretch. This season, for the past month they’ve been gearing up for the postseason by winning five of their last six and playing a more defensive-oriented, playoff brand of hockey. Oh, and thanks to the depth provided by some shrewd trade-deadline moves on the part of General Manager George McPhee, they’ve had the luxury to be able to rest some players and allow some minor injuries to heal along the way.

If anything, the past two playoff “failures,” seem to have served as the types of learning experiences all teams must endure before rising to the top of their sport. If the past few weeks are any indication, Washington is primed to avoid the type of slow postseason start that has plagued the team the past two years.

Nothing is a slam dunk – or, an empty-netter, for that matter – however, and Boudreau knows that. Playing against a team from a hockey-crazy town in a hockey-crazy country will provide an atmosphere and an environment that is unrivaled in the sport. The good news is that some of the pressure that supposedly will be felt by Washington as the No. 1 seed also will be felt by Montreal because of its rabid fanbase.

“Up there it’s the only game in town,” Boudreau said of Montreal. “They don’t split up the sports pages with news about the Nationals, Wizards and Redskins like they do here. Up there it’s the Montreal Canadiens and that’s it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t a 10-page spread in the paper up there about the playoffs on Wednesday or Thursday. All the TV stations will lead with the Canadiens as the top story. Everybody in the city knows every single player.”

So, with different pressures being felt by both sides, anything can happen – as Boudreau and his players have already learned. “As far as pressure goes, being the number one seed, it’s really like you are starting the season fresh,” Boudreau said. “All the teams start with zero wins and zero losses. We were the favorites against Philadelphia two years ago – even though I didn’t think we were – and we were the favorites last year against the Rangers when it took us seven games to win. Teams have a way of lifting their games in the playoffs. Sports have their surprises and upsets. Obviously we don’t want to be one of those, but they’ve been known to happen.”

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