ARLINGTON, Va. — Given how they’ve played as a favorite, maybe it’s for the best that the Washington Capitals are an underdog for a change.
The Capitals have been to the playoffs four times in the Alex Ovechkin era, and each time they were eliminated by a lower seed. The series record is 2-4 with no appearances beyond the second round, a disappointment for a team billed as a perennial Stanley Cup contender when Ovechkin and the other “Young Guns” emerged from years of rebuilding in 2008.
The Capitals are back for a fifth straight year of postseason, but this time they scraped in as a No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. They open Thursday night with Game 1 against the second-seeded and defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, the first time Washington has started the playoffs on the road since 2003.
“It’s nice. I like that feeling of being the underdog,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “A lot less expectation. And hopefully we can surprise them a little bit — they might take us a little too lightly. It happened to us against Montreal.”
The top-seeded Capitals blew a 3-1 series lead and were knocked out by the eighth-seeded Canadiens in the first round in 2010. Last year, Washington was again the No. 1 seed and got past the first round — only to be swept by Tampa Bay in the second.
Both of those Capitals teams cruised through the regular season. Making the playoffs was taken for granted. And so, perhaps, was winning.
“It’s a different feeling this year,” defenseman Mike Green said. “I think in the past we’ve kind of been too worked up about it. There’s an even keel right now, and I think that’s good.”
Even goaltender Braden Holtby senses the difference, despite his limited time with the club. Holtby has spent most of the last two seasons in the minors, but he’s expected to be the starter against the Bruins because of injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth.
“As weird as it’s been for us, you kind of have to look at it as a positive,” Holtby said, “compared to the last couple of years where the team just kind of breezed through the regular season and the problems kind of just get thrown under the rug because you keep winning. This year, they were exposed. It’s a good thing, and it’s especially going to benefit us.”
The Capitals fired coach Bruce Boudreau in November and replaced him with Dale Hunter, whose defensive-minded approach mirrors the more traditional playoff style. Green and center Nicklas Backstrom missed most of the season with injuries, but both have returned to give Washington a healthy roster at every position except goalie.
Two-time league MVP Ovechkin’s production was dormant far too often this season, but he has nine goals and three assists in his last 11 games.
“I don’t think somebody can say who’s favorite and who’s not,” Ovechkin said. “It’s the playoffs, and you know, the last couple of years everybody think, like, we’re going to be undefeated and it’s going be easy for us in the playoff, and we lost.
“So right now it’s a situation that we don’t have to listen to you (reporters) and we don’t have to listen to fans and what they say. We just have to concentrate, and this group of guys have to be together.”
Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom and Alexander Semin should be in their prime, but they’re still infants when it comes to playoff success. Four years of frustration, along with this year’s nail-biting finish to the regular season, should have taught them a lesson or two — favored or not.
“The big games, the games of hype, players because they were young probably made them too big,” general manager George McPhee said. “It’s better to just follow your normal routine and play, and I think we’ve learned the last couple of weeks if we just go out and play, we’ll be fine. That may be something that the young guys have learned that are now in their mid-20s.”