PITTSBURGH — After the glorious sighs of relief, the locker-room cheers and the occasional curse word, the Washington Capitals packed their equipment into bags, the start of a process for which the franchise has been waiting 20 years: preparing for the Eastern Conference finals.
“As a group, we wanted to give our city more, but more doesn’t mean a conference final. More is a Stanley Cup,” goaltender Braden Holtby said.
“The goal isn’t to get past the second round,” center Jay Beagle said. “The goal is the Stanley Cup. That’s always been the goal since we’ve been here. It’s a great feeling. Obviously, we’ll enjoy it. But we’re halfway there. Now we have a big job ahead of us here with Tampa.”
Washington’s turning point this season came in a late November game against the Lightning. The Capitals were reeling around Thanksgiving, usually the time of year the postseason field begins to crystallize. They faced a challenging back-to-back set of games against Tampa Bay and then Toronto, two of the league’s best teams this season. They won both to spark a dominant stretch, 11 wins in 13 games. The Lightning finished as the Eastern Conference’s best team, and Washington hasn’t played Tampa Bay since some marquee trade-deadline additions strengthened an already-deep roster.
The Lightning acquired defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller in a blockbuster deal with the New York Rangers that bolstered a superstar core with captain Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, who scored 39 goals and 61 assists to finish third in the NHL in scoring. Young forwards Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde also finished with more than 60 points. Defenseman Victor Hedman is a finalist for the Norris Trophy after he scored 17 goals with 46 assists in 77 games. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had eight shutouts and 44 wins this season, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. After Tampa Bay missed the postseason a year ago, the team won its first two series in five games while scoring 3.50 goals per game and allowing just 2.50.
“They’re a good team,” Holtby said. “There’s a lot of good teams in the league right now. You’re not going to have any easy matchup. The next couple days you take to come up with a game plan against them, do your research. It’s really just going to come down to us executing the same way we did.”
Washington’s lineup will benefit from the return of forward Tom Wilson after he served a three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese. Wilson is expected to slot back into his top-line right wing role beside Alex Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Left wing Andre Burakovsky has been skating on his own the past week, but it’s unclear how close he is to playing again after he needed surgery for an “upper-body” injury that’s caused him to miss 10 playoff games. Center Nicklas Backstrom didn’t play in Monday’s series-clinching Game 6, and he was seen arriving to PPG Paints Arena with a wrap around his right hand. He blocked a shot with that hand in Game 5, and while Coach Barry Trotz said Backstrom tried to play Monday night, his status for the conference final is questionable. The team said he’s “day-to-day.”
“I’m just going to digest this right now,” Trotz said when asked about Backstrom on Monday night. “I’m probably going to have a cold one, or two.”
Beagle said the Capitals would take the night to celebrate. Kuznetsov, who scored the overtime game-winning goal, thought he might have trouble sleeping after the game. When Washington advanced to the second round with a Game-6 win in Columbus, Ovechkin immediately expressed his excitement about playing the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins. “I can’t wait,” he said.
He echoed the same sentiment as he stood in front of his locker room stall Monday night, minutes after the most significant win of his career. He was smiling with joy over the moment. He was already thinking ahead.
“I cannot wait to go in the next game and get ready for Tampa,” Ovechkin said.
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