x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Washington Capitals relish a change of role for NHL play-offs

As No 7 seeds in Eastern Conference they start their challenge at the Boston Bruins.

Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals face the Boston Bruins in the first round of the NHL play-offs.
Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals face the Boston Bruins in the first round of the NHL play-offs.

Given how they have played as a favourite, maybe it is for the best that the Washington Capitals are an underdog for a change in the NHL.

The Capitals have been to the play-offs four times in the Alex Ovechkin era, and each time they were eliminated by a lower seed.

Their 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 successive year of post-season, but this time they just scraped in as a No 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. They open tomorrow night with Game 1 against the Boston Bruins, the second seeds and defending Stanley Cup champions.

It will be the first time Washington have started the play-offs on the road since 2003.

"It's nice. I like that feeling of being the underdog," Karl Alzner, the defenceman, 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 were 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 play-offs was taken for granted. And so, perhaps, was winning.

"It's a different feeling this year," the defenceman 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 Braden Holtby senses the difference, despite his limited time with the club. The goaltender has spent most of the last two seasons in the minors, but he is 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 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," Holtby said. "This year, they were exposed. It's a good thing, and it's especially going to benefit us."

The Capitals dismissed Bruce Boudreau as their coach in November and replaced him with Dale Hunter, whose defensive-minded approach mirrors the more traditional play-off style. Green and the centre Nicklas Backstrom missed most of the season with injuries, but both have returned to give Washington a healthy roster at every position except goalie.

Ovechkin's production was dormant far too often this season, but the two-time league MVP has nine goals in his last 11 games.

"I don't think somebody can say who's favourite and who's not," Ovechkin said. "It's the play-offs, and you know, the last couple of years everybody thought, like, we're going to be undefeated and it's going be easy for us in the play-off, 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 are still infants when it comes to play-off 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 - favoured or not.

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