Caps raise another little banner

John Feinstein
Columnist October 8, 2011

Shortly before they began their 38th season, the Washington Capitals unfurled a banner in the rafters of Verizon Center. It was another little one, the eighth among the nine they have raised that is a tribute to a regular-season accomplishment. The exception to the rule is the one that celebrates their Eastern Conference championship in 1998, the one year they have reached the Stanley Cup Finals.

The time for hanging little banners is over. Although opening night was hardly exultant, with the Caps pulling out a 4-3 overtime victory against the middling Carolina Hurricanes, this is a season that shouldn’t end until mid-June.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

Win another Southeast Division title? Fine. A Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular-season record? Okay. But General Manager George McPhee didn’t go out this summer and add Tomas Vokoun, Roman Hamrlik, Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer in order to win another division title or try to advance another round in the playoffs.

“I think if people think we’re good enough to win the Stanley Cup, we should embrace that idea,” McPhee said a few minutes before Saturday night’s game. “That’s where you want to be, in that handful of teams that’s good enough to win the Cup.

“That doesn’t mean you don’t go through the process of trying to do things right the entire season. But you do that to get to the point where you can be at your best in the playoffs.”

That sounds simple and logical, and yet there seems to be a reluctance among some in the organization to accept the notion of embracing the pressure to win a title. Team owner Ted Leonsis recently told The Post’s Mike Wise that he thought expectations for the team were “over the top.” He went on to say he didn’t even want anyone to talk about the Stanley Cup right now.

“You can’t win the Cup October 15th,” he said. “If we focus on anything past [making the playoffs], I think you create a dangerous situation for the organization.”

Dangerous? As in, tanking in the playoffs? To say the Caps’ goal starting the regular season is to make the playoffs is a cop-out. The New York Islanders and the Florida Panthers should make the playoffs their goal. The Caps’ goal — their only goal — should be to win the playoffs. Period.

The Caps have underachieved badly in the postseason the last four seasons. In all four playoff losses, they had home ice advantage. In three of them, they lost a Game 7 at home. Last year, they were swept by Tampa Bay. That’s unacceptable.

McPhee has pieced together a remarkably talented team since Leonsis made the decision to go young and the Caps were fortunate enough to be bad enough to have the chance to draft a true superstar in Alex Ovechkin. Around him they have talent in Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Alexander Semin and a rising star in John Carlson, along with — now — a group of complementary veterans who should bring a maturity to the locker room that has been lacking in the past. And, finally, they have an experienced goalie (Vokoun) to go with a young, talented one (Michal Neuvirth).

It is no accident that four of the five players McPhee went after this summer are over 30. The exception — Brouwer — played on a Stanley Cup champion two years ago. None of this happened by accident. Ovechkin is still wearing the “C” on his sweater but clearly McPhee felt the room needed some older voices — players who won’t want to hear excuses and won’t use the word “if.”

That’s a word that needs to be excised from the Caps’ vocabulary. Because he is always going to stand up for his players, Coach Bruce Boudreau seemed to use it in every other sentence during this offseason. If the power play had been a little more effective; if Green had been healthy all season; if the Caps had gotten a call here, a bounce there.

Championship teams don’t talk about if, they talk about when, as in, “when we win the Cup.”

In his classic 1895 poem, “If,” Rudyard Kipling wrote: “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you; but make allowance for their doubting too . . . If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss — and lose and start again at your beginnings and never breath a word about your loss.”

The Caps are back at their beginnings. They need to stop doubting their doubters and be prepared to risk everything come the spring on one turn of pitch-and-toss — or in this case, the two-month grind of the playoffs.

It’s not about winning another little banner, it’s about being in the best position possible when April rolls around. The Boston Bruins finished third in the East in the regular season. But the banner they unfurled on Thursday night was a big one — the big one.

Opening night was hardly a smash hit. Twice, the Caps gave up leads, including one with little more than a minute left in regulation. That late mistake allowed a division rival playing on back-to-back nights to leave with what no doubt felt like a stolen point on the road.

Still, a win is a win—no ifs, ands or buts.

“You’re bound to feel like you should have won it in regulation when you have the lead late like that, but you should always feel good when you get a win,” said Brooks Laich, whose goal during a 5-on-3 power play with 3:45 left appeared to be the game winner for a while. “What’s important is to not get too high after a win or too down after a loss. The more we keep it on an even keel during the season, the better.”

Without meaning to, Boudreau said two things after the victory that revealed the need for a different mind-set. “We were the best team in hockey coming back in the third period last year,” he said. “We didn’t lose a game when we had the lead in the third . . . until the playoffs.”

Exactly.

And then, when the subject of the low-key banner ceremony came up and someone asked if that was because it wasn’t the banner the Caps really want to raise, Boudreau shrugged and said: “Yeah. Sure. Still, I thought it was great. I hope we raise that banner the next 10 years in a row.”

No he doesn’t. When you raise a big banner, you don’t bother with the little ones.

For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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