Tom Wilson figured that Capitals fans might find his thoughts cringeworthy. So, before sharing them, the top-line winger hesitated. “I don’t know why I’m saying this,” he began, “but you respect a team like Pittsburgh.”
Like a Wilson fist to the noggin, sometimes the truth hurts. “When you see a team repeat like that,” said Wilson, before pausing, “it’s so hard to win, let alone to do it twice. It’s a huge achievement. That’s one that we’re ready for.”
The Capitals begin their title defense with a nearly identical lineup as the one that won the Stanley Cup in June. Eighteen of the 20 Caps players in uniform in Game 5 of the Cup final are back, with fourth-line center Jay Beagle and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer the lone exceptions. While much of the roster has returned to D.C., the constant reminders of past playoff disappointments have not. “I think the organization feels a little bit different,” said GM Brian MacLellan. “There’s less tension or pressure. It doesn’t mean that we don’t want to win or repeat. It just feels different. It feels a little more relaxed.”
Besides a different vibe, the defending champs also face new questions. Chief among them: can they avoid the proverbial Stanley Cup hangover? Insert joke here for a team that hardly shied away from celebratory soda pops and mastered the art of the Stanley Cup keg stand.
Although the Capitals skate into the 2018-19 season with a healthy swagger, they know better than to assume smooth sailing in the months ahead. There’s a reason the 2016 and ’17 Penguins are the only team in the past 20 years to repeat as champions. “At some point, it’s going to be hard,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “I don’t know when it’s going to come, but I’m guessing based on past teams that have won, we’re going to hit a tough portion of the season.”
The Capitals have hockey’s version of a first-world problem. They won a championship, had a short off-season and must now fight early-season complacency while getting every opponent’s best game. Thirty other NHL teams would sign up for this. “Every team is going to try to beat us,” said Alex Ovechkin. “But, for us, we just have to try to win every game, especially at the beginning of the year. Because if you don’t win those games, in the end you’re probably going to miss a couple points and you’re going to go, ‘Oh, Jesus, why did we have a bad start?’ ”
First-year coach Todd Reirden has been proactive in dealing with a potential hangover. During the off-season, he reached out to championship-winning coaches from different sports in search of advice. Reirden was cautioned that some champions who struggled the next season had eased into training camp. “They ended up chasing it from the beginning of the year,” he said.
That’s why Reirden emailed his players over the summer and told them to be ready to hit the ground running at camp. The challenge, Reirden has been told, is to know when to ease up once the season starts. “You have to set the level of work that’s needed, but you have to be cognizant that your team went all the way to June and put in the work for a long time,” said former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, now an assistant in Detroit.
Bylsma led Pittsburgh to the 2009 Stanley Cup and watched his team win nine of its first 10 games the following season. By New Year’s Day, the Penguins were in the midst of losing five straight and seven of nine. “Our guys just hit a wall,” he said. “They got to December and they ran out of steam. They didn’t have any energy. They were a group of walking zombies. So, you may have to pull back a little bit and keep a close temperature of your team somewhere around that time frame where you might anticipate your team going low-energy or not having it.”
Bylsma and Reirden were college teammates at Bowling Green in the early 1990s and later coached together in the AHL and Pittsburgh. Bylsma also told Reirden to keep his team focused on the season ahead. “The difficult thing is you get reminded everywhere you go that you’re the Stanley Cup champions and that the champs are in town,” Bylsma said. “You have to try to shed that. It’s a thing of the past. It’s not a tour.”
Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, who also won the Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009, is the only two-time champ in Washington. He agrees that drowning out the noise can limit the perceived challenges. “You can’t let people outside the situation talk you into being more tired than you actually are,” he said. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s a long season, you should be tired, you should be fatigued,’ and if you let people convince you that you’re tired, then you’re going to feel tired.”
Orpik said one advantage the Caps have over other past champions is that the team returned healthy from their shortened summer. There were no surgeries or lingering injuries that required lengthy rehab. The Capitals are also confident that with so few changes to the roster, they can always draw back on how they performed late last season. “We set a new standard for how we play,” said winger T.J. Oshie. “Whether it’s Game 1, Game 82 or we’re into the playoffs, I feel like our standard is set and if we drop below that I don’t think we’re going to be happy with ourselves.”
Talk of a hangover will only grow with a slow start, but the Capitals won’t necessarily panic. Washington began last season with a modest 11-10-1 mark before finishing 38-16-6. We all know how that turned out.
