Every offseason, general managers who sign or acquire a Stanley Cup champion boast about adding a winner to their lineup.
A championship pedigree is a valuable thing. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said as much when he signed three-time Cup champion Justin Williams in 2015. He said the same after signing two-time Cup champ Mike Richards in 2016. Former Caps coach Barry Trotz used to say that champions brought “street credibility” into the room.
If that’s the case, consider the current Capitals a credible bunch. They don’t have to shop for winners anymore.
“We have a team full of them,” MacLellan said this week as the Capitals prepared to defend their title in earnest with the start of the 2019 postseason. The Capitals host the upstart Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of their first-round series tonight.
“We’re more prepared mentally and emotionally to handle stuff than we’ve ever been,” MacLellan said. “Having success in those critical moments, I think, gives everybody a little confidence that they can handle it.”
As much as the Capitals want to focus on what’s ahead, there’s no denying they can look back to last year’s run as both fuel to do it again and a reminder of what it takes.
“How could you ever go back to losing in the second round after that?” T.J. Oshie recently asked. “There was a lot of pain, a lot of sacrifices, a lot of guys putting their body in front of some pretty heavy shots or taking hits to make plays to get that end result — that joy for the rest of the summer. We’ve got to remember what it took in the first place.”
In the days leading up to their first-round series, the Capitals were asked plenty about being the hunted as opposed to the hunters. It’s a role reversal for these Capitals who finally replaced the proverbial monkey on their back with a target. But the defending champs are embracing it. There’s a healthy swagger and a quiet confidence as they look to replicate last year’s success.
“That experience is something no one can take from us,” said coach Todd Reirden.
En route to their Cup triumph last June, the Capitals overcame a series deficit in all four rounds. They also fought the injury bug, won an NHL-record 10 postseason road games, and twice avoided elimination.
“It’s a very battle-tested group,” center Lars Eller said. “We’re likely going to face some serious adversity in the playoffs, but knowing we could fight through that adversity like we did last year, it gives you a deeper confidence.”
Trade deadline acquisition Carl Hagelin won back-to-back titles with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017 and says the Capitals can take advantage of their status against the inexperienced Hurricanes.
“You’ve got to use that swagger to win games,” he said. “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. It reminds them, ‘Oh, these are the champs.’ ”
While the Capitals are seeking a second straight title, the Hurricanes are back in the playoffs for first time since 2009. With the exception of Williams, now the Hurricanes’ captain, much of Carolina’s core is getting their first taste of playoff hockey.
The six defensemen the Hurricanes are expected to dress for Game 1 have 38 games combined of playoff experience. The Capitals have three defensemen with at least 100 games each — Brooks Orpik (149), Matt Niskanen (118) and John Carlson (100). Twelve Hurricanes are expected to make their playoff debuts in this series.
“Sometimes until you actually taste the result, you don’t know whether it’s worth it or not,” Reirden said. “That’s the opportunity we were able to gain last year — knowing now how great it does taste and that should drive us through difficult times this year.”