WASHINGTON – Game 5 was when it started to fall apart for the Washington Capitals last year. They came out sleepwalking and were down 2-0 before the first period was 10 minutes old, the start of another spectacular playoff collapse to add to a dubious franchise legacy.
Unable to finish off an against-the-ropes opponent, the Capitals went on to blow a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens and were eliminated after the first round of the playoffs. Settling things early is a recurrent problem in the nation's capital — Washington hasn't won a series in fewer than seven games since 1998.
"We know all too well," forward Eric Fehr said Friday, "how difficult it is to get that last win."
It's a history that permeates the locker room, even as coach and players emphasize that every year's team is different and isn't beholden to the failures of the past. Headed into Saturday's first round Game 5 against the New York Rangers — again as a top seed with a 3-1 series lead — the Capitals tread the line between wanting to forget last year's disaster and the need to learn from it.
"I don't remember nothin', I forget about it," team captain Alex Ovechkin said. "It's new year, new series, new team. I think if you're going to remember everything bad, it's going to be bad for you."
Not everyone is following the captain's lead. There are lessons that can be learned, starting with the price that's paid for overconfidence.
"I think as a group we were a little more high on ourselves than this group is," said forward Mike Knuble, who will miss his second straight game Saturday with an unspecified injury.
Coach Bruce Boudreau a year ago declared that the Capitals had "five or six passengers" in Game 5 instead of a full roster that was playing hard, so it shouldn't be hard to concoct a motivational speech this time around if he feels he needs it.
"I think the key is being ready, and if they were looking ahead last year not to look ahead this year," Boudreau said. "Hopefully it was a great lesson for us."
The Rangers, of course, are well briefed on the history. The Capitals have lost four of five best-of-seven series after leading 2-0. They've also lost three series after leading 3-1.
"You see what happened last year, and this year ... it can change so fast," New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. "The difference between teams is so small. Maybe in the past, you had a 3-1 lead, it usually meant the team was a lot better. I don't think that's the case anymore."
That's especially true in this series. Two games have gone to overtime, and the only one not decided by one goal was Washington's 2-0 win in Game 2. There has yet to be a goal scored in the first period.
Not to mention that the Rangers survived do-or-die mode in the final days of the regular season, when everything broke the right way to let them squeeze into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
"The team has shown when its back is up against the wall that if we want to accomplish something, we're able to do it," forward Brandon Dubinsky said. "I know we're a good enough hockey team to beat these guys."
The Capitals obviously want to end the series as soon as possible, not only to keep the doubts from creeping in but also to get some rest before the next series. One solution would be to generate more goals without sacrificing the new commitment to defense that helped turn around the season in December.
"We have to think of playing defense, but we also have to think about playing solid offense and creating opportunities and having our 'D' join the rush and things like that," forward Jason Arnott said. "If we do that much better and play in our own zone better, we should be all right."