ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals say they have bigger goals than winning the Southeast Division, but for Mike Ribeiro, finishing in first place was a long time coming.
"Yeah, I kept that T-shirt they gave us," Ribeiro said of the division-winning paraphernalia he received for the first time in his 14-year professional career. "It took a while."
A total of 783 NHL regular-season games, to be exact.
It also has taken a while for Ribeiro to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, something he will do Thursday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers.
The Capitals' key offseason acquisition last appeared in the playoffs in the 2008 Western Conference Finals as a member of the Dallas Stars.
"That's what you play for," said Ribeiro, who finished second on the Capitals this season with 36 assists and 49 points in 48 games. "The last two years [with Dallas] we got eliminated by like two points or the last [week] of the season. You don't get in and it's really crushing. But we had a good feeling from the beginning of the season here, and it just took us time to jell it together. But the belief was still in here and I'm just happy to get back in it."
The Capitals in turn are happy to have Ribeiro on board. The 33-year-old was a key cog on the NHL's top-rated power play during the regular season and finished the year with a League-high 27 power-play points.
"Mike is a top center in this League and has been a great complement to [No. 1 center Nicklas Backstrom]," Capitals coach Adam Oates said. "They're two playmaking centers who like to distribute the puck. ... Really good complements and it makes it really difficult which line you want to coach against. It helps two good lines."
Ribeiro may be excited simply to play meaningful hockey in May, but his teammates won't be satisfied unless they are still playing games that count in June. In order for the latter to happen, much will be expected from Ribeiro and the other members of Washington's second line, Troy Brouwer and Martin Erat.
The Capitals' top line of Alex Ovechkin (23 goals in his last 23 games), Backstrom (22 assists in 23 games) and Johansson (20 points in 22 games) is expected to garner much attention from the Rangers in Round 1, which in turn may create favorable matchups for Washington's secondary units.
"We expect their top-D pairing to be out against [Ovechkin] and [Backstrom] every single shift," Brouwer said of Rangers defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. "They log a lot of ice time, and that means we get their second pairing, which right now is a strong pairing with [Anton] Stralman and [Michael] Del Zotto. It's no easy task to play against those guys, but we should be able to create some offense because their top shutdown line is focused on other people."
Ribeiro said, "We want to support that first line and really help them have easier games by not having the pressure to produce every game and knowing that we're there to help them through those games and maybe create confusion for the other team when it comes to who to match up against."
Brouwer finished second on the Capitals with 19 goals this season, and Erat has adjusted to his surroundings since he was traded to Washington from the Nashville Predators on April 3.
Ribeiro may be the wild card with 25 points (five goals, 20 assists) in 42 career playoff games, but five points in 16 games beyond the first round. Ribeiro acknowledged this week that there was a time when a deep postseason run was barely on his radar.
"The first time you don't make the playoffs, you're kind of happy," he said. "You have a longer summer. But like four times in a row now, four times, four summers, it's long. You're out for like seven months; it's pretty long. And obviously this year was even longer for me from April to all the way now. I'm just anxious to go and play and bring some emotions up."
Oates said he sees no reason Ribeiro shouldn't be soaking in the experience ahead.
"It's very important and a player should want to be here," Oates said. "Obviously, the Verizon Center will be rocking Thursday night and obviously Madison Square Garden rocks. If you don't want to be in that environment, then shame on you, because playoffs is a fantastic environment."