Commentary

For Capitals, it's Cup or bust (again)

Updated: October 6, 2010, 9:48 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Were five days in April enough to destroy one of the great revivals in pro sports?

Were the final, curious flailings from the Washington Capitals' collapse against eighth-seeded Montreal the first showings of a loose thread ready to unravel all the good that has been done in the nation's capital?

In the days after the Capitals' first-round series loss to the Canadiens this past April, veteran forward Mike Knuble said people around him walked on eggshells.

"They just didn't know what to say to you, kind of like your dog just died," he said.

"I feel terribly for our fans because they believed in us very passionately," said Leonsis, whose relationship with the Caps' faithful is as personal as any owner's relationship anywhere in sports. "It was an incredibly great run [during the regular season] and we let everyone down."

Anger? Bewilderment? Either way, the Caps are about to embark on what is arguably the most important season in franchise history.

'There's a clarity of purpose'

Unlike most teams that require a rich loam of success on which to plant a dynamic, successful team, the Capitals have already turned fallow ground into such a base. The team has sold out 60 straight games, including playoffs. The season-ticket base has topped 13,000 and there are thousands on a waiting list.

Fans also believe in the Capitals. More than 98 percent renewed their season tickets for the coming season (a record for the franchise) despite the fact Washington choked up a 3-1 first-round series lead against Montreal.

Local television ratings have gone up 140 percent since 2007-08.

At the team's practice facility in Arlington, Va., presumably the only NHL practice rink built on top of a parking structure, the Capitals had to build a new pro shop to double the retail space to meet the demand for Caps apparel and hockey gear.

Now, all the team needs to do is deliver the Stanley Cup championship that owner Ted Leonsis and Washington's passionate fan base craves.

[+] EnlargeAlex Ovechkin
AP Photo/Nick WassWhen we last saw the Caps, they fell short in Game 7 of the first round against the Habs.

Simple, right?

"We have to win a championship," Leonsis recently told ESPN.com. "We're at a point in our development where there's nothing else. There's a clarity of purpose."

This isn't the shrill voice of an owner 10 minutes after a disheartening loss. This isn't a "heads will roll" warning. This is the voice of an owner who tried to buy a winner (think Jaromir Jagr), then blew it up with a vision of not just winning a championship, but also building a team that could be capable of winning a championship in any given year.

He has built such a team. Now they need to deliver.

"There's not a lot for an owner to do," Leonsis said with a chuckle.

But he's right. Like fans, all there is now is the waiting to see what the season brings for a team laden with stars, but which has failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs since their lone Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1998.

But for all of the disappointment, give the Washington Capitals credit for being true to their own vision. In the face of what stands to be a crushing weight of expectation this season, the Caps didn't follow the predictable route of bringing in expensive free agents to "get them over the hump." In fact, GM George McPhee actually shed a number of veteran bodies that were supposed to have done just that last season:

• Brendan Morrison, who never quite filled the role as a second-line center, is gone (he just signed with Calgary).

• Scott Walker, acquired at the deadline from Carolina to provide sand and experience, is gone.

• So, too, is defenseman Joe Corvo. Eric Belanger is in Phoenix.

Nothing wrong with those additions at the time. They made sense, but they just didn't work.

Instead, McPhee entrusted more responsibility to homegrown talent.

• The job of backstopping the Caps to glory now rests with two 22-year-old netminders, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth.

• On the blue line, big things are expected from impressive rookie John Carlson, who may end up playing alongside AHL partner and top Caps prospect Karl Alzner.

• Up front, there's been an interesting battle between prospects Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson for the third-line center role.

" And, of course, there is the stable of familiar stars, including Nicklas Backstrom, who signed a long-term contract extension in the offseason, a slimmed-down Mike Green and captain Alex Ovechkin.

It's always difficult to tell exactly where Ovechkin is coming from, but he seemed to be more accountable during training camp, more prepared to assume the mantel of leadership that has perhaps eluded both the Caps and the game's most dynamic player. He recently told ESPN.com he doesn't care about his own game, but only about his team.

"I just want to win," Ovechkin said. "I don't care about my game actually now. I just want to win. I just want to do my best to help the team to win."

