GROWTH CHART

Cap­i­tals to mea­sure im­prove­ment against de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY MATTHEW PARAS

The last meet­ing be­tween the Washington Cap­i­tals and the reign­ing Stan­ley Cup cham­pi­ons re­sulted in a wild 8-7 Pittsburgh Pen­guins’ win on Jan. 16. It’s a night Cap­i­tals de­fense­man Karl Alzner would rather for­get.

“It was a bad game,” said Alzner, who was on the los­ing side. “It was not good for ei­ther team. Way too many chances, special teams, four-on-four, all that kind of stuff. It just wasn’t good. It was kind of a throw­away game, in my opin­ion.”

But gloss­ing over mis­takes isn’t in the na­ture of this edi­tion of the Cap­i­tals.

Since Pittsburgh bounced Washington out of the sec­ond round of the play­offs last sea­son, the Cap­i­tals have ob­sessed over the changes needed to make a deeper post­sea­son run.

So it’s fit­ting the Cap­i­tals will get to find just how much bet­ter they are in Round 2 of the NHL play­offs against, once again, the Pen­guins.

Game 1 is Thurs­day at 7:30 p.m. at the Ver­i­zon Cen­ter.

“I wouldn’t say we were ever afraid ... but some­times you don’t rec­og­nize [a big mo­ment] when it’s right star­ing you in the face,” Cap­i­tals coach Barry Trotz said. “The old saying, some­times you can’t see the forest be­cause of the trees. I think we have clar­ity — a lit­tle more clar­ity.

“I think we have the re­siliency to stick with those mo­ments and fight through dif­fer­ent mo­ments bet­ter than we have in the past. We’ll have to con­tinue to do that.”

The two best teams from the reg­u­lar sea­son will face each other in the Eastern Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals be­cause of the con­vo­luted play­off for­mat the NHL adopted in 2013-14 that forces teams in the same divi­sion to meet sooner, re­gard­less of record.

Cap­i­tals for­ward Jay Bea­gle said toss­ing the two top seeds against each other in the sec­ond round doesn’t mat­ter.

“It’s what you want as a player: to go up against an op­po­nent that beat you out of the play­offs last year,”

Bea­gle said. “You can’t ask for any­thing else. You want to re­deem your­self and you want to go af­ter a team that got the bet­ter of us last year.”

Whether this year’s series ends dif­fer­ently will de­pend on how the Cap­i­tals adapt. Last year, the Pen­guins re­lied heav­ily on its third-line scor­ing to hoist the Stan­ley Cup. Pittsburgh’s speed and for­ward depth also gave Washington fits. The Cap­i­tals, gen­er­ally, had no an­swer and lost the series, 4-2.

Trotz said the Cap­i­tals have spent the last year try­ing to play with more ur­gency, even if the play­ers them­selves are not lit­er­ally skating faster.

“Any short­com­ings we had in that area, I think we’ve closed that gap and then sys­tem­at­i­cally the way you play and the mind­set and the ex­e­cu­tion helps you play fast,” Trotz said. “I think we’ve tried to cre­ate that all year and I think we’ve done that.”

In four reg­u­lar sea­son games, the Cap­i­tals outscored Pittsburgh 21-14.

Washington split this sea­son’s four games with Pittsburgh, winning two and los­ing two, both in over­time. The play­offs are ob­vi­ously dif­fer­ent, but Alzner said the Cap­i­tals can build on the reg­u­lar sea­son success.

“It’s one of those things that it’s con­fi­dence in the back of your mind, know­ing we can put pucks in against them,” Alzner said. “Although we say it doesn’t mat­ter at all come play­off time, it’s hard to com­pletely throw the reg­u­lar sea­son out of your head.”

The Pen­guins are a dif­fer­ent team than last year, too. Pittsburgh has had to over­come a slew of in­juries, mainly to star de­fense­man Kris Le­tang, who played in only 41 games and had sea­son-ending neck surgery on April 13.

But the Pen­guins have been sharp in the play­offs, dis­patch­ing the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets in five games.

In its first round matchup, Washington out­lasted Toronto, a team that, like Pittsburgh, re­lies on its speed. But play­ers gen­er­ally ac­knowl­edge the Pen­guins are even faster than the young Leafs.

Trotz said Mar­cus Jo­hans­son’s gamewin­ning over­time goal in Game 6 against Toronto was the best ex­am­ple of the way his team has grown.

Com­pare that to Game 6 against the Pen­guins last year — in which Washington was down 3-0 and lost 4-3 in over­time to end its sea­son. The team’s mind­set now, Trotz said, is dif­fer­ent.

“In the [Toronto] over­time, we were on,” he said. “We were not go­ing to lose that game. When you look at Game 6 in [Pittsburgh] last year, I’m not sure we had that feel­ing . ... There’s a rea­son (for growth) and we’re fo­cused.”

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