BOSTON — The Capitals have heard all about the potential pitfalls for the defending Stanley Cup champions: a slow start to the season, fatigue from such a long playoff run and greater injury risk because of a short summer to both recover and train. Defenseman Brooks Orpik, the only Washington player who’d actually won a championship before this past one, would advise his teammates to largely ignore those warnings.
“You hear a lot of people trying to tell you that you should feel a lot more tired than you actually are, so I think if you let that creep in, you can trick yourself into feeling it,” said Orpik, who also won the Cup in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Capitals opened their preseason schedule Sunday afternoon in Boston, just three days into the on-ice portion of training camp. Washington traveled just five players who played in the Stanley Cup finals series against the Vegas Golden Knights, and half of the Bruins’ roster was in China for an exhibition series against Calgary. The Capitals lost in a shootout, 2-1, with winger Brett Connolly scoring Washington’s lone goal. Pheonix Copley, who has the inside track to be Washington’s backup goaltender this season, played the first 32:05 of the game and had a good showing with 21 saves on 22 shots, including several point-blank chances.
Training camp and preseason action is a harsh comedown after hoisting the Stanley Cup on the ice just three months ago, but the Capitals are already wary of the traps into which past defending champions have fallen as they begin their bid to repeat.
“It’s no secret that that sometimes happens — you go from playing on the biggest stage, you play the biggest game in your life and then you have an offseason and then it’s Game 1 again,” forward Tom Wilson said. “We’re all human, that’s normal. But I think with our group, no matter what, whether it’s the last game of the Stanley Cup, or Game 1, we love to win. That’s what separates us. We’ve had that mentality the last couple of years, super fun group. I’m expecting us to get out there and pick up where we left off.”
After winning back-to-back titles, the Penguins struggled during the first half of last season and were one point out of the playoff picture through 41 games. They recovered with a strong second half, but the postseason isn’t always a given for the defending Stanley Cup champion. The Los Angeles Kings won in 2014 and then missed the playoffs the next year. Pittsburgh’s recent repeat made them the first team to pull off that feat in 20 years. Part of the difficulty is that opponents will use games against the reigning Cup-winner as a sort of measuring stick.
“I was thinking to myself a couple weeks ago that we’ve got to realize that everything is going to be tougher to start and all the games are going to be tougher against us,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We better play our best hockey to start, that’s reality. But at the same time you feel like a whole season, 82-game season, you have your ups and downs. But it’s always important to have a good start so you don’t fall back too far behind.”
Orpik returned to Washington for informal skates ahead of training camp on Labor Day and was “pleasantly surprised” that so many of his teammates were already back and in “pretty good” conditioning. “I thought coming off this summer that everybody would be coming in kind of last second, but guys got genuinely excited to get back it,” he said.
“For me, it’s the exact same [as any other season],” Orpik continued. “If you treat it any different, then I think you get exposed a little bit. If you treat it differently, you probably don’t start on time, and if you do that, you dig yourself a hole. In the past there’s been really good teams that just had a bad start and then they’re playing catch up all year, and it’s really tough to make up that ground. That’s something that’ll be crucial for us.”
Though the Capitals are returning all but two players from their Stanley Cup finals lineup and the systems are expected to stay largely the same under new Coach Todd Reirden, Orpik said the attention to detail within that team structure was emphasized in day one of training camp video sessions. Washington wants to start the season playing very much the same way it ended the last one.
“I’m not going to speak for everyone, but my feeling is we set a new standard for how we play,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “And so 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. We’ll just keep playing the way we play and we’ll go from there. You don’t know how things are going to start, you don’t know what lulls are going to be — if you’re going to start hot, if you’re not. We’ll just roll with the punches and make adjustments and go from there.”
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