“I hope we learned,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.
Backstrom is in position to wonder. He joins Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green as the only Capitals to have appeared in the playoffs for Washington each year since 2008, when the NHL postseason became an annual rite in the District. He remembers other instances in which the Caps led that still make fans shudder. Montreal in 2010, anyone? Pittsburgh, the previous year, in the Eastern Conference semifinals?
“We obviously are in the position we want to be,” Green said. “But we’ve also struggled, and teams have come back on us. I think we’ve learned from our experiences, and we’ve got to make sure we’re pushing. Because we know how hard they’re going to play up there.”
Capitals fans know, too. For all the relative success of the past several years, folds in the playoffs are still a significant part of the franchise’s narrative. Since the NHL made all playoff series best-of-seven in 1987, the Capitals have taken a 2-0 lead six times. They have lost four of those series. They have lost four of 10 series in which they led 3-1. That’s some significant pain over the past quarter-century.
To be sure, these Capitals have memories of establishing a lead in the playoffs, and then closing out the opponent. In 2011, they took the first two games against the Rangers at home, and won the series in five, perhaps their high-water mark as a postseason team.
But this is a different group with a different leader. “We’ll talk about it,” said Coach Adam Oates, in his first year since taking over for Dale Hunter, who took over for Bruce Boudreau, who started this run. There is, the Capitals believe, a proper way to approach their current situation, and it is not to exhale.
“I think it’s something that we have to think about,” Backstrom said. “We’ve got to make sure we do the same work every night, and have that mind-set. You’ve got to accept that the next game is a new game, a game that could get them back in the series. You’ve got to stay focused and keep thinking.”
Last year, in the first round against Boston, the Capitals led 3-2 after five games, but lost Game 6 in overtime at home before Joel Ward’s overtime goal won the series in seven games. They never held a lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Rangers before they succumbed in seven.
So the experiences that sting are from previous seasons, ones only the backbone of the team remember. In 2010, when the Capitals were the NHL’s best team during the regular season, they lost the opener of the playoffs to eighth-seeded Montreal, but shrugged it off to take the next three games.