THE CAPITALS wore their hearts on their sleeves, or at least on the backs of their shirts, during training camp. The message: STAY ANGRY. BELIEVE IN YOURSELVES. The reason for their anger was the team's implosion against Montreal last spring in the first round of the playoffs. Washington strutted into the postseason as the Presidents' Trophy winner and crawled out in shame after blowing a 3--1 series lead against a team that finished 33 points behind them in the standings. "Everybody questioned the way we play, our system, our style, everything," says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. "That left a bad taste. For six months I [thought] we were the best team in the league. Nobody wants to lose, especially when you expect to win."
Such expectations were well-founded after a brilliant regular season in which the Capitals scored 313 goals, 45 more than any other team in the NHL. Washington was so good, it was the only team in the league that was above .500 in games in which the other team scored first. The gap between the Caps' power play, with its 25.2% success rate, and that of the second-best team (Montreal, 21.8) was bigger than the gap between the Canadiens and the Dallas Stars, whose power play ranked 12th.
Instead of panicking, G.M. George McPhee sat tight, a sound decision given that the club's corps of marksmen—forwards Alex Ovechkin (109 points), Nicklas Backstrom (101 points) and Alexander Semin (40 goals), and defenseman Mike Green, who led all NHL blueliners with 76 points—are all back. The only serious change comes in goal, where departed José Théodore gives way to Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, 22-year-olds who were 30-9-7 in two years of limited regular-season action.
Washington isn't a perfect team. The Capitals will again rely on a unique ability to cover up their defensive lapses with their speed and power play at the other end of the ice, which should get them past the first round this time.
Guy Boucher (1st season)