ARLINGTON, Va. - The patches of white in Alex Ovechkin's black hair are growing more pronounced.
He turned 28 this month, he is the captain of the Washington Capitals, and while the Russian wing is coming off a third NHL MVP trophy, what he does not have at this point is much in the way of playoff success.
"Of course it's hard (to) realize you're getting older. And, of course, you always want to be 24, 23 years old," Ovechkin said. "But it's impossible. So you just move on."
Eventually embracing the shift from left to right wing at the behest of rookie coach Adam Oates, Ovechkin led the Capitals into the post-season for the sixth consecutive time last spring. What also happened to Ovechkin and Washington for the sixth consecutive time: a first- or second-round exit.
"You can't say, like, 'We're going to win the Stanley Cup. Of course, we would love to win the Stanley Cup. ... We're going to try to do it," Ovechkin said. "But we just have to play every game like it's (our) last game."
Very little has changed about the roster in the four-plus months since a 5-0 home loss in Game 7 of Washington's first-round series against the New York Rangers. Ask around the organization about what the expectations or aims should be for the Capitals during the 2013-14 season and, not surprisingly, the responses will vary.
Owner Ted Leonsis just hopes his team doesn't take for granted that it will reach the playoffs.
General manager George McPhee said: "The objective always is to make the playoffs to give yourself a chance. And we'd love to go deep, and we'd love to win a cup."
And forward Brooks Laich made quite clear his feeling that no one associated with the club should be satisfied by merely making it deeper into the playoffs than the Capitals have in the recent past.
"We're not looking to just get through the second round. If we do that and we go home ... after the third round, we're not going home and patting ourselves on the back," Laich said. "The expectation within that locker room is to win the Stanley Cup."
The Capitals open at the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 1.
Here are five things to keep an eye on with the Capitals this season:
OATES IN CHARGE: Ovechkin and Oates—who visited his star in Russia this off-season—have developed a stronger bond than the guy known as Alexander the Great had with previous coaches Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter. "Last year, before (Boudreau) got fired, I think we lost connection," Ovechkin said. "With Hunter, I didn't talk at all, and everybody knows it. With Oatsie, everything is good."
SLOW START: The Capitals began last season 2-8-1 while adjusting to Oates' changes. While Leonsis cautioned, "We can't afford to get off to a start like we did last year," goalie Braden Holtby can't imagine it could. "It's nice to not have to go to the rink and learn a new thing every day," Holtby said.
Defence AND PENALTY KILL: Led by forwards such as Ovechkin (32 goals, 24 assists) and Nicklas Backstrom (40 assists), and high-scoring defenceman Mike Green (12 goals, 14 assists), the Capitals tied for fourth in the 30-team NHL with 3.04 goals per game and topped the league with a power play that scored 26.8 per cent of the time. But there are concerns at the other end of the ice: Washington ranked in the bottom half of the league in goals allowed and were all the way down at 27th on the penalty kill, with only a 77.9 per cent success rate.
LAICH'S HEALTH: Laich missed all but nine games last season because of a groin injury, and if he can stay healthy, he can have an impact that goes beyond how many times the 30-year-old forward puts the puck in the net. "He plays in every situation," Oates said. "I really like his ability to lead the team north. ... Brooksie's got those skills and the rest of the club follows and it's great to have guys like that."
NOT-AS-YOUNG GUNS: Back when the Capitals emerged from years of rebuilding, Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green were marketed with the slogan "Young Guns." Well, as Leonsis said, "Our young players now have grown up. They know what it takes." Green turns 28 in October, and Backstrom will be 26 in November, and there are questions how long the core can be kept together if a deep playoff run never comes.
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