ARLINGTON, Va. - The Washington Capitals are somewhere they've never been - at the top of the NHL heap going into the playoffs. Big targets on their backs. Even bigger expectations from the fans. The pain of enduring multiple last-place rebuilding seasons will be certainly worth it if the franchise wins its first Stanley Cup.
It's enough to make an owner nervous, but Ted Leonsis claims otherwise. In fact, he says he was more skittish when the team returned to the playoffs two years ago after a long drought.
After all, this isn't about winning the Stanley Cup once. It's about having a chance to win it many times over.
"I'm looking at it through a different lens," Leonsis told The Associated Press. "I promised that we would have a team that would be great for a generation. This is our third year of racking up a lot of points and making the playoffs and winning the division, and we've done better every single year. This year that culminated in the Presidents' Trophy, but our team still has upside. We've got young players who will be brought into the team next year, and our best players are our young players.
"So I don't approach this like it's our last gasp: 'We've got to win it this year or something's wrong!' That's when I will feel nervous. Because I think we're going to be this good or better for the next half-dozen years."
Now that might be Leonsis' savvy attempt at taking some of the pressure off his team, but the gist of it is true. The Capitals - from two-time reigning MVP Alex Ovechkin (50 goals, 109 points) to Alexander Semin (40 goals) to Nicklas Backstrom (101 points) to Mike Green (76 points as a defenceman) to Brooks Laich (25 goals) to Jeff Schultz (league-leading plus-minus rating of plus-50) are young and eager and have a long way to go before they call it a day. Their 121 points in the standings this season represented a total achieved by few teams in NHL history, but it's far from a last hurrah for this group.
That said, no one in the Capitals locker-room is thinking about hoisting the Stanley Cup in, say, 2014. For the guys on the ice, this year is the only year that matters. After two years of playoff seasoning - a first-round loss in 2008 and a second-round loss last year - it's time to take the next step, starting with Thursday's Game 1 in the first-round series against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.
"We're more hungry, we're more focused, and you can really sense that around the dressing room," Green said. "Guys really, really want this. And it's obviously a different game in the playoffs and we have to adjust, but sometimes when your will and want are set that high, good things happen."
Coaches are notorious for being cautious when it comes to bragging about their own team at playoff time, but coach Bruce Boudreau has been atypical from the start. Evaluating his players after Sunday's regular season finale, he blurted out: "There's a lot to like. I like it all. They're a great team."
"There's a lot to like about the character of this team and the ability of this team," he added. "Now we just have to go and prove it once again because there seems to be a lot of people who don't believe that we can do it in the playoffs."
If there's a reason not to bet the house on the Capitals, it's because of uncertainty at goaltender. Boudreau played cat-and-mouse with reporters again Monday - the players had the day off - and said he won't announce until Thursday whether Jose Theodore or Semyon Varlamov will start Game 1.
Ex-Montreal goalie Theodore would appear to be the favourite, having gone a club-record 23 games without a regulation loss since early January despite a pair of unsteady outings recently, but Boudreau doesn't want to tip off the Canadiens. The coach said he has made up his mind, but that he has yet to inform either player.
"You're going to be asking these guys," Boudreau said, almost playfully. "If they don't know, then how can they tell you?"
An average series in goal might suffice for Round 1 because the Capitals have the firepower to blow away the Canadiens, especially if Washington stays out of the penalty box. The series will match No. 1 versus No. 30 in the NHL on 5-on-5 scoring, with Boudreau's team piling up 213 goals to Montreal's 132 with both teams at full strength.
As for dealing with the pressure of being the top seed, Boudreau pointed out there's hardly any greater burden than playing for the Canadiens come playoff time. The Capitals are more popular than ever but don't have the spotlight to themselves, even if all three of the city's other major pro sports teams currently have nothing but back-to-back last-place finishes to show for themselves.
"That's the only game in town," Boudreau said. "They don't have to split it up and have the Nationals on half the page and the Wizards on some of the pages, the Redskins and us. It's Montreal. It's the Canadiens. It wouldn't surprise me if there's a 10-page spread come Wednesday and Thursday. All the TV stations will lead with the stories about the Canadiens, so there is a lot of pressure.
"Everybody in the city knows who every player is. It's not just like in this city where you know where Alex and Mike and Nicky are and maybe guys like John Carlson can walk around unknown - they know every single guy from Mathieu Darche to Brian Gionta."
Notes: Boudreau said he's not sequestering his players in a hotel. "Why? I think the focus is there. I think the players will arrive tomorrow knowing what they're here for." ... Boudreau is also confident he won't be overrun by the hoard of French-Canadian press on the way. "I don't speak French. I failed every year. Not that I don't like French people. I just can't speak the language."