A shot at playoff redemption for Caps
"When we articulated the plan, the strategy, the vision, this is what we said would happen," Leonsis said. "But we haven't won a Cup. The key thing here is for us not to think, 'Yeah, we've won.' We can't declare victory. We could get swept in four games in the first round and we would look back at this season as an abject failure."
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Without failure, there can be no redemption.
The Washington Capitals have lived with the acid burn of failure for almost a year.
And now, on the eve of their first-round playoff series against the eighth-seeded New York Rangers, the top-seeded Capitals are hoping the longest of regular seasons will give way to something approaching atonement.
"The nice thing today is it's the playoffs and we get the opportunity again, because it has been a long year," Washington GM George McPhee told ESPN.com on Tuesday.
A year ago, it was all about spinning a record-breaking regular season into playoff gold. Oh, the excitement was palpable here as the Caps prepared to engage the long-shot, big-time underdog Montreal Canadiens. This year? Oh, there is excitement, too, but excitement shot through with a healthy dose of perspective.
That's what happens when you are the Presidents' Trophy winners and you blow a 3-1 series lead as the Caps did against Montreal last season.
"It was really disappointing and it just felt like we lost a tremendous opportunity," McPhee said. "It probably was a real good lesson for the team and these players. It was a hard lesson."
Even though the Capitals surged through the last third of the season to overtake Tampa Bay at the top of the Southeast Division and then Philadelphia and Boston to earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference, there is no sense of accomplishment like that which permeated the room at the end of the 2009-10 regular season.
Up in his office above the Capitals' practice rink, Washington owner Ted Leonsis called last season's playoff loss "sobering."
"When we were up 3-1 [in the Montreal series], I think we felt entitled and we paid a heavy price for that," Leonsis told ESPN.com. "This year, it just feels like we're more mature and more mentally ready. There's a business feel now about it."
The Capitals have sold out 101 straight games at the Verizon Center during the regular season and playoffs, and have sold out all 41 regular-season home games for the 2011-12 season.
A market that floundered for so many years has become a hockey town through and through, and so when the team folded in Game 7 last April 28, "the community reaction was fierce," Leonsis said.
Now, a fan base so carefully cultivated and nurtured, a fan base that made the Caps the second-leading U.S. team in paid attendance this season, waits for the team to make good on its promise.
We are reminded of a great line from Bob Dylan's song "Tangled Up In Blue": But all the while I was alone, the past was close behind.
This spring, the Capitals' past will be a constant companion, a constant observer to the team's efforts to move forward and define itself. How the Caps react to this burden will say much, if not everything, about this team's character. If the Capitals had merely charted a similar course this season and hoped the law of averages would give them a break, maybe there would be more cause for concern.
But this is a team that took a hard left about midway through the season, shortly after an embarrassing 7-0 loss to the Rangers, recorded for all to see by HBO's cameras for its "24/7" documentary. The loss was the sixth in what would be an eight-game winless streak that threatened to undo the season and coach Bruce Boudreau. His coaching staff decided to scrap its offense-first game plan and introduce a simpler, more defensive style of play.
It took a while, but the team embraced the style.
"If it is good for the team, I will do it," Washington captain Alex Ovechkin said Tuesday. "If Bruce tells me to do 'this,' I'm going to do it. He's my coach, and I'm going to listen to him no matter what."
The goals didn't come at the same frenetic pace, but they didn't end up in their own goal nearly as often, either. The Caps finished fourth in goals allowed this season (last season they were 16th); they also are second in penalty killing.
There is a comfort level in close games that didn't seem to be there in the past and certainly wasn't there during the Caps' collapse against Montreal last April.
"I like our game and where it is at right now. I like our two-way game," Caps forward Brooks Laich said. "Last year, we obviously scored a lot of goals, but we didn't frustrate teams when we didn't have the puck. We have that ability this year."
When we were up 3-1 [in the Montreal series], I think we felt entitled and we paid a heavy price for that. This year, it just feels like we're more mature and more mentally ready.” -- Caps owner Ted Leonsis
Boudreau did not agree that this season's squad is better prepared than last year's but conceded it might be more mentally ready for the challenge.
"I mean, they were prepared pretty well last year," Boudreau said. "It's so tough to tell because everybody keeps talking about last year. We didn't allow a lot of goals last year. Once we got going, I don't think it was our defense that cost us. It was our offense. We didn't score any goals in the last three games and consequently we lost all three. But I think our mindset is more prepared to go in.
"I think everything had come so easy [last season]. We weren't pushed, I don't think, as a unit too hard, and this year we've been pushed really hard."
Who knows how the next two weeks will unfold. The Rangers are a scrappy, well-coached bunch that took the more talented Capitals to a seventh game two postseasons ago. But that, like Washington's colossal loss last season, is in the past. Not forgotten, but in the past. And maybe, in the end, it's not about forgetting the past so much as learning from it.
The first class in Redemption 101 begins Wednesday night.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.