WASHINGTON - It caused more than a ripple of concern among Washington Capitals fans when Alex Ovechkin left practice early one day this week.
Ovechkin and the Capitals say there's no need to be alarmed. The reigning two-time MVP says he was just self-policing his emotions.
"I just want to be in good shape," Ovechkin said Wednesday. "I don't want to give my emotion in practice. I just want to be calm and concentrate."
OK, that's an interesting explanation, although it won't quiet skeptics who point out that NHL players will go to great lengths to conceal injuries. But coach Bruce Boudreau didn't hesitate when asked about his 50-goal scorer: "He's fine. He's healthy."
If Ovechkin is to be taken at his word, it is further evidence of a Capitals team that is maturing, but not yet fully mature as it prepares to open the post-season with Thursday's Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens.
The young Capitals aren't the playoffs babies they were two years ago, giddy with excitement just to be there and done after one series. Last year was as an adolescent stage for the team, with some experience under the belt but lessons to be learned. They lasted two series.
Now, well, they're not quite fully grown. If they were, then the team's captain wouldn't have to be pulling himself out of practice to keep his nerves at bay.
"We're just more calm," Ovechkin said. "We just stay quiet. Last two years in the playoffs, we just give all our emotions here in the locker-room, like, 'Oh, yeah, we get in the playoffs, it's going to be something new."'
As Ovechkin and his teammates took off their practice jerseys, they revealed the team's new Stanley Cup T-shirts, emblazoned with the words: "26 GUYS. 1 TEAM. 1 GOAL!" The team that was head and shoulders above the rest of the league in the regular season won't settle for anything but a title.
"Now everyone pretty much has playoff experience," centre Brooks Laich said. "Now we have a major goal left and the toughest one to win, so we've been preparing for this. We're quietly confident, and I think that's why we're a little more calm this year."
On paper, the Capitals shouldn't have much of a problem against the eighth-seeded Canadiens, who didn't qualify for the playoffs until the next-to-last day of the regular season and finished 33 points behind Washington in the standings.
"It's hard to make the guys feel like an underdog for what's happened," Boudreau said. "But there have been doubters, and I'm sure Montreal believes to a man that they're going to beat us, no matter what they say."
Indeed, No. 1 vs. No. 8 in the NHL is never a gimme. The eighth-seeded team has pulled the upset eight times in 30 tries since the league went to its current playoff format in 1994. The Canadiens' website has a "spoiler alert" for anyone who has "already penciled the Capitals into the second round." It cites the 2002 playoffs, when No. 8 Montreal knocked off No. 1 Boston in six games.
"I think we relish the opportunity to play the team that everybody's picking to win the Stanley Cup," Montreal winger Michael Cammalleri said. "I think we know how good they are. We know what they're capable of, and if you beat them in the first round you've knocked off the team that was supposed to be the Cup champs, and all of a sudden you've got that Mr. Momentum on your side, right?"
Montreal and Washington both sold out every home game this season, but they are still light-years apart on hockey fanaticism and legacy. The Canadiens have 24 NHL titles; the Capitals have none and have been to the final only once - when they benefited from a slew of upsets that opened the Eastern Conference half of the draw in 1998.
Of course, the Capitals' hopes begin and end with Ovechkin, who is on pace to become one of the all-time greats but will need to win a title to fully justify such praise. He's had moments good and bad this season - including a pair of suspensions, his first significant injury and a disappointing performance by his Russian team at the Olympics. Still, despite missing 10 games, he nearly won the scoring title and reached the 50-goal mark again.
Now it's a matter of channelling all that energy on hockey's biggest stage, even if it means leaving practice early a couple of days before Game 1.
"Alex loves the limelight, while others shy away from it," Boudreau said. "That's why he loves playing in Montreal - because that's where the most attention is if you go to Canada."
Notes: A day after being announced as the starting goaltender, G Jose Theodore took a puck off his knee and had to leave practice early. Boudreau said Theodore had a "stinger" and was pulled for precautionary reasons. Asked if he had any concerns about Theodore playing Thursday, the coach answered: "None." ... C Nicklas Backstrom returned to practice after staying home Tuesday with an illness. "I was sick. I was laying in bed all day," he said. "I'll be fine." ... Boudreau, while explaining why he hasn't restricted media access to his players, uttered words you'd never hear from an NFL coach: "I've got to believe that a 10-minute interview or a five-minute interview is not going to lose their focus. And if it does, we've got the wrong guys."