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Stanley Cup Carry Over: Capitals feel they have what it takes to repeat as champs

A summer of celebrations didn’t result in a hangover for the Capitals – quite the opposite, in fact, as the defending champions believe they’re in prime position to win it all again.

On his day with the Stanley Cup last July, T.J. Oshie made sure he got full value. The Capitals winger visited multiple hockey hotbeds in Minnesota via private jet, SUV and antique convertible. He celebrated and took pictures with hundreds of youth hockey players, former high-school classmates, close friends and family. Stanley Cup keg stands and chants of “Back to back!” went deep into the night at a Minneapolis nightclub. “I remember I handed the Cup back right at midnight,” Oshie said. “And I remember thinking, ‘How could you ever go back to losing in the second round after doing this?’ ”

Nine months later, Oshie and his teammates don’t care to find out. As the reigning Cup champs begin their title defense in earnest this spring, the Capitals are on a mission to join the 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins as the only teams to repeat in the past 20 years. “We know what it takes,” said Alex Ovechkin, last year’s playoff MVP. “We know what it feels like, and now we just want to feel that again.”

While the Capitals are seeking that same feeling at the end of the post-season, there is a different feeling, they say, heading into the playoffs compared to years past. For the first time in the Ovechkin era, the Caps can draw on their own post-season success instead of wondering if that elusive deep run will ever come. “It feels different,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “Just mentally we’re tougher. We’ve been through a lot, we’ve been through tough playoff losses where we learned hard lessons and then we got better last year and had a ton of success. We’ve kind of figured out a few things mentally, and we look forward to carrying that with us going into this spring.”

Back in the post-season for the 10th time in 11 years, springtime hockey is hardly foreign in Washington. But entering the playoffs with a target on their backs – as opposed to the proverbial monkey – may take getting used to. These aren’t your older brother’s Washington Capitals. “Instead of thinking about all the disappointments from the previous years, I’d say we’re pretty confident,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “It’s different because we’ve done it.”

For years it seemed losing in the second round – and often in excruciating fashion – was a rite of spring in Washington. Six times from 2009 through 2017, the Capitals were on the cusp of the conference final. Six times, they fell short. “There were always those questions here,” Oshie said. “Is there a curse? Will Ovie ever win the Cup? Can they ever get past the second round? That was one thing nobody ever knew for sure. I actually wasn’t too sure myself until last year.”

The doubts of years past have been replaced by a healthy swagger that emerged last spring, survived an epic summer of celebrations and stuck around for much of the regular season. “It’s not a good feeling when you can’t get through a situation for so many years,” said Brett Connolly. “But when you finally do and you finally get that belief that you can conquer that, it’s so important for confidence and for your own belief that you can get it done at the right time of year.”

That confidence comes not only from the Cup triumph itself but from the manner in which it was achieved. Besides fighting the injury bug last spring, the Capitals became just the second Cup champion to overcome a series deficit in all four rounds. The stretch began with a 2-0 hole in the first round against Columbus and also saw Washington avoid elimination twice in the Eastern Conference final. “We got pushed to the brink numerous times last spring where when we needed a response or we absolutely had to have our best game, and we’d get it,” Niskanen said. “So, I think it’s just a mentality and belief we can do it. Systematically, there are a few things we can do to turn the tide in our favor, and we’ve learned how to do that when we need to. It’s a good quality to have.”

Rather than suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover this year, Washington spent much of the season in its familiar perch atop the Metropolitan Division. A case could be made that the Caps have actually experienced a Stanley Cup carryover as they continue to reap the benefits from last year’s run with a nearly identical roster. “There’s really no situation we haven’t gone through,” said coach Todd Reirden. “We’re hardened to some situations.”

Added Lars Eller: “It’s a battle-tested group. We’re likely going to face some serious adversity, but knowing we could fight through that adversity like we did last year, it gives you a deeper confidence as a team. And that helps when the core is really the same, too.”

Trade-deadline acquisition Carl Hagelin is among the few fresh faces in Washington, but Hagelin also has a championship pedigree. The former Penguin is the only Capitals player who has firsthand experience as a back-to-back Cup champ. “You’ve got to use that swagger to win games,” he said. “But if you lose a game, you’ve got to use your experience to come out flying the next game. If you do that, the other team will be on their heels a little bit. It reminds them, ‘Oh, these are the champs, these guys have won it before. They know what it takes.’ So, yes, you have a target, but on the other hand, if you handle that the right way, and you set the tone, or respond after a setback, it can create doubt in the opposition.”

Then there’s Ovechkin, who a year after silencing his remaining critics has picked up where he left off last spring with one of his best seasons. On the verge of his eighth career 50-goal campaign (and a record eighth career goal-scoring title), Ovechkin is hardly satisfied with one Stanley Cup win. “It’s not just me,” he said. “It’s everybody on this team. Once you do that kind of thing, we know what we have to do, so why not do it again?”

Reirden knows his captain is game. “Right from the first day of camp, and even when he showed up early for camp, he’s been ready to go,” Reirden said. “He liked what he tasted last year at the end of the year, and he wants to get back to how awesome that was. It was something he worked hard for and that he worked at for years. Sometimes until you achieve that, you don’t know how special it is, and I think it’s been a driving force for him.”

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