Mike Wise: The Capitals have all the makings to be a contender. But we’ve heard it before.


Nicklas Backstrom is rushed by teammates after tying the game in the third period. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Mike Wise
Columnist October 3, 2013

It’s the night of the home opener, and Ovi and the boys are desperately trying to snake their way back into a stinker they once trailed 3-0. Suddenly, Nicki Backstrom finds the puck on his stick on the power play with less than six minutes left and fires a left-handed wrister.

Goal! It’s 4-4.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Like old times, bedlam at Verizon.

With less than 10 minutes left, the same, old video montage (the kids clapping in “Hoosiers,” John Belushi and, finally, Tom Green’s “Unleash the Fury!” line) makes the building go berserk.

It’s wild, it’s crazy, it’s sooo 2008.

The Post Sports Live crew offers bold predictions for the Capitals season. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

What a cruel tease, no? They do this every damn year. The entertainment quotient is so good for much of the 82-game regular season it almost camouflages the crushing playoff defeats the past six years.

The truth: Nobody is going to genuinely believe in this hockey team until the Caps win at least two playoff rounds for the first time in the Alex Ovechkin Era. Even the owner knows another season of theater and throaty chants amounts to little more than paying bills if the Caps can’t play deep into May.

And that’s if they get there.

“That is, to me, the most danger we can face – that the postseason is a given,” Ted Leonsis said before the Flames, a team not very good on paper, made the Caps work for a 5-4 shootout victory.

“If you start looking forward to the playoffs in Game 2, you’re in for a gigantic fall. We’re playing in a much tougher division. The league has changed, the salary cap has come down and it’s a great leveler — much more parity.”

If there is a good omen for local puckheads, it’s this: After having their predictions annually mocked the past five years, almost everyone who knows hockey in North America no longer believes in the Capitals’ chances of going anywhere after the regular season.

Hockey News has the Caps finishing sixth in the new Metropolitan Division and Sports Illustrated has them as the 11th best team in the East, out of the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Of the 12 ESPN analysts weighing in, no one had the Caps winning the division and only Barry Melrose had them going to the Stanley Cup finals before losing to the Kings. (Melrose also had the Caps winning the East last season and Washington winning the Cup in 2012, so either The Mullet has Monumental Sports stock or he really wants to coach this team.)

Even Leonsis, who has no problem pushing back when he feels his stewardship or one of his franchises has taken a cheap shot, understands the bandwagon emptying en masse.

“The only way we can change anyone’s mind is to perform,” he said. “That’s really what this year is about. I don’t think there is a whole lot of discussion or goal-setting. Everybody knows we have to do better than we did last year.”

This is prove-it-or-lose-it year for many Capitals, but no one has to perform as well as George McPhee, the first and only general manager Leonsis has employed with the Caps. There are no reports of a contract extension; this could his last year.

If the postseason doesn’t happen for a team Leonsis has already said has all the necessary pieces to be a Cup contender, the owner might play his last card with a fan base that has a hard enough time stomaching another one-and-done season.

“I support all of our employees and we’re all accountable across the board,” Leonsis said when asked about McPhee. “I don’t really see this year as being any more important than any other year.

“We’re at that point now where we spend as much money as we can, we think we have a really, really good team, we hope to remain healthy and if we make the playoffs, we hope we have enough experience and a been-there-done-that that we can go deep into the playoffs.”

Having followed this group for much of the past six years, it was painful in a small way to see the unveiling of yet another Southeast Division champions banner two nights after Chicago hoisted the Stanley Cup banner before beating the Caps, 6-4.

None of the Capitals players stepped out of the dressing room to watch the Blackhawks ceremony, but you almost wish Coach Adam Oates would get a DVR’d copy and show his players part of ring night — if only to give them a taste of what the enchantment of October 2014 could hold here if everything fell right for once in Washington.

“That was their moment,” Oates said, downplaying any psychology angle. “We’ll wait our turn.”

At least before the young guns become old hens.

“The original set of core players — Mike Green, Nik Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin — they’re internalizing that their careers are fleeting,” Leonsis said. “Someone like Alex, his place in history in terms of goals scored and the nature of his game — and MVPs and rookie of the year — the bona fides have all been punched.

“But having success in the playoffs and winning the Cup — that’s missing from his résumé. And I do think that’s really important that he’s now totally internalized that, ‘I’m coming into my prime.’ ”

Leonsis kept going: “At the same time, we have the eighth-youngest team in the league. People say, ‘Is your window closing?’ It’s like, no, our young players are now in their prime and we have a whole bunch of other young players. And we might have a difference-maker available to join our team in [Russian star Evgeny] Kuznetsov. He is truly a gifted player and hopefully he can come after the Olympics. That would be like a massive trade-day trade that we were making.”

Yeah, if he actually shows up and doesn’t stay in the KHL.

And if Green can stay healthy and Braden Holtby cannot get pulled after giving up his sixth goal in the past two periods and really become the next Olie Kolzig. . . . And if Mikhail Grabovski could score another five hat tricks like Tuesday night against Chicago and Oates can get them playing his score-from-every-angle system to perfection and. . . .

Who are they kidding? From now till April, the cruel tease has already begun.

Buckle up. Here we go again.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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