Fair enough. But for the Caps to get to where they want to go, Ovechkin is going to have to continue to produce points. Can he summon that intangible quality all great players (Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, Wayne Gretzky, his longtime rival Sidney Crosby) manage to deliver when their teams needed it most?

That question will not be answered with words, only action.

"We think it's a real good team," McPhee told ESPN.com. "It earned 121 points last year. And we didn't play poorly in the playoffs. We were up 3-1 in the series and had a bad start to Game 5, and the game didn't work out for us. But we couldn't have played better in Game 6 and we played pretty darn well in Game 7.

"So why tear it apart when for 6½ months they played really well and played pretty darned well in the playoffs? If they hadn't played well in the playoffs and lost, then we've got some issues, but they played well."

[+] Enlarge Ted Leonsis
Len Redkoles/Getty ImagesCapitals owner Ted Leonsis said he and the team let fans down last season.

Can the Caps do it?

Coach Bruce Boudreau has gone over the tapes again and again. He is confident it wasn't a flaw in the system, but a simple lack of finish that led to the Caps' 1-for-33 power-play effort that was a killer in the loss to the Canadiens.

Because the team is so dynamic offensively (they scored 45 more goals than Vancouver, the NHL's second-most productive team, and owned the league's top power-play unit), the perception is the Capitals don't know how to play defense. Not so, insisted Boudreau. The Caps were 16th in goals allowed per game, but Boudreau said he examined those numbers and points out that, in many games, the Caps allowed goals after they had built a significant lead.

If the Caps cut down half of the 23 goals scored in those situations when they had built an insurmountable lead, "We would have been 10th in the league defensively, which, the way we play, is quite good," Boudreau said in a recent interview.

In short, don't look for the Caps to change their philosophy in the wake of last season's disappointing end.

"What we wanted to focus on and sort of the message is we don't want to change the culture of the way we play," he said. "We think we play a great game."

He's right. It would be a shame if the Caps shelved their approach because they believed it was somehow the fly in their Stanley Cup ointment. And so, this season comes down to a test of faith for all concerned. Ownership and management has put their faith in their own players' hands.

Staying the course is not an easy thing. Look at how often teams wobble in the face of expectations and end up retooling, firing their coach and going in a different direction stylistically. The Caps may yet follow that path, but not yet.

"You know when you're a good group," Knuble said. "The onus is on us."

He described the experience of losing to Montreal as "humbling," but the players' challenge will be staying focused on the next day during the regular season, not on the middle of April.

Can they do it?

Bob Hartley has watched the evolution of the Capitals, first as a Southeast Division coach in Atlanta and more recently as a broadcast analyst in Montreal. He recalled coaching a talented Colorado team that couldn't get past Dallas in the late 1990s. Instead of crumbling, though, "I could tell the players were on a mission [at the start of the 2000-2001 season]."

Hartley sees the same dynamic in Washington after a couple of disappointing turns in the postseason.

"I really believe their team game will be better," Hartley said. "I think they have the right leadership in the organization."

Former NHL netminder Darren Eliot, now a national analyst, also believes the Capitals are poised to shake off last season's disappointment. But he also knows there will be nagging doubts until they can advance deep into the playoffs.

"Are they going to be San Jose East?" Eliot said. "That's kind of what they're up against."

Having seen Pittsburgh and Chicago both rebound from bottom-of-the-standings finishes to win a Cup, there is no reason to expect the talented Capitals can't do the same. Those success stories merely add to the pressure on the Capitals, especially with the ongoing rivalry between Crosby and Ovechkin.

"I do [think they're capable]. They've got the talent. They've grown up together," Eliot said. "They've got some growing up to do on the ice, but my goodness, are they talented."

So, the Capitals once again embark on a journey many believe will end at a Stanley Cup, if not in the vicinity. If they fail, the consequences will almost certainly be harsh for many involved. When you are this good and have fallen this hard, it is implied.

A season of redemption? Leonsis, for one, hopes that isn't the motivation.

"I don't want to make up for last year," he said. "I want them to play for themselves. I want them to play for this year."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.