History should be irrelevant to the 20 men who will dress in the sweaters of the Washington Capitals on Monday night. Their in-the-moment particulars: They hold a two-games-to-none lead over the New York Rangers in the first round of the NHL Eastern Conference playoffs, and they did precisely what they set out to do when they opened the series in the District — play crisp, solid, calm hockey to secure two victories.
But throughout the Capitals’ dressing room, there are lessons learned from past springs. Winning the first two games was the objective, and good feelings pumped throughVerizon Center following both those victories. Now, how to handle such prosperity?
“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.
But fog forced their flight from Montreal to land at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport rather than Dulles, and when they arrived late, there were no customs agents still on duty. They sat on the tarmac for nearly three hours, and never won another game in the series, an upset that was completed with a 2-1 loss on home ice in Game 7.
The previous spring, after the Capitals came back from a three-games-to-one deficit against the Rangers, they rolled to two opening wins at home against the hated Penguins. But they dropped the next three games, two in overtime, and although they were able to force a seventh game, Pittsburgh dominated them en route to a 6-2, series-clinching victory at Verizon Center.
The memories are, of course, painful. But they must, in this instance, be instructive as well.
“We know just how important every shift is,” said winger Eric Fehr, who has missed only one playoff appearance with the Caps — last season, when he played for Winnipeg. “It doesn’t matter what the score is, it doesn’t matter what the series is, you got to play like it’s your last shift. I think you can see that in our team. We’re getting every puck out that we can. We’re thinking it’s overtime in the first period, the way we’re playing right now.”
Part of that could be the nature of this series, what with the nearly impenetrable Henrik Lundqvist in the New York net. Goals against are potentially devastating because getting them back will be exceptionally difficult against Lundqvist, who made 37 saves — several spectacular — in Washington’s 1-0 overtime victory in Game 2.
But there is also a clarity that seems to have come over the Capitals, be they up two games or down two. They believe, above all else, in the way they play. It is the reason they closed the season with 15 wins in their last 19 games, and why they have built this advantage over the Rangers.
“Business as usual,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “We’ve put ourselves in a good position going into New York. At the same point, the series is far from over. . . . We’ve got to make sure we go into New York and play the same style we have, which is be good with the puck, neutralize their speed as much as possible.”
That is what got these Capitals to this point, the only Eastern Conference team to win both of its first two playoff games. It’s what matters most. History is history, and the travails of other teams at other times shouldn’t matter – except for how they influence those that experienced it all.
“Now,” Green said, “we got to put our foot on the pedal — and push.”