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Capitals 'a different team right now' entering playoffs

Aim to put recent postseason disappointments behind them after unexpected division title

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- During the 20 years since the Washington Capitals last advanced beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they've been asked about the past so often they have little new to offer on the subject.

They've gone into the playoffs under the spotlight as Presidents' Trophy winners and Stanley Cup favorites and under the radar as underdogs with little expected of them. The players and even the uniforms have changed, and somehow it always seems to end with, as general manager Brian MacLellan put it, "the same cut and paste stuff."

This season, the Capitals (49-26-7) are somewhere in the middle. They were surprise winners of the Metropolitan Division following an offseason of changes, but they're not considered among the NHL's elite with the Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Is this the path that finally allows them to escape their tortured past and win the Stanley Cup?

They'll begin to find out when they open the Eastern Conference First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVAS).

"To be honest with you, we don't think about what's happened in the past," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "We have a different team right now. We have something new going on here."

This is the 10th playoff appearance by the Capitals during the Ovechkin era, which began in 2005-06. They'd like to believe this one will end differently, but after so many disappointments, it's difficult for them to come up with reasons why it will.

Video: NJD@WSH: Ovechkin nets 49th goal on knuckling slapper

"I don't know," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "I don't have a good answer for those questions. I know there's less pressure this year, or at least perceived pressure, which is not a bad position to be in. Sometimes those teams that feel like they've got nothing to lose are really hard to beat. Maybe we're in that position this year."

The Capitals have already surpassed expectations by finishing first in their division after losing key players such as Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt last summer. But they know the playoffs are a different animal.

The Capitals acknowledge now that the pressure got to them the past two seasons when they won the Presidents' Trophy and were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round each time. It appeared to overwhelm them in the deciding Game 7 last season, and they exited meekly with a 2-0 loss at Capital One Arena.

"I think there was some external pressure that creeped into the room," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I think maybe as a veteran group we probably don't want to admit that it affected us. I think at times it definitely did."

Coach Barry Trotz believes that because the Capitals didn't win the Presidents' Trophy this season, "There's a little bit less weight, for sure." But the weight of their daunting playoff history remains.

In 27 previous trips to the playoffs, they've made it past the second round twice. In 1990, they were swept by the Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference Final. In 1998, they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final.

In the past, the Capitals have attempted to distance themselves from that history, saying the current team has no connection to it. But that hasn't helped them avoid adding to it in the first three seasons of the MacLellan-Trotz regime.

Video: NJD@WSH: Backstrom finds twine on top-shelf wrister

Although they were underdogs against the Presidents' Trophy-winning New York Rangers in the 2015 Eastern Conference Second Round, they built a 3-1 series lead before losing the last three games, including Games 5 and 7 in overtime. Then, despite being the NHL's best team in the regular season the past two seasons, they could not figure out a way to get past the Penguins.

At this point, MacLellan believes the Capitals need to confront their past to overcome it.

"You can't ignore it," MacLellan said. "It's part of the deal here. I think you get in a little trouble where you say, 'It's not part of our history.' Well, it is now because of the past four years, the same story. But you can't ignore it. It's what it is. It gets to that point sometimes where it pops up and we have to be resilient and break through it."

Maybe losing to the Penguins last season was the breaking point. The prevalent emotion among the Capitals in the days following the Game 7 loss was anger -- not at the Penguins, but at themselves for wasting what might have been their best chance to win the Stanley Cup.

"I hate those end-of-the-year meetings," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "We're standing there, we're promising things, and it [stinks]. Hopefully, we don't have to go through that again."

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