Washington Capitals' Stanley Cup title defense begins this week with first-round Eastern Conference playoff matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes.
As a two-time champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins, those erstwhile tormentors of his new teammates, winger Carl Hagelin enjoyed a seamless social transition when he was traded from Los Angeles to the Washington Capitals on Feb. 21. “They like that I’ve won it before, so they can talk about Stanley Cup stories,” Hagelin says. “If I hadn’t, it might be a little awkward.”
Fortunately for Hagelin, the Capitals locker room is ringed with … well … rings. Aside from defenseman Nick Jensen and fourth-line center Nic Dowd, both playoff rookies, the defending champs are returning their entire lineup from last spring’s run. A tremendous weight was lifted from Washington then, in no small part thanks to its cleansing second-round triumph over Hagelin and Pittsburgh. But players can’t afford to spend much more time reveling. The title defense begins Thursday night in D.C. against the Hurricanes, those Thor-hammering, duck-hunting, basketball-dunking upstarts with just enough pluck to make it a series.
Of course, all roads in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket invariably lead to Tampa, where the juggernaut Lightning matched the ‘95-96 Red Wings for the NHL record with 62 wins. “You look at some of the shows, we’re barely getting mentioned,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan told SI.com in a telephone interview. “I think we seem to be comfortable in that spot. Last year I was probably a little more sensitive about it, but you win and not getting picked to win it again, I guess it’s fine. As long as we’re playing well, is the main thing.”
No major issues there. A four-game winning streak in late March, including two against Carolina, helped the Capitals secure a fourth straight divisional title and eclipse 100 points for the fifth consecutive season. Alex Ovechkin bashed 50 goals for the eighth time, moving into rarified territory shared only by Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky; six other players hit 20 goals, tops in the league; and goalie Braden Holtby has rounded into form faster than he did last year, when former backup Philipp Grubauer was tabbed to start Game 1 of the opening round.
“I do think there’s another level that we can get to, both as individual players and as a group,” MacLellan said. “It’s the intensity level. When we turn it up, we’re a really good team. When we’ve got everybody playing a competitive game, and we’re in sync, we’re a hard team to beat.”
These convictions are couched for a reason. Heading into their league-mandated bye week—and later the All-Star break—the Capitals dropped seven straight, their longest losing streak since ‘13-14. “It’s probably not the most professional answer,” defenseman Brooks Orpik says, “but I think everybody had that bye week in their head like, ‘Man, let’s just get here, reset, come back and feel better.’ We were making mistakes in those games that just weren’t normal mistakes, even when guys were trying to convince themselves that they felt good.”
It is a luxury afforded to those teams that have reached the mountaintop and know exactly what climbing there takes. Orpik cites the Capitals’ first-round win against Columbus last year: An overtime crossbar away from facing a 3-0 series deficit, they instead rallied to clinch in six games and never looked back. “The confidence of the group was just as strong as it was when we started the series,” says Orpik, “whereas in previous years it would’ve been panic mode.”
Today the Capitals looked similarly wired for the long haul. Wingers Brett Connolly, Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson all recorded their first career 20-goal seasons, pleasant surprises that have added another layer of offensive depth. Jensen has replaced Michal Kempny (torn hamstring) as the latest deadline acquisition to skate alongside defenseman John Carlson, while Hagelin’s speed has bolstered their penalty kill and brought four-line versatility at even strength. And any lingering concerns that MacLellan might’ve had about rookie head coach Todd Reirden were answered as Washington won three of four exiting the All-Star break.
“I think that was his biggest challenge, how to get us back on track,” MacLellan says of Reirden, who previously spent four seasons as an assistant on Barry Trotz’s bench. “You’re taking over a championship team that went through a phase, looked like they were worn out a bit. He did a good job, knowing when to push, when to back off, how to get the team re-engaged.”
Then there is the captain. At 33 years old, Ovechkin led the NHL in goals (51), averaged his most ice time (20:55) since ‘10-11, and matched his assist total (38) from last season. “You just keep waiting for that one year where he slows down a lot,” Orpik says. “Obviously hasn’t happened yet.” It was all enough to spark a discussion about whether Ovechkin (658) could challenge Gretzky’s all-time goals mark (894). “It’d be fun to see him try,” MacLellan says with a chuckle. “Chasing that record is going to be hard. But you watch him continue to evolve and do more things playmaking-wise—going to the net, setting screens, getting some tip goals, getting some rebound goals—that it’s not totally out of reach.”
For now, the Capitals have more pressing tasks to address. Back in the playoffs for the first time in a decade, the Hurricanes are led by captain Justin Williams, ex-Washington winger and presiding Chief Jerk of Carolina. “I think we all know what to expect out of him,” Orpik says. “Playing cards, playing golf, it didn’t matter. If he’s going to play, he’s going to do anything he can to make sure he wins. Doesn’t matter what the stakes are.” Like his former team, Williams is well-versed in Stanley Cup stories, having won twice in Los Angeles and once with the Canes. Just don’t expect any reminiscing once Game 1 gets underway. That would be a little awkward.