The last meeting between the Washington Capitals and the reigning Stanley Cup champions resulted in a wild 8-7 Pittsburgh Penguins’ win on Jan. 16. It’s a night Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner would rather forget.
“It was a bad game,” said Alzner, who was on the losing side. “It was not good for either team. Way too many chances, special teams, four-on-four, all that kind of stuff. It just wasn’t good. It was kind of a throwaway game, in my opinion.”
But glossing over mistakes isn’t in the nature of this edition of the Capitals.
Since Pittsburgh bounced Washington out of the second round of the playoffs last season, the Capitals have obsessed over the changes needed to make a deeper postseason run.
So it’s fitting the Capitals will get to find just how much better they are in Round 2 of the NHL playoffs against, once again, the Penguins.
Game 1 is Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Verizon Center.
“I wouldn’t say we were ever afraid … but sometimes you don’t recognize [a big moment] when it’s right staring you in the face,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “The old saying, sometimes you can’t see the forest because of the trees. I think we have clarity — a little more clarity.
“I think we have the resiliency to stick with those moments and fight through different moments better than we have in the past. We’ll have to continue to do that.”
The two best teams from the regular season will face each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals because of the convoluted playoff format the NHL adopted in 2013-14 that forces teams in the same division to meet sooner, regardless of record.
Capitals forward Jay Beagle said tossing the two top seeds against each other in the second round doesn’t matter.
“It’s what you want as a player: to go up against an opponent that beat you out of the playoffs last year,” Beagle said. “You can’t ask for anything else. You want to redeem yourself and you want to go after a team that got the better of us last year.”
Whether this year’s series ends differently will depend on how the Capitals adapt. Last year, the Penguins relied heavily on its third-line scoring to hoist the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh’s speed and forward depth also gave Washington fits. The Capitals, generally, had no answer and lost the series, 4-2.
Trotz said the Capitals have spent the last year trying to play with more urgency, even if the players themselves are not literally skating faster.
“Any shortcomings we had in that area, I think we’ve closed that gap and then systematically the way you play and the mindset and the execution helps you play fast,” Trotz said. “I think we’ve tried to create that all year and I think we’ve done that.”
In four regular season games, the Capitals outscored Pittsburgh 21-14.
Washington split this season’s games with Pittsburgh, winning two and losing two, both in overtime. The playoffs are obviously different, but Alzner said the Capitals can build on the regular season success.
“It’s one of those things that it’s confidence in the back of your mind, knowing we can put pucks in against them,” Alzner said. “Although we say it doesn’t matter at all come playoff time, it’s hard to completely throw the regular season out of your head.”
The Penguins are a different team than last year, too. Pittsburgh has had to overcome a slew of injuries, mainly to star defenseman Kris Letang, who played in only 41 games and had season-ending neck surgery on April 13.
But the Penguins have been sharp in the playoffs, dispatching the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games.
In its first round matchup, Washington outlasted Toronto, a team that, like Pittsburgh, relies on its speed. But players generally acknowledge the Penguins are even faster than the young Leafs.
Trotz said that Marcus Johansson’s game-winning overtime goal in Game 6 against Toronto was the best example of the way his team has grown.
Compare that to Game 6 against the Penguins last year — in which Washington was down 3-0 and lost 4-3 in overtime to end its season. The team’s mindset now, Trotz said, is different.
“In the [Toronto] overtime, we were on,” he said. “We were not going to lose that game. When you look at Game 6 in [Pittsburgh] last year, I’m not sure we had that feeling. … There’s a reason (for growth) and we’re focused.”