ARLINGTON, Va. -- After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and failing to advance past the Eastern Conference Second Round in six previous appearances, the Washington Capitals believe they have what it takes to go all the way.
"I think we're optimistic that the style we play is more suited to the playoffs than we've ever had in the past," Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said.
When the Capitals host the New York Islanders in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference First Round series on Wednesday, they'll be looking to start writing a new page to their history.
Once regarded as a one-dimensional offensive powerhouse, Washington has earned a reputation across the NHL as a tough, hard-hitting team that's still a scoring threat.
"In the past we were maybe sort of a rush team," forward Brooks Laich said. "I don't think we're as high flying, high octane [an] offense as we once were, but I think we're a lot more difficult to play against this way. It should bode well for a sustained playoff run."
The Capitals didn't get that way by accident. When MacLellan shored up Washington's blue line by signing defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik last summer, he did so with the playoffs in mind.
"We have a very big hockey team," Laich said. "It's a big group of guys. Size is always difficult to play against if size can be in motion and move and execute plays. I really like the way our team is built."
An important piece of the puzzle is Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who has more playoff experience than any coach in Washington's 40-year history. Trotz coached in 50 playoff games during his 16 seasons with the Nashville Predators.
"His message carries weight," MacLellan said. "He's easy to like as a person, and you have a lot of respect for the things he says and the way he wants a team to play. We're definitely moving in the right direction. It's a good feeling going into the playoffs."
Trotz never made it past the Western Conference Second Round with the Predators, but the odds may be in his favor this time. Nine of the previous 10 coaches in the Stanley Cup Final have had at least 35 games of prior playoff experience.
"This is the best team we've had since I've been here," defenseman Mike Green said. "[Trotz] has done a great job of continuing to push us and keep us focused on what's important, and here we are. Now the real season begins."
It doesn't hurt that Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin is playing the best hockey of his career either. He scored 53 goals, won the Rocket Richard Trophy for the third consecutive seasons and is playing a more complete game under Trotz.
"He seems to be having more fun to me," MacLellan said. "I think it's more enjoyable for him to be in this environment. The offensive numbers are the same. I think he's more comfortable with his game, the way it is now. It's a lot more fun when you're playing as a team and winning as a team. He's more enthusiastic. I think it's just been an all-around fun year for him."
The Islanders have won five of six playoff series against the Capitals, but the teams haven't met in the postseason since the 1993 Patrick Division Semifinals. Because of that, the rivalry may not be quite as intense as a series between Washington and the New York Rangers, who have met in the playoffs four out of the past six years, but tensions will still be running high.
"I've said it for years, they're a very good hockey team," Laich said of the Islanders. "I think they've been underrated for years. They have a very deep forward group, very offensively minded. And obviously they've been getting great goaltending."
No matter the opponent, the Capitals feel poised to begin their playoff run.
"We're gonna be ready," Laich said. "We've faced the [Pittsburgh] Penguins and Rangers a lot more, but Game 1, there's going to be a distaste right away."