As the Washington Capitals prepare for the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with Game 1 Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, the coffee should taste a little sweeter than normal this time of year in the Capitals locker room.
The music should sound a little more upbeat.
The air should be a little lighter.
Skates a little looser and pads a bit stronger.
Their sticks should feel like … well, like they have goals to score, lots of them.
It’s a different April for the Washington Capitals. They are the defending Stanley Cup champions, and no matter how many clichés are trotted out about last year was last year, this is a new postseason and whatever they accomplished last season doesn’t matter anymore, no one is really buying that.
These Capitals recognize that they possess knowledge and experience that no other Capitals team in the 45-year history of the franchise has had. With that championship experience and knowledge comes faith.
“It has to feel different,” Brooks Orpik said. “I don’t care what you tell yourself. You have to recognize what we did last year. But I think as a group we did a really good job of enjoying what we did last year. I think everyone was really good about turning the page and moving on. This is a completely different year. But it’s impossible to put what we did last year out of your mind.”
Thanks to general manager Brian MacLellan, much of the team that won a Stanley Cup last June is intact, though there are important differences — the most dramatic being the coach in charge, Todd Reirden. Reirden replaced Barry Trotz when owner Ted Leonsis wouldn’t pay Trotz what a championship coach is worth.
But Reirden was here for some of the early-exit postseason pain. He joined the Capitals as an assistant coach in 2014. He knows how bitter the coffee used to taste, how heavy the air was, how tight the skates felt, before the weight was lifted with Washington’s Game 5 win over the Vegas Golden Knights to finally capture that elusive title.
So Reirden was asked point-blank what his team learned about winning last year.
“That one I could talk for a long time,” he said. “Sometimes until you actually taste the result, you don’t know whether it’s worth it or not. You hear about it a lot and you’re kind of wavering. Even as someone who’s been in that situation and won in the past, you try to share those experiences and it doesn’t really…they hear you, players hear you, other coaches hear you, but it doesn’t totally translate until you’ve actually gone through it and realized that every bit of sacrifice, every bit of pain that you went through, every bit of the adversity … It’s so worth it and then some. And I think that’s the opportunity that we were able to gain last year was knowing now how great it does taste and that should drive us through difficult times this year.”
They know now that, when they are down 2-0 in a series, or facing an old demon like the Pittsburgh Penguins, their go-to move doesn’t have to be to tighten up.
“I don’t want to call it answers, but we’ve been through a lot more on that run than we ever had before,” John Carlson said. “Knowing that nothing is going to be perfect or always go as you wish … But just respond. I think that’s a big thing. Just respond. And I think our team has done a good job with that.”
It’s certainly different for Braden Holtby. Last year at this time he was the backup goaltender, as Trotz named his hotter goalie, Philipp Grubauer, to start the first round series against Columbus. After going down 2-0, Trotz put Holtby back in net, and the veteran helped carry the Capitals to their Stanley Cup victory, punctuated by his miraculous stick save in the final minutes of Game 2 of their final series against Vegas, saving Washington’s 3-2 win and evening the series at one game apiece.
“Our situation has changed,” Holtby said. “The end goal is still the same internally, but externally there is a lot less pressure that can affect the team. That’s why teams who have won before have found a way to have success again. I’m not saying it’s ever going to be easy. We just have a new level of experience with that type of thing and we just have to try to do the best with it.”
Knowing how to win and winning are, of course, two different things. The randomness of the Stanley Cup playoffs can render all that knowledge into a distant memory. But this time — for the first time — the Washington Capitals go into the playoffs knowing that the postseason ghosts that have haunted them for years have been busted.
⦁ You can hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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