ARLINGTON, Va. - The Washington Capitals have just wrapped up their fourth consecutive division title, yet they have only one playoff series win to show for it. Every year, they enter the post-season saying they've learned their lessons from the previous year.
What exactly are those lessons? That's a matter often up for debate.
This week, as the top-seeded Capitals prepare to open their first-round Eastern Conference series against the eighth-seeded New York Rangers, it's worth noting the comments made at the end of the 2010 debacle against the Montreal Canadiens, when Washington became first the No. 1 seed to be eliminated by a No. 8 after holding a 3-1 series lead. Several players implied the problem was leadership, that the team didn't play as hard as it could because it figured that regular season intensity would work just fine in the playoffs.
Scott Walker and Joe Corvo, who were on their way out the door as unrestricted free agents, had the most biting words, but perennial Capitals forward Matt Bradley was equally searing when he said: "To not be ready for a playoff game shouldn't happen. We didn't work hard enough."
On Monday, after the first practice before Wednesday's Game 1 against the Rangers, veteran forward Mike Knuble had a response: Guilty as charged.
"If anything, last year they were humbled here," said Knuble, who on Monday signed a one-year extension to return for a third season in Washington. "It made you realize you're not as good as you think you are. It is a different situation coming into the playoffs; it's not another regular season game and you've got to dig a little bit deeper. But with our group I think we've all learned that lesson. We learned it last year, and it's something you don't want to repeat again. We had the whole summer to digest the fact that you've got to come up with more than you did in the regular season at playoff time."
As team captain, Alex Ovechkin bears much of the responsibility for making sure the team is ratcheting up its A-game for the playoffs. He accepted responsibility last year after the early exit and spoke Monday about the need to make sure everyone is more accountable.
"We all learn from last couple of years—what we did wrong, what we did not wrong," Ovechkin said. "And I think, when you lose, of course you try to find what happened."
Not everyone buys into the argument that the Capitals failed to shift into playoff gear last year. Coach Bruce Boudreau says his team played well versus Montreal, only to be thwarted by Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
"We lost last year in seven games where we dominated six of the games," Boudreau said. "What were we supposed to do, get 75 shots on goal? Or shoot 120 shots on net in those games?"
Or, as centre Brooks Laich put it: "Joe Corvo was here for six weeks. What does Joe Corvo know?"
Yet, when pressed, Bradley, Knuble, Ovechkin, Boudreau and Laich essentially all agree: The Capitals in the playoffs haven't tightened up on the little things, those small details that can go overlooked in the regular season because the team has so much talent.
"Easy things, like getting the puck deep," Bradley said. "If you don't get the puck deep in the playoffs, that might be the one chance you give the other team that wins them the game."
Washington practically coasted into the playoffs last year with an offensive juggernaut that produced the best record in the league. Four months ago, with the team mired in a losing streak, Boudreau made a mid-season adjustment to a more defensive mindset. Now a Capitals game is as likely to end up 2-1 as 5-3, but the change led to a late-season surge that again claimed the No. 1 seed.
"We scored a lot of goals last year, and little mistakes can be overlooked when you score goals," Laich said. "But if you don't score goals—and things always tighten up in the playoffs—those little, little things come into play. Whether it's options starting in your own zone, coming back two feet further into your own zone before you stop, getting every single puck out, being in good position so you don't have to hook on a back check, these little minute things that unless you're a real hockey guy you might not pick them up, there are things that are dissected on a video that the average fan wouldn't see, they make the entire difference to winning. And I think we were guilty of making those mistakes last year.
"You can't just turn it on, and turn it off. These little things I'm talking about are habits. They're work-ethic habits, they're attention-to-detail habits, and those have to be developed through months and months so that when playoffs come you're playing your best and it's just second nature. I think our game is a lot more prepared this year, a lot more solid heading in."
The Capitals and Rangers might be seven seeds apart, but Washington (48) won only four more games than New York (44) in the regular season. They are statistically close in many other categories.
"The intangibles that we don't know about are going to make the difference," Boudreau said. "Who plays better? Who's got the better power play? Who's got the better penalty kill? Who takes more penalties? Which goalie is better by 2 per cent? These are the things that make the playoffs. Who wins the battles in the corners? In the end, that's going to probably make one a winner and one a loser."