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Washington Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup both beacon and burden

It’s unclear if the Washington Capitals intentionally scrapped one of their chief traditions from last post-season, or if it just fell by the wayside on its own. Every morning skate on the road during the playoffs a year ago began with a hot lap, one player skating around the rink before everyone else joined in. Captain Alex Ovechkin did it before Game 3 at Carolina’s PNC Arena last week, and after the Capitals lost that game, winger André Burakovsky did it the morning of Game 4.

Washington lost that night, too, so when the team returned to the Hurricanes’ barn with a 3-2 series lead before Game 6, coach Todd Reirden blew the whistle at 11:35 a.m. for the start of morning skate with no hot lap preceding it. The result was the same: a Capitals loss that has this first-round series going the distance with Game 7 at Capital One Arena Wednesday night.

Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals being extended to Game 7 by the Carolina Hurricanes contrasts their run to the Stanley Cup in 2018, when they closed out all four playoff series at the first opportunity.
Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals being extended to Game 7 by the Carolina Hurricanes contrasts their run to the Stanley Cup in 2018, when they closed out all four playoff series at the first opportunity.  (Grant Halverson / Tribune News Service)

The hot lap really started as a bit for centre Jay Beagle, who was always eager to get practices going. Beagle is no longer with the team, and it didn’t feel quite right anymore. This whole post-season has been a push-pull for Washington — how much to try to recreate the magic of last year’s Stanley Cup run vs. starting fresh with a new group. General manager Brian MacLellan purposefully retained the vast majority of the Capitals’ championship roster in the hopes that experience and chemistry would help the team’s bid to repeat.

“We’re more prepared mentally and emotionally to handle stuff than we’ve ever been,” MacLellan said before Game 1. “Having success in those critical moments, I think, gives everybody a little confidence that they can handle it. You look at teams that are always looking to add guys who have won before, we have a team full of them. That’s obviously a positive sign.”

The Capitals will lean on their title-winning pedigree for this do-or-done decider. But through six games, the differences between this year’s run and last year’s have been glaring. While Washington had to play a handful of games without forwards Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Burakovsky and Beagle due to injury or suspension, the team already has two players out for the rest of the playoffs in top-six forward T.J. Oshie (broken collarbone) and top-four defenceman Michal Kempny (torn hamstring). Center Evgeny Kuznetsov was the Capitals’ leading scorer last post-season, but he’s been largely unnoticeable this series, and the contributions have been top heavy with Ovechkin and Backstrom leading the way.

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“We wouldn’t be in this situation without them,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “They’ve been outstanding. They’ve been the consistency to our group, and that’s why they’re our leaders. In terms of play, Ovi’s right at the top right now in every area. He’s playing hard, and it’s on us to follow him now and play our best game.”

Washington closed out every series in its first opportunity in its march to the Stanley Cup, a streak that was snapped with Monday’s Game 6 loss.

“The thing we had success with last year was the situation didn’t bother us at all; we just played our game,” Holtby said. “That’s one thing that we could’ve done better in this series, and now we have a chance to keep improving on that with an opportunity to win a series. Every year’s different.”

What the Capitals went through last season bonded them, but forward Brett Connolly wondered if how often they recounted tales from the playoffs and the aftermath of winning a franchise-first championship was too much for the players new to the team this year. Center Nic Dowd and defenceman Nick Jensen, both experiencing the post-season for a first time in their NHL careers, said they didn’t mind and actually benefitted from the war stories.

“It’s good and not-so-good at the same time,” Connolly said earlier this month. “I think if I was on the receiving end of that, you kind of feel like on the outside a little bit.”

The story of this Capitals team is inextricably tied to last year’s, the defending champions who either go back-to-back or fall short of that stated goal. They showed last year that their history of repeatedly falling short of the conference final didn’t define them. Similarly, their Stanley Cup last year doesn’t grant them anything in this one. The balance is in finding a way to positively draw from the experience without leaning on it too much.

“We’ve been here before, we’ve done it before,” forward Devante Smith-Pelly said. “I think that’s everyone’s mindset. I don’t think there’s going to be nerves or anything like that. We’ve already been through all this kind of stuff. It’s just going to be prepare like it’s any other game and try and play our best.”

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