Caps face Canadiens, but can't help but think about larger goals

By Mike Wise
Thursday, April 15, 2010; D01

The day after the playoffs ended for the Washington Capitals last May, Brooks Laich invited teammates over to his house before all the players and trainers met up for drinks and sushi in Georgetown. The overriding feeling after the Game 7 loss to the Penguins? "I can't believe the season is over already," the Capitals' veteran winger said.

Nearly a year later, on the eve before the NHL's most potent team began a playoff run that only ends good for them if they raise the Stanley Cup in June, Laich was asked about whether the Capitals were ready to settle unfinished business.

"I guess people can say that, but it feels like a different season," he said. "As far as unfinished business, yeah, maybe for all of us here last year. But this is bigger than that. It's about the fact that no Caps team has ever won the Stanley Cup.

"It's about this team going farther. You want to break records, you want to do things that no team has done before, set individual and team records no one else has set. We're aiming to be separate from anybody."

They're gifted, focused, and for the first time in forever, favored to win it all. Alex Ovechkin and most of the main characters return. But General Manager George McPhee has infused his team with role players who understand that, in the playoffs, it is better to be gritty than pretty.

And Bruce Boudreau let his players know, in the team's final full practice before taking on eighth-seeded Montreal on Thursday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round, the importance of putting away opponents earlier than later.

"Of the last eight Stanley Cup champions, all of them had at least one five-game series," the coach said above the practice ice Wednesday afternoon. "Going seven games all the time does not make it easy on you if you're going to win the Cup."

Translation: Take care of the Canadiens and get some rest before a possible rematch with the defending champion Penguins in the second round.

Game 1 comes with great anticipation for one other reason: When it comes to every other major professional sport, there is no postseason around here.

If you've checked anything but the NHL standings lately, you know Washington isn't very good at big-time sports. The Redskins, Wizards and Nationals have all finished in the cellars of their respective divisions the past two years. It has been bad, very bad.

Bingo callers given headsets.

The Earps and the Clantons playing the feud in the Wizards' locker room.

Team employees begging fans to come see their team play -- if they can make it from Philadelphia.

More than ever before, the Caps are carrying the torch this spring.

Just two NFL teams had worse records than 4-12 last season. The Wizards' two-year bad dream -- an average of 22 wins with their best player currently residing at a halfway house -- mercifully ended Wednesday night. And no Major League Baseball team has lost 100 games two years running.

Yes, Stephen Strasburg is on the way. Just as the Mike Shanahan-Donovan McNabb era is on the way in Ashburn. Just as the NBA lottery and Ted Leonsis is on the way for the Wizards. But outside of Ovechkin and his teammates' breathtaking choreography on ice, all we sell in Washington these days is hope. Okay, hope and history.

This is precisely why the opportunity for the Capitals to close the deal over the next two-plus months is so important.

Washington has not won a major American professional sports title since the 1992 Super Bowl.

A mass-appeal team representing the nation's capital last played for the ultimate prize in 1998, when the Red Wings swept the Caps in the Stanley Cup finals. After that, the last large-revenue title anyone around here can claim is Maryland men's basketball, circa 2002.

That's not a 46-year drought like Cleveland, which still pines for Jim Brown in 1964. But it is closing in on 20 years since Joe Gibbs's last great team got to visit the White House.

This is the best chance for a major pro sports team to make that trip, the grandest opportunity any D.C.-area franchise may have in the next three to five years.

"We know this city is yearning for a championship, and we'd love to be the guys to give it to them," Laich said. "But we don't discuss any of that. The history stuff is out of our hands. When did the Redskins last win it? Some of our guys weren't even born in 1992, for crying out loud."

So, they're not playing for a recent lousy sporting history they had no part of. And they're not playing to banish Caps playoff ghosts of the past, including last season.

Then what?

"You play for the guys beside you and the guys that have been involved," Laich said. "I am trying to win a Stanley Cup for an organization that traded for me when I was a young professional, put a lot of faith in me, waited for me to keep growing and one day made me a core guy.

"In hockey, when you're old enough to know what a Stanley Cup means -- eight years old, whatever -- you start playing for it. I think if you asked everyone on this team, that's what they're playing for."

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