Another driving force for the team, unlike in years past, is that they finally know what it feels like to be on top. As evidenced by their celebrations, they seemed to enjoy it. “When you taste it, you want it more and more,” Ovechkin said. “I think you can see lots of guys still have memories of what they did with the Cup and how awesome it was when the whole town was just going nuts. It’s something special, you know. You don’t want to stop it, and you just want to continue to do it.”
BOSTON BRUINS: How much longer can Zdeno Chara be the workhorse? Since joining the Bruins in 2006-07, Chara has led the team in time on ice per game every year. But with Chara in his 40s and Charlie McAvoy coming on, changing of the guard may come as soon as this season.
BUFFALO SABRES: After years of misery, can the Sabres finally break through and seriously compete for a playoff spot? There is a lot of youth, but Jack Eichel is maturing into a bona fide star, and he finally has a supporting cast around him. If Buffalo isn’t in the hunt in March, it’d be a serious setback.
CAROLINA HURRICANES: Do they have the centers to compete? Goaltending is also a work in progress, but if the Canes don’t get stronger performances down the middle, they’re toast. Jordan Staal is a shutdown guy and Sebastian Aho is a No. 2 at best. Rookie Martin Necas has potential but is unproven.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: How many Russian stars will Columbus have after the trade deadline? Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are both set to be UFAs in July and neither is close to signing an extension. With the Jackets primed for a long playoff run, trades would be risky. Do the Jackets stand pat?
DETROIT RED WINGS: What will life look like without Henrik Zetterberg? The Red Wings lost their on- and off-ice leader when Zetterberg retired due to back problems. His offense will be missed, and it vaults Dylan Larkin into a No. 1 spot at center he may or may not be ready to fill.
FLORIDA PANTHERS: Can Roberto Luongo stay healthy? The team would like Luongo to play 50 games, but that would be 15 more than he played last year when he was terrific. The Panthers do have a capable backup in James Reimer. They’ll need solid play from both to capitalize on the young talent.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: Can Max Domi be the No. 1 center the Canadiens have lacked for a long time? They are hoping Domi will mesh with Jonathan Drouin on his wing. The pre-season would have been a good test, given how sparingly Domi has played in the middle in the NHL, but he got suspended.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Who is the starting goaltender? The simple answer is $6 million Cory Schneider, but he wasn’t his usual self last year and the Devils got into the playoffs thanks to backup Keith Kinkaid. Schneider has four years left on his contract, while Kinkaid is a UFA this summer.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Can Mat Barzal avoid a sophomore slump? The Islanders offense now runs through second-year center Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy on the strength of 85 points. He still has weapons to play with (Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee), but now Barzal will face all the tough matchups.
NEW YORK RANGERS: Are the kids ready? GM Jeff Gorton has done a great job of retooling through the draft, and now it’s time for the first wave of those picks to get busy. Centers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil both looked good at the Traverse City prospects tournament, but that wasn’t against NHLers.
OTTAWA SENATORS: WTF? Seriously, that’s the biggest question. Sixteen months after they were an OT goal away from the Cup final, the Sens are in complete disarray. They are primed for a last-overall finish, but that wouldn’t help them since they traded their 2019 first-round pick last season.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Will goaltending doom the Flyers again? It feels like they are just waiting for Carter Hart to be NHL-ready, and maybe he gets a chance this year, but the incumbents are Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, neither of whom have shown enough consistency for this otherwise solid club.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Will depth finally undermine the Penguins? They still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, so they’ll always be fine, but if the Pens want to get back on top, the rest of the guys will have to be good. Phil Kessel returns on wing, but Jake Guentzel needs to produce in the regular season.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Can the Lightning get over the hump? They’ve teased with their dizzying array of talent at all positions but have made a habit of stalling at crucial times in the playoffs. Last spring in the East final against the Caps, they failed to score in Games 6 and 7 after leading the series 3-2.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: Is the defense good enough? The Leafs are downright scary offensively, but the team did nothing to bolster its much-maligned blueline. So any improvement will have to come from within. One or two of the youngsters need to step up to take the pressure off veteran Ron Hainsey.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: What can coach Todd Reirden do in Year 1? A defensive expert, Reirden is tasked with taking the champions through the challenge of being a target. Luckily, he’s already familiar with practically everyone in the room – but being the big boss always brings a different dynamic.
This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.