Soon after winning the Stanley Cup in June, Devante Smith-Pelly met teammates Brett Connolly and Tom Wilson for a summer skate in Toronto.
“We all opened our [hockey] bags for the first time and they all still smelled like champagne,” Smith-Pelly recently recalled. “They were all sticky from the champagne. My shoulder pads were still wet.”
The odor brought him back to Las Vegas and the night of June 7, when the Capitals were crowned Stanley Cup champions.
“I’ll always remember the champagne showers that we did in the [dressing] room,” he said, “the hour we spent in the room, destroying it, really.”
The Capitals visit the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday, their first trip to T-Mobile Arena since that epic evening.
The Capitals return to the Strip with lasting memories, as well as a healthy swagger from last year’s postseason run. Rather than suffering from the proverbial Stanley Cup hangover, the Capitals (15-8-3) recently moved atop the Metropolitan Division thanks to a seven-game winning streak that ended Sunday.
If anything, a case can be made that the Capitals are experiencing a Stanley Cup carryover, as they reap the benefits of winning four rounds last spring.
“I think there’s really no situation we haven’t gone through,” coach Todd Reirden said. “Now that we went through what we did last year as a group, we’re hardened to some situations.”
When the Capitals won the Cup last spring, they acknowledged that they had handled adversity better than in years past. Among the challenges was winning with a shorthanded lineup. When the Capitals eliminated Pittsburgh in Round 2, Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky were injured and Wilson was suspended.
It’s an experience the Capitals say they have relied on this season. The recent seven-game winning streak was played entirely without veterans T.J. Oshie and Brooks Orpik. Evgeny Kuznetsov missed the first six games.
“Guys jumping into the lineup and helping out is nothing new,” Smith-Pelly said. “We’ve done it at the highest stage, so we weren’t too worried if guys could step up.”
Last year’s playoff MVP, Alex Ovechkin, also has picked up where he left off. Ovechkin, 33, is averaging 1.23 points per game — his highest total since 2009-10 — while continuing to play a 200-foot game the way he did last spring.
“This for me is the best two-way hockey I’ve seen him play in the regular season,” Reirden said.
The 2018-19 Capitals say they believe they still haven’t hit their stride. Thanks to injuries and suspension, they’ve yet to play a game with their optimal lineup. Still, they’ve shown themselves to be a resilient bunch. Five times during their seven-game winning streak, the Capitals rallied from behind. Twice they overcame multi-goal deficits.
“It feels different,” Matt Niskanen said. “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, we’d get it. So I think it’s just a mentality and belief that we can do it.”