Capitals seem poised to finally succeed in the postseason

Capitals seem poised to finally succeed in the postseason
Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner (27) celebrates his goal with teammates Nicklas Backstrom (19) and Matt Niskanen (2) during the second period of a game against the Boston Bruins. (Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)

The Washington Capitals have been here before, a powerhouse with the NHL's top regular-season record and big playoff ambitions. Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau didn't need to be reminded; he coached them to 54 victories and 121 points in 2009-10, but the Capitals extended their epic book of postseason heartbreak by squandering a 3-1 series lead over No. 8 Montreal, being repeatedly stymied by acrobatic goaltender Jaroslav Halak.

"We were a bunch of young kids coming in there just playing every night, not realizing how hard it is to win," Boudreau said. "Then when we finally got into a position where the goalie was really, really good, we couldn't handle it.


"I think these guys have learned from their mistakes in those years and I think they're much better."

Asked about that 2009-10 team before the Capitals faced the Ducks on Monday, Boudreau noted many of those promising kids have matured into standouts. But even with the experience gained by defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner, and the polish acquired by center Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals, who fired Boudreau in November 2011, haven't gotten past the second round of the playoffs.

That could change this spring. In acquiring T.J. Oshie from St. Louis, the Capitals gained a productive top-line winger who can consistently play with prolific Alex Ovechkin. And in signing free-agent right wing Justin Williams, they gained balance and a bounty of intangible qualities, maybe enough for them to finally live up to their regular-season ranking.

Williams, who won the Stanley Cup twice with the Kings and once with Carolina, earned the nickname "Mr. Game 7" for his 7-0 record in Game 7s and 14 points in those crucibles. When the Kings didn't re-sign him — although they've made long-term commitments to less-skilled and more replaceable forwards such as Jordan Nolan and Kyle Clifford — Washington grabbed him.

"To bring that type of experience to a group in Washington who has high aspirations of getting to that point and who has maybe struggled a little bit in the playoffs, he can bring that calming mind-set to a team because he's been there before and he knows what they have to do," said Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler, who saw Williams record a goal and an assist in Game 7 of the Ducks' second-round loss to the Kings in 2014.

"I thought it was a great pickup for them. Come playoff time he'll be a guy that can help them out a lot."

He already has. Coach Barry Trotz called Williams "fantastic" in a variety of roles and said Williams "gave us a lot of street cred with our players." Trotz added, "You could tell he's won before. He doesn't get too flustered and he knows the moments of the game that are important, and that's important for our franchise and players who are coming up."

It's not just young guys who benefit.

"He's such a good dressing-room guy, a character guy who works hard every day, that veteran presence that when he speaks, you listen," forward Jay Beagle said. "He brings a lot of experience to the room."

Goalie Braden Holtby, a strong most-valuable-player candidate, praised Williams' subtle leadership.

"Every game he shows up to play. He plays hard, which you don't always see in veteran guys like that, especially guys that have won before," Holtby said. "The regular season is kind of go-through-the-motions sometimes. But not him. He comes in and he's battling every single battle on the ice. He's preparing before the game. That's what wins you games in the playoffs, that consistency as second nature, and he has that."

Williams, who has 19 goals and 45 points in 66 games after getting an assist in a 2-1 shootout victory over the Ducks on Monday, is too modest to take credit for the prosperity enjoyed by the Capitals, who will face the Kings on Wednesday at Staples Center. But he's doing his part to change the culture of a team known for postseason underachievement.

"From what everyone tells me it's a different vibe," he said. "Most of the other Capital teams just tried to outscore everyone else. This team can win a bunch of ways. We can win a tight-checking affair, we can win a wide-open one if we need to.

"All the ingredients are there. It's just a matter of putting it together and coming together at the right time."

With Williams' history of clutch scoring, that time could be soon.

Jonathan Drouin is back in the fold

Sanity prevailed Monday when the Tampa Bay Lightning lifted its suspension of Jonathan Drouin and said he will report to Syracuse of the American Hockey League for practice Tuesday.

The Lightning suspended him without pay Jan. 20 after the 20-year-old forward, who had requested a trade, chose not to play in an AHL game because he thought a move was imminent. When no deal materialized, he went home to the Montreal area to skate on his own. That did him no good, because he wasn't playing and learning.

According to the Tampa Tribune, Drouin reached out to General Manager Steve Yzerman about returning and Yzerman said Drouin could be recalled if he plays well. Yzerman still might trade him in June, but at least other teams can get a fresh look at him.

Slap shots

Scoring leader Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks has a career-best 89 points, exceeding the 87 points Dallas forward Jamie Benn had in winning the scoring title last season. ... The Heritage Classic will return Oct. 23 when the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers meet outdoors at Winnipeg's Investors Group Field.