The navy blue hats had a large “XVI” stitched onto the front, the Roman numeral signifying the 16 victories it will take the Washington Capitals to win the Stanley Cup. The matching long-sleeve shirts had the phrase “Entitled to nothing” screen-printed on the back, arcing around a red-and-white skull.
Playoff time has arrived.
“It’s the best time of the year,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “The weather’s better. You’ve got the top down on your car coming to the rink. It’s a fun time to be a hockey player.”
After finishing the 82-game regular season on Sunday and a day off on Monday, the Capitals reconvened for practice on Tuesday morning under a significantly brighter spotlight than they have faced all season.
Nearly two dozen reporters, a handful of whom represented national organizations, and a cluster of local television outlets were in attendance to watch a team that clinched a playoff appearance on March 22 and the Presidents’ Trophy a week later.
They will face the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, marking their first playoff matchup with one of their top rivals since 2008.
“The guys [are] excited,” left wing Alex Ovechkin said. “We’re all excited. You know, the last couple weeks was a time when it goes slow and you just knew you were there and you knew you were going to get the seed and you just wait to see who was your opponent in the playoffs.”
It’s the eighth playoff appearance in the last nine years for the Capitals, whose success during the regular season has been unequaled during that run. At 56-18-8, their 120 points in the standings were just one shy of their record from 2009-10, the only other time they had the NHL’s best record, but they won two more games this season and were 11 points better than the Dallas Stars, the top seed in the Western Conference.
“None of it matters,” center Jay Beagle said. “It’s a completely new season. You know, we have home-ice advantage. That would be the only thing that you take away from the regular season now, but you definitely can’t go into it thinking that you’re the top team or that you’re entitled to something. You’ve got to go into it ready to work for everything because it’s a four-game series now.”
The Capitals and Flyers split the season series, each winning two games, though Philadelphia won in overtime and in a shootout. The last meeting, in Philadelphia on March 30, was the Flyers’ ninth win in their previous 13 games.
Despite Washington’s recent playoff run, it has not advanced past the second round of the playoffs since 1998, when it was swept in the Stanley Cup Final in four games by the Detroit Red Wings.
Questions about playoff failures returned last season, when the Capitals were back in the postseason after a one-year absence. Players insisted then that the previous struggles were irrelevant — and are primed to make the same claims this year.
“All the other stuff is kind of white noise now,” Chimera said. “You’ve got to go and you’ve got to play the games.”