- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Jakub Vrana remembers watching the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins square off in the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He saw it not in person, but on TV, as he was in the midst of the Calder Cup Playoffs with Washington’s AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears.

“It was great hockey, very fast. Both very good teams,” Vrana recalled. “They went to the Game 7, and by a couple of inches, by a little bit maybe, (Pittsburgh) moved to the next round. We gotta make sure this series it’s gonna be us. It’s what we want to do.”

Vrana’s “they” became a “we” in the middle of that anecdote because the rookie forward has now played a full season with the big-league club. New faces like Vrana, Chandler Stephenson and Michal Kempny are off to strong starts in their first NHL postseasons with the Capitals, but the time has come for their first taste of the biggest modern rivalry in playoff hockey.

“We’ve got guys stepping up in the last round that are new faces with this team,” five-year veteran Tom Wilson said. “For them, it’s their first crack at it. It’s probably half and half. Half of the team is used to playing the Penguins and half, it’s going to be their first time.”

Wilson was not far off. Of the 18 skaters projected to be active Thursday for Game 1 at Capital One Arena, seven did not play in last year’s matchup.

Of all the newcomers, Stephenson is hottest entering the second round. He tallied four points over the final two games of the first-round Columbus series, including a breakaway goal that created a three-goal cushion for Washington in the final period of Game 6.

Paired with top defenseman John Carlson, Kempny has been solid since the Capitals traded for him from Chicago in March. Kempny appeared in one playoff game for the Blackhawks in 2017, but this is his first extended ice time in the postseason. Against Columbus, he totaled eight hits, 10 blocks and an assist.

This will also be Devante Smith-Pelly’s first taste of the playoff edition of Capitals-Penguins, but he had playoff experience with the Ducks and Canadiens before coming to Washington. But not all playoff teams are built the same. Smith-Pelly spoke about the resilience the Capitals‘ veterans displayed when they were down two games to none to the Blue Jackets.

“It’s something that on other teams, I haven’t really walked into a room and been down two-nothing and felt that we were for sure winning the next two,” Smith-Pelly said. “This team’s got a confidence, a little bit of swagger, that the older guys and the leaders are preparing and just rubbing off on everyone.”

Stephenson, 24, agreed the Capitals‘ veterans are leading by example in preparation for Pittsburgh.

“Just their actions say it all,” he said. “They don’t need to really say a whole lot for the young guys to know how important it is and to see how they prepare and things like that.”

When players are skating in their first Stanley Cup Playoffs, “everybody handles it differently,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.

“I thought a couple of guys handled it very well. One or two guys had to build into it a little bit, and they did and then they had good series,” Trotz said. “The more experience you have, the more you’re apt to just settle in and be more relaxed.”

As far as players who had to settle in, Trotz might have been speaking about Vrana, 22, who was a healthy scratch for Game 2 even after pulling off a highlight-reel assist in Game 1. He re-joined the top 12 forwards after Andre Burakovsky was hurt in Game 2 and has skated on Jay Beagle’s line since.

Vrana said preparing for the Pittsburgh series feels different.

“We have little meetings and preparation is a little different than regular season. It’s playoffs,” he said. “It’s important, so I’m just getting ready day by day and focusing on what is gonna happen tomorrow.”

Trotz, though, does not think his club’s newest players are doing anything differently to ready themselves for this round.

“I think they probably feel no different than the first day of school,” Trotz said. “The first day, you were apprehensive and all that, but now you’ve gone a couple weeks or whatever and things started to become normal. I think they’re a lot more relaxed in their game.”

Just as Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson are not hitting the ice for the Capitals this time around, the Penguins are not identical to squads of years past, either. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in last year’s expansion draft, and winger Chris Kunitz, center Nick Bonino and defenseman Trevor Daley were among Pittsburgh’s most impactful players to leave in free agency.

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