WASHINGTON — The Washington Capitals, a team breaking hearts every year in the playoffs.
Along comes Adam Oates, and they go farther than ever before in his first full season.
That was 1997-98, when the Capitals advanced to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time, when Oates the player had six goals and 11 assists in the postseason.
Washington didn’t win the title, but it was a historic run for a franchise that had become a playoff regular with the reputation for flaming out early. They had been eliminated eight times in the first round in 14 appearances over 15 years, a 7-14 series record that included only one trip to the conference finals.
It’s a new millennium, but the Capitals are again in a go-home-early playoff funk. Enter Oates again, this time as a first-time NHL coach. The recent run of futility positively glows when compared to the ’90s: Alex Ovechkin and Co. are 3-5 in playoff series since 2008, but they haven’t advanced past the second round.
“What I remember — it was my first year here,” said Oates, who was traded to the Capitals late in the 1996-97 season. “So for me, it was coming in with a clean slate. And it’s funny, because when you make trades, you come to a new team, you don’t know their history, you’re not a part of that. So it didn’t matter to us.”
Oates has the same approach as the Capitals prepare for Thursday’s Game 1 against the New York Rangers. While the sting of recent playoff defeats still resonates throughout most of the roster — last year’s Game 7 loss to the Rangers in the second round is a particularly painful memory — the coach is letting the past lie in the past.
“I ignore it,” he said. “Because I wasn’t involved in it. And every year is different.”
Different for him, but the same for most of his players — particularly in one regard. The Rangers and Capitals are meeting in the playoffs for the third year in a row, and for the fourth time in five years.
And what a history it is. In 2009, Rangers coach John Tortorella squirted water at fans and tossed a water bottle into the crowd during Game 5 in Washington and was suspended for Game 6. In 2011, then-Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau riled the New York crowd when he said that Madison Square Garden was “nothing” and that its “reputation is far better than the actual building.”
There’s was no sideshow last year, just a load of tense hockey. Games 2-7 were each decided by one goal, including a three-overtime Game 3, as the Capitals played a defense-heavy system under coach Dale Hunter.
“We felt that maybe we should have won last year,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “We’ve got a little extra fire in us this year to get the job done.”
Center Nicklas Backstrom said Saturday that the Capitals were the better team in that series. That might be bulletin board material in New York, although Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi wasn’t taking the bait on Monday.
“We’re not getting into a war of words,” Girardi said. “They’re playing really well. Like us, they had a really solid April. We expect the series to be hard-fought, with a lot of hitting.”
Those hard hits will have to wait for a bit. Both teams have a four-day layoff between their final regular season games on Saturday and the beginning of the playoff series, a longer break than either team had during the lockout-crunched season. Washington’s coaches worked all day Sunday preparing for a Tuesday start, only to be caught off guard when the NHL announced the schedule.
“Kind of odd. Originally I thought we were starting Tuesday and then you think, well, maybe Wednesday,” Capitals forward Matt Hendricks said. “But Thursday, yeah, it’s a lot of days to sit around and practice.”
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