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Capitals playoff preview: After midseason turnaround, team ready to defend Stanley Cup

April 7, 2019

Nobody who played or coached in Saturday’s season finale fessed up to scoreboard-watching, but there must have been murmurs. Brett Connolly said he heard things were lining up to create a Washington-Pittsburgh first-round series for a moment there. He might have communicated with some of his teammates who were healthy scratches, resting up for the NHL’s second season coming around the corner.

With the regular season now behind them, the time has come for the Washington Capitals to truly begin their title defense, 10 months after lifting the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.

The Capitals finished the regular season with the fourth-best record in hockey (48-26-8) and their fourth straight Metropolitan Division title. They drew not the Penguins but the Carolina Hurricanes, the No. 1 wild card out of the Eastern Conference, in the first round.

Game 1 of the series is Thursday at 7:30 p.m., followed by Game 2 Saturday at 3, both at Capital One Arena. Then the series heads to Raleigh, North Carolina for Games 3 and 4 the following Monday and Thursday.

Washington had no way to improve its playoff standing Saturday and lost 3-0 to the Islanders to close out the season.

“I think the toughest game of the year to get through was probably tonight. That was a snooze-fest for us,” Matt Niskanen said.

Indeed, the regular season couldn’t have ended fast enough. The 82-game slate is a grind, but players agree the postseason is another kind of beast.

“It’s a hard question to answer, but I feel like it’s just a different game in the playoffs,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s just a tighter game, too. Players are more aware of mistakes than in the regular season.”

The Hurricanes (46-29-7) are powered by 30-goal scorer Sebastian Aho, former Capital Justin Williams and 19-year-old Andrei Svechnikov, last year’s No. 2 overall draft pick who tallied 20 goals as a rookie. But it is Carolina’s first playoff appearance in 10 years, and Williams is one of the only players with any postseason experience.

Washington and Carolina, both Metro Division teams, are certain to have a lot of game tape on one another. The Capitals swept the four-game season series and recently beat the Hurricanes in back-to-back games in the last week of March.

But Niskanen didn’t feel he could “take a lot of stock” in their regular season success.

“Every year, you think you can pick which opponent you want to play or think the first round is just a given. It’s not,” Niskanen said. “You’ve got to play well, no matter who you’re playing.”

Though it was another successful year for the Capitals on paper, they struggled through some inconsistent middle months. Their seven-game losing streak to enter the All-Star Break was the undisputed low point.

“Right after All-Star Break, it was just nice for everyone to re-group, refresh,” T.J. Oshie recalled. “Then we really just got back to our attention-to-detail stuff that are usually very consistent in our game. For a stretch in there we were making mental errors and it seemed like every time we did it ended up in the back of our net.”

The Capitals cleaned up those errors, especially on defense. They allowed more than 5 goals per game during the losing streak, but a return to discipline not to mention trades for Nick Jensen and Carl Hagelin that reinforced their blue line and penalty kill erased that from the picture.

“One of the big keys to our identity as a team is how well we play our systems and how disciplined we are in those systems,” Oshie said. “Obviously we’ve got a lot of guys on the team that can do some pretty fun things with the puck and find different ways to score. But defensively we ask each and every guy to play the same way. Last year we did that, and that’s something we can look back on and realize and see where a lot of our success came from.”

“Over 82-game season, I think teams have their ups and downs,” Backstrom added. “Obviously we had that too. Looking back at our season, I can barely remember that we had a seven-game losing streak. We’re in a good position now.”

Should the Capitals eliminate the Hurricanes, one of two juicy storylines awaits them in the second round: either a date with old friend Barry Trotz and the Islanders, or a second-round tango with the Penguins for what would be the fourth year running.