Past Stanley Cup playoff failures not haunting Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin

ARLINGTON, Va. -- On a door leading to the Washington Capitals' player changing area, a sign bears the title, "What Do I Fear?" It lists seven things.

Stagnation and lack of progress.

Being forgotten.

Giving up and being passed by.

And so on.

At the very bottom of the sign: I love my fear.

Alex Ovechkin walks past that sign before and after every practice. Does he truly embrace fear? Does he fear being forgotten? Does he fear a lack of progress?

One of the endearing qualities of 31-year-old superstar winger is that he does not sidestep the issue of how past failures dog the Capitals even as they celebrate their third Presidents' Trophy of the Ovechkin era. He's putting those fears to good use.

"You just don't want to repeat those moments," Ovechkin said Tuesday while preparing for Thursday night's Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against the underdog Toronto Maple Leafs. "It's hard; [those are] tough moments because you lose.

"If you win, you remember this for a long time. When you lose, you try to forget about it right away, but that experience goes on. You have to learn from that, and you have to remember what you did wrong in certain situations."

A year ago, Barry Trotz's second as Capitals head coach, they looked as though they had finally arranged all of the pieces: coaching, scoring, experience, goaltending.

But because they had so little to play for down the stretch, they never found that level of urgency that all champions require. After lurching through a first-round victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, they fell to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.

"We were exhausted," Ovechkin recalled. "Everybody was in the mood, like, 'Jesus, season is over, and we didn't get success.' We didn't get what we wanted to get. Obviously, it's frustrating. Just a brutal feeling."

So many moments over the years could have changed this narrative.

They're part of the complex feelings that exist about the amiable captain from Moscow and his talented teams: respect for his immense skills and accomplishments, but skepticism that he and this team will ever realize their potential -- even as the Caps enter this postseason as the most complete team in the league.

"There are still quite a few guys that don't believe Washington can do it," one longtime scout said. "They question their top dogs' past playoff performances."

The scout believes that this version of the Caps is the deepest and strongest. He also has no qualms about Ovechkin's recent playoff efforts -- No. 88 has 82 points in 84 playoff games -- but thinks there is a limit to Ovechkin's impact.

"Ovi was good last year, but he doesn't make his teammates better," the scout said. "He either scores or doesn't."

It's been a curious season for Ovechkin, who hit the 1,000-point milestone but saw his goals total drop to 33 after scoring 50 seven times in his career. His 313 shots were the second lowest of his career. His average ice time of 18:22 was more than two minutes lower than his career average, although his ice time slowly increased down the stretch.

According to Elias, his 558 goals are the second most among players who have never have played in a conference finals or Stanley Cup finals.

"Ovi is still a threat, but time is slowly catching up," said another veteran scout and former player.

Ovechkin was Zen during a careerlong 10-game goal drought last month, saying no one needed him to score in March. And he's Zen now, heading into the playoffs.

"All I worry about is just a win," Ovechkin said. "I don't care about what my numbers are. We won the Presidents' Trophy again, two in a row. I don't have to score 50 goals this year to get success teamwise. I'm pretty happy with that."

He's right. If the Caps win their first Stanley Cup this spring, the 33 goals will be a footnote, an afterthought.

If they don't?

That's a whole other story. Lack of progress. Being passed by.

Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen is typically blunt when asked about the past and its role with this team's future.

"Until we do something better, that's the narrative," Niskanen said.

If there is a subtle difference about Ovechkin and this team coming into the playoffs, it's in their swagger. Both the captain and his teammates were noticeably more engaged in their final regular-season games.

It's not that Ovechkin fears the playoffs for what might happen, what misfortune his team might face, but rather that he fears he and his teammates won't be ready for the playoffs.

You work hard for 82 games and sometimes you build a lead like last season, and when you get there, you find out that other teams are already in that playoff mode, Ovechkin said. You can't wait until the playoffs to be that kind of team, he added.

So, down the stretch, the Capitals flexed those playoff muscles as though to reaffirm to themselves that they had learned their lesson.

"I think right now my body feels much better this year," Ovechkin said. "And my mindset -- it's totally different, [a] totally different year. Mentally, all those things, they're different."

Former NHLer and longtime Capitals analyst Alan May said that for the first time, this team has all of the necessary components needed to break its Stanley Cup drought.

"This year they made sure the fire was burning at the right time," May said.

And the captain was holding the match.

"When they had about 12 games left, he had to reset his focus," May said of Ovechkin. "The puck started coming to him more. He started getting 10 to 16 shot attempts a game."

Niskanen paused when asked whether there was any concern in the Caps' dressing room about Ovechkin's diminished goal production. Then he said, "No," drawn out over two or three syllables, before adding a caveat.

"We're going to need him to play well. We need everybody to play well," Niskanen said. "And it's not just scoring. I think you saw the effect he can have on games in our last 10 days or so. He started forechecking. His feet were going, laying the body on people. He had an effect on the game, and he had the puck a lot more because of it."

No shame, then, in feeling fear at this time of year. It's the stuff of champions to embrace those fears, to put them to good use.

Does Alex Ovechkin love his fear? We're about to find out.