By Tracee Hamilton
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 9:43 PM
The question most often asked by Capitals fans as the 2010-11 season approaches is, "How far will we go in the playoffs?" It's refreshing in a way, because fans of the area's other professional franchises don't - can't - make the assumption that their team will make the playoffs.
Caps fans can, and it's understandable. The team had the best regular season record in the NHL last season, which earned it the Presidents' Trophy, which of course means a lot of nothing when you lose in in the first round of the playoffs to Montreal. In fact, it's possible that thing has been tied to the bumper of Bruce Boudreau's Mercedes and is being dragged around the Ballston Mall parking garage by George Costanza.
Caps players, on the other hand, can't make that assumption. They have to slog through 82 regular season games before they get another shot at the Stanley Cup. It can't be easy.
The frustration and anger and despair of Caps fans last April pales in comparison to the frustration and anger and despair of the Caps themselves. Take it from Brooks Laich, who said the pressure he feels entering the season is not coming from the fans, but from closer to home.
"For myself, it's the pressure put on myself to win," he said. "I've been in the league five years and have no championship. You want to do well for your fans, they're your supporters, you want to show well for them, but ultimately, I started chasing the Stanley Cup since I was born. I'm 27 years into it and I don't have one, so a couple of years of their frustration I don't think compares to all the frustration and the pressure I put on myself."
And this is not a guy who's out of touch with the fans - he changed a flat tire for a fan on the Roosevelt Bridge the night his season ended with a Game 7 loss to the Habs, for crying out loud. So he feels the fans' pain. It's just that if their offseason felt long, his felt even longer. Waiting for redemption is never easy.
"You sit at home and you think about what happened," he said. "You see teams that you feel you're better than them, they're still playing and they're having success. You sit at home, and there are a lot of long, frustrating nights.
"There's nights when I wake up in the middle of the night, and I can't fall asleep for two hours because I'm still upset about it and it's hard to get that out from inside. The only way to do it is to start playing hockey and to win more hockey games. I think that's the only way to sort of exorcise that demon."
Like any juicy exorcism these days, there will be video. The team announced Thursday that HBO will focus its next edition of the documentary series "24/7" on the Caps and Penguins in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 1 Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Let the "Hard Knocks" jokes commence! As a group, the Caps seem a lot more familiar with "Entourage" than "$#*! My Coach Says." Hey, maybe the Russian gangster Christopher and Paulie Walnuts lost in the Pine Barrens in Season 3 of "The Sopranos" will make an appearance on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.
At least the focus of the show won't be on the four weeks leading up to the first round of the playoffs. Because if the Caps implode again in the first round, angry fans will exam those four episodes frame by frame like the Zapruder film.
Laich said the best exorcism is to win hockey games, but he's not quite right there. The best exorcism is to win playoff hockey games - 16 of them, to be precise. Then all the bitterness and despondency, all the sleepless nights, all the questions and concerns will finally be put to rest.
"Ultimately our team is going to be judged by how we do in the playoffs," Laich said. "We could win 60, 65 games and people wouldn't care. For us to take the next step as an organization there has to be playoff success. We understand where people are coming from.
"That being said, we are looking forward to the playoffs, but we're not taking anything for granted, we have a lot of issues that we have to work out and we have to mold our team so that when the playoffs come, we're playing the right way so that we can successful."