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Capitals facing pressure in Cup pursuit

Presidents' Trophy winners trying to put playoff failures behind them

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals know what you're thinking.

Sure, they set a franchise record with 56 wins and cruised to the Presidents' Trophy with 120 points, but they've been down this road before and it didn't end well. So, though they say this team is different from those that have fallen short before it, they know you won't believe them unless they're the ones lifting the Stanley Cup two months from now.

"We have a lot to prove to a lot of people until we win the Cup," Capitals left wing Jason Chimera said Wednesday. "You're always going to have that negativity following you around if you don't win it, for sure. If you don't win it, it's one of those things you have to take because it's true. You've got to win it before you really shut people up."

Their quest begins Thursday with Game 1 of an Eastern Conference First Round series against the Philadelphia Flyers at Verizon Center (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, CSN-DC, CSN-PH). The Capitals are the heavy favorites after their record-breaking regular season but have stressed all week that all they've earned so far is home-ice advantage for as far as they go in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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If anyone forgets, it's the slogan on both sides of their playoff T-shirts: "Entitled to nothing."

"It's just another good season by a team," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "There's been tons of those in the past. Vancouver had an amazing one and they still ended up losing in the [Stanley Cup] Final (in 2011). At least they got to the Final. That's pretty impressive. We won the Presidents' Trophy in 2009-10 and lost in the first [round]. So, the regular season is just the first season. This is the real deal now."

Alzner, Chimera, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Jay Beagle are the only Capitals left from the 2009-10 team that set a franchise record with 121 points and then blew a 3-1 lead in their best-of-7 first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens. Although much of the cast has changed since then, the playoff heartbreaks have continued.

The Capitals made it out of the first round as the top seed in the Eastern Conference in 2011, but were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round. After falling to the New York Rangers in seven games in the second round in 2012, the Capitals went up 2-0 on the Rangers in the first round in 2013 before losing that series in seven games.

Back in the playoffs last season after failing to qualify in 2014, the Capitals held a 3-1 series lead on the Rangers and were on the verge of advancing to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998, but they could not get the clinching win, losing Games 5 and 7 in overtime. It was the 10th time that the Capitals failed to win a series when they had a two-game lead.

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If each of those losses was a lesson in what it takes to win, this team should be ready to graduate by now.

"You think you're on top of the world, and then all of a sudden you get beat down and you're like, 'Holy, what happened?'" Chimera said. "It takes a few years to recover, but I think we've gained a lot of experience of the past few years and guys have grown together. Guys want to win here together, and it's one of those things that you have to dig yourself up sometimes and, hopefully, you learn from that."

Ovechkin, 30, has been through this cycle before, twice helping the Capitals climb from out of the playoffs to the Presidents' Trophy, but he hasn't made it out of the second round despite putting up 36 goals and 70 points in 72 playoff games. He calls this team the most complete he's been on, and there's no question it represents his best chance to finally win the championship.

"It's a different team, a mature team," Ovechkin said. "Mentally, I think we're more ready to take a big step here."

Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau was the Capitals' coach for some of their biggest disappointments, including the loss to the Canadiens in 2010, and, like Ovechkin, said he believes their time to break through has finally arrived.

"They're ready right now," Boudreau said. "When we had them when we won the Presidents' Trophy, there were a lot of young guys. They were young, and sometimes when you're younger you think you have the world by the tail and everything is going to happen great, but these guys have gone through some rough times since that time, so they know what they're doing. They've grown and matured, all of them, from Nicky to Marcus [Johansson] to [Braden] Holtby to all of these guys, so they're ready to have their time."

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