- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2018

Brooks Orpik and T.J. Oshie sat next to each other on the team plane as the Capitals’ 2-1 victory Monday over the Pittsburgh Penguins was still setting in. For once, they could take a moment to relax. The two teammates didn’t have to worry about the possibility of another Game 7 at home.

Instead, they could appreciate the road it took to make it past the second round.

Even Orpik, who won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009, knew how tough the journey had been.

“It was funny,” Orpik said. “T.J. said, he wasn’t going to hold that against them, but he’s like ‘These damn young guys, they just walk right into this and they probably think this is going to happen every single year.’”

In the aftermath of having finally conquered the Penguins, the Capitals owned up to what they didn’t want to acknowledge in previous years: the second-round exits, the pressure of being a No. 1 seed had been draining on them.

During the Alex Ovechkin era alone, the Capitals were 0-6 in the second round — four of those coming with a painful Game 7 loss. As a franchise — not to mention the District as a whole — the 20-year conference final drought had been well publicized.

But all of that’s gone.

The Capitals will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday in Game 1 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, at 8 p.m.

“Last series was a big step for our group,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We should be proud of that. It’s a big achievement. But I think we’ve got to be greedy. We’ve got to want more because this is a heck of a run.”

The Capitals will open a series on the road for the first time since 2015. So far, the task of playing away from Capital One Arena hasn’t been daunting for the Capitals — with Washington 5-1 on the road during this postseason.

Washington, for the most part, has been disciplined on the road — being extra aware of matchups since they don’t have the last change. Washington’s Game 6 win in Pittsburgh, without three of its top six forwards, demonstrated how they’re able to stick to a detailed, but aggressive game-plan.

This run, however, was hardly expected.

These Capitals are less talented. They had five rookies in the lineup for Game 6. They lost six key players in the offseason: Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik, Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk. Salary cap issues forced them to replace them with rookies or guys on minimum-level deals.

Forward Brett Connolly, though, said there’s less pressure, less “outside noise” to bother the Capitals this time around.

“It’s tough sometimes when you’re expected to win, and that’s it,” Connolly said. “Especially when you load up and trade for a guy like Shattenkirk and this city is expecting a winner and sometimes it falls short with how close the playoffs are. … We’ve flown under the radar a little bit and had a lot of fun with that role.”

If there’s a team this postseason that resembles last year’s Capitals, it’s the Lightning — going all in at the trade deadline to acquire forward J.T. Miller and defenseman Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers. Tampa is deep across four lines, and has plenty of star power with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

Unlike the Capitals, the Lightning have been here before. They made the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015, and have made the conference finals in three of the last four years.

The Capitals, on the other hand, are in uncharted territory.

Tampa will be the only franchise among the teams in the NHL’s final four that has won a Stanley Cup. Even then, they haven’t won it since 2004, before the league’s salary-cap era.

“I just think the same old story sometimes can get old,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “Once in a while a new chapter is written, and it’ll be good. This year there will be a new chapter.”

The Capitals hope to write the ending.


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