By Stephen Whyno
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are going gray gracefully with an eye on winning the big silver trophy one more time.
More than three years removed from hoisting the Stanley Cup, the Capitals are once again of the NHL’s oldest teams. Players think that’s a good thing, with the bulk of the championship core still around and their sights set on extending their playoff streak to seven.
“We have a group of guys who’s been (here) long enough to understand how to win and what it mean to win,” Ovechkin said. “Core group of guys who’s been long enough together, it’s important for this organization. If you see all those teams who won the Cup, they have those core group of guys who has been like five, six, seven years together and they add some pieces and it helps them to win the Cup.”
The Capitals exited the playoffs in the first round each of the past three seasons, with injuries playing a role especially last year. They’re likely to be without top center Nicklas Backstrom for at least the start of the regular season because of a hip injury, and the health of this aging roster will likely determine how far Washington can go.
Ovechkin is 36, T.J. Oshie will turn 35 and Backstrom 34 this season. They’re going into their second year under veteran coach Peter Laviolette, and the Capitals insist the fire to win remains.
“I think at the end of the year when you’re out, how badly does it hurt?” center Lars Eller said. “It still hurts really, really badly or it’s just whatever. But it hurts for weeks. It still hurts. And as long as you really, really hate losing, the hunger to win is there.”
A five-game loss to Boston last spring did not push general manager Brian MacLellan to make major changes. He traded defenseman Brenden Dillon and let Zdeno Chara depart and reacquired Vitek Vanecek after the young goaltender was taken in the Seattle expansion draft to run it back with Ilya Samsonov in net.
Washington is relying on continuity to be a strength.
“If you want to see what the formula for what success is, you don’t have to look very far,” winger Tom Wilson said. “You just look across the room and you have some pretty good role models, so it’s a really exciting group.”
After a tumultuous past two years that included a suspension for inappropriate conduct, a virus protocol violation and two stints on the NHL COVID-19 list, the Capitals are counting on center Evgeny Kuznetsov to bounce back in a big way. After being their leading scorer during the Cup run with 32 points in 24 games, Kuznetsov had just 29 in 41 games last season and none in the playoffs.
“It was one of the years you want to forget but at the same time you want to remember,” Kuznetsov said. “Physically I am in very good shape right now, and you can judge my game right now.”
Laviolette said he and Kuznetsov have had some honest conversations and expects the best from the 29-year-old.
“He looks extremely fit and healthy and ready to play,” Laviolette said. “Based on the conversations I’ve had with him, his mind is in a really good spot, and we’ll be counting on him. He’s really going to get an opportunity to take hold and show what he can do.”
Vanecek and Samsonov make up Washington’s goalie tandem for the second year in a row. There’s no cap space to bring in a veteran like the Capitals tried to do with Henrik Lundqvist and wound up doing with Craig Anderson, so they’re hoping Vanecek and Samsonov prove to be reliable in their second go-’round together.
“I look for our goalies to move to the next level here,” MacLellan said. “I think that’s an important part of our success this year: Can they both improve, how fast do they improve and what level can they get to this year?”
After a point-a-game season at 33, Backstrom spent much of the summer rehabbing his left hip, which he had surgery on in 2015. Depth down the middle with Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Eller was a major reason the Capitals won the Cup, and now it will be tested as long as the consistent Swede is out.
“I think we are prepared to be without Nick for a little bit,” Eller said. “I’d love to have him and we’ll be better when he does come back. But until then, I’ll be happy to try to keep his seat warm and fill his shoes. I look forward to that challenge. I like those challenges.”