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Caps hope to learn from last spring's disappointment

by Dan Rosen /
ARLINGTON, Va. -- As Nicklas Backstrom thinks back to the Washington Capitals' first-round flop against Montreal last spring, outside of the final score the Swedish center finds one more undeniable fact.

"I thought we were ready (for the playoffs) last year and we started off pretty good with a 3-1 lead, and then I feel like we just relaxed," Backstrom told "It's not our style, but that's what happened. We were maybe a little bit too casual."

If a laissez-faire attitude earned the Capitals an earlier-than-expected trip home last spring, Backstrom, of course, would like to assume it won't happen again seven months from now.

But just like millions of other people, he can't guarantee anything when it comes to the Capitals and the playoffs. The proof has to be in the results, and right now there is nothing to suggest that this team can win a Stanley Cup.

"I guess we have to learn how to play in the playoffs," Backstrom said. "If we're going to win, that's most important. It doesn't matter if you're No. 1 or No. 8 (seed) after the regular season, as long as you're in the playoffs anything can happen. It showed last year … but the thing is we have to learn how to play it. Hopefully we learned something from last year. We can't relax after we have a lead."

The disappointment of last year's finish against Montreal still may resonate among the team and its fans, but it was hard to tell Thursday.

Judging by the weather outside, the amount of people in the stands here at Kettler Capitals Iceplex and the number of media members intently watching from the other side of the glass, you'd think it was the spring again and Washington was back in the playoffs.

The place was buzzing, and it was only the final informal workout before training camp opens this weekend. The Capitals have a seven-month, 82-game grind before they get their chance to silence all the critics.

"We're going to have a good year and we're going to be a good team no matter what," veteran forward Mike Knuble told "But everybody is waiting. Everybody is looking at the end of the rainbow and is going to wait until they see what happens in the spring."

That's perfectly fine according to the Capitals. Except at least until the regular season gets going and there's something else to talk about, these players are going to have to face the tough questions about how they blew a 3-1 lead to the Canadiens, losing Games 5 and 7 in their own building.

Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak was fantastic, but Washington was 1-for-33 on the power play, Alexander Semin had just 2 assists and 23-goal scorer Tomas Fleischmann was a healthy scratch in Game 7.

"I guess the players can curtail it by giving really short answers, yes-or-no answers," Knuble said. "We have to recognize what happened in the past, but you can't dwell on it. If anything it makes you more aware and you realize you don't want to go back to that point again. You can use a bad situation to move forward, and that's what we have to do instead of thinking when the time comes, 'Oh no, here we go again.'"

Backstrom tried to point out that it is already behind him.

"That's why I went home to Sweden (for the summer)," he said. "I just wanted to relax and not think about hockey. When it gets closer you start thinking about again, of course, and now we're here. I had a good summer -- mentally, too."

Knuble spent his summer with his family in Northern Michigan. Alex Ovechkin said all he did was hang out with his buddies in Moscow, "go out almost every night." He didn't skate for a full month and a half, and when he finally got on the ice it was with a new training coach. He never said why.

"We know what we have to do," said Ovechkin, who Thursday skated at Kettler for the first time since the spring. "We have to play our game and be ourselves and don't listen to nobody, just concentrate on game."
"We're going to have a good year and we're going to be a good team no matter what.  But everybody is waiting. Everybody is looking at the end of the rainbow and is going to wait until they see what happens in the spring." -- Mike Knuble
Maybe more than anything -- more than preparing for the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic or playing six games against the revamped Tampa Bay Lightning -- concentrating on the game at hand will be the Caps' greatest challenge this season.

They're still good enough to run away with the Southeast Division and possibly win another Presidents' Trophy, but what's the point if they can't win when the leaves start to get green again?

"Is our regular season going to mean as much? I don't know," Knuble said. "We got a warning shot across the bow (last spring). Playoffs are different. We'll play well to get there and then it's a question of winning there. I still think our group can do it … but if anything this spring was humbling -- very humbling. You're never as good as you think you are."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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