As the Washington Capitals embarked on a run of success in the final 19 games of the season that led to their sixth consecutive playoff berth, there were sights familiar to anyone who’s watched this team in recent years.
From Alex Ovechkin leaping full force into the glass after scoring a how-did-he-do-that goal, to Nicklas Backstrom creating scoring chances with perfect passes, to Mike Green walking the blue line for a booming slap shot destined for the back of the net — all the signs of Capitals swagger had returned.
But the suggestion that this season, which saw the Capitals go from the worst team in the league to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, was anything like the so-called “good old days” under former coach Bruce Boudreau — when they dominated the regular season standings and statistics charts but never advanced past the second round of the playoffs — made players bristle.
“‘Good old days,’ ” an uncharacteristically stern Backstrom said last month, dismissing the notion. “We didn’t do anything. They weren’t that good. Obviously we did something we loved, but I think we gotta realize we haven’t accomplished anything.”
That’s why the Capitals, with first-year Coach Adam Oates at the helm, are determined to embrace a fresh perspective as they kick off this spring journey Thursday night at Verizon Center for their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers.
Expectations have increased annually for the Capitals ever since 2007-08, when they made an improbable run to capture the Southeast Division title and reach the postseason for the first time in four years. But each season only brought a new form of disappointment and a larger thud when Washington failed to deliver on the promise of a dominant regular season.
“We weren’t as structured as a team or all on the same page,” Green said. “We were young guys that were skilled and we had a lot of success, but it wasn’t the right way to play the game. We’ve learned from our experiences and our lessons how to play the game, and I feel like we’re a better team than we were.”
They finished second in the East in 2008-09 but were undone by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games in the conference semifinals.
In 2009-10 came the elimination that rattled the organization, when eighth-seeded Montreal dispatched the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals in the first round. The Canadiens made the NHL’s most prolific offense that season — Washington had scored 318 goals, 46 more than any other team — look inept in the final three games as they erased a 3-1 series deficit.
Washington tried to move on from the run-and-gun mind-set in 2010-11 but the results remained the same. The upstart Tampa Bay Lightning swept the injury-riddled and supposedly more well-rounded Capitals out of the second round.
Last season under Dale Hunter — who prioritized defense and minimized risk with a style of play that provided the NHL’s cure for insomnia — brought the first genuinely new look in the postseason for the Capitals. After triumphing in a dramatic, seven-game quarterfinal matchup against the Boston Bruins, Washington was knocked out in a seven-game semifinal series by the Rangers.
While Hunter’s strict, defensive system wasn’t suited for Washington’s talent-laden roster, players acknowledged that his tenure taught them the value of self-sacrificial play and unwavering commitment in the postseason.
“I think last year was a step in the right direction,” Backstrom said. “I think the way we battled and we worked together as a team, that’s where I feel we’ve been really good. . . . I think you need to get together as a group in the playoffs and that’s why you’re gonna be successful.”
This year under Oates, the Capitals have a balanced style of play they believe is suited to the postseason. They’re confident in their ability to execute the demanding, pressure- and support-based system that requires them to function as a five-man unit in all three zones.
The fact that Oates utilized the same type of play while serving as an assistant coach for the New Jersey Devils on their Stanley Cup finals run last season certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
“It’s an exciting way to play. It’s a fun way to play for the players,” General Manager George McPhee said last week, acknowledging that he prefers an up-tempo team. “It protects our defensemen more than other systems have from physical play. It worked really well for New Jersey last year and I’m hoping we'll get the same results.”
The framework of the system, which allows for the involvement of every player on the roster, is one reason for the self-assurance that suddenly permeates the organization, from the fourth line to management.
“We’re trying to make our own identity,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Our identity is more than scoring goals; we do a lot more to frustrate teams and in turn it makes us a better team offensively. The harder we work, the more it’s going to benefit us, and we know that this time.”