Ovechkin is merely confident that the Capitals have the talent to beat any team as long as they do the right things, and last year’s franchise-first Stanley Cup was evidence of that. As Washington looks to repeat as champion, it will start by facing a club that it has never met in the postseason. The Capitals swept the four-game regular season series against the Hurricanes, who made the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, but Carolina still presents a challenge: It was one of the hottest clubs down the stretch, accumulating the third-most points in the NHL since Jan. 1.
The Capitals host the first two games of the series at Capital One Arena. Game 1 is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
“Every year, you think you can pick which opponent you want to play or think the first round is just a given,” Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It’s not. You’ve got to play well, no matter who you’re playing.”
Washington played Carolina twice in three nights less than two weeks ago, and while forward Brett Connolly said those two Capitals wins give the team “maybe a little” extra confidence, players also understand that regular season results tend to have little bearing on what happens in the playoffs. These Hurricanes have a captain the Capitals are well acquainted with: forward Justin Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup champion who played in Washington from 2015 to 2017. Rod Brind’Amour is the first-year coach of the group, and Carolina has taken on the identity he had as a player, sporting a hard-working, hard-to-play-against, grind-it-out style.
“They’re a really good team, extremely improved, play with a ton of speed, great [defense] corps in terms of mobile guys, depth scoring and then their goaltenders have been outstanding for them,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “If you look at their team from the all-star break on or even earlier than that, they were one of the best teams in the league, so we know we’ve got to be on top of our game, and it’s going to be a real challenge.”
One area in which Carolina gave Washington some trouble was special teams. The Capitals were awarded just three power-play opportunities in their two most recent games against the Hurricanes, but Carolina’s eighth-ranked penalty kill expertly handled Washington’s man-advantage. On the season, the Capitals’ power play scored 20.8 percent of the time, but finished the season in a slump, posting just two goals in 18 tries over the final eight games. In the teams’ first meeting of the season Dec. 14, the Hurricanes scored three man-advantage goals on six power plays, but Carolina didn’t convert on a five-on-four power play in its three other games against Washington. The Capitals’ shorthanded unit has been much improved since the team added forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen before the trade deadline.
The Hurricanes’ turnaround was sparked by an offseason trade with Calgary for offensive-minded defenseman Dougie Hamilton and edgy forward Micheal Ferland. Carolina then infused its lineup with more skill with the in-season addition of forward Nino Niederreiter, who had 14 goals and 16 assists in 36 games with the Hurricanes. But the Hurricanes’ biggest offensive threat will be center Sebastian Aho, who led the team in scoring with a career-high 30 goals and 53 assists.
Aho closed the season with no goals and six assists in his final 14 games, but he has had a knack for coming up with big games against the Capitals. For his career, the 21-year-old Finn has eight goals and nine assists in 12 games against Washington. The Capitals managed to limit him to one point in their two games against the Hurricanes last month by countering Aho’s speed and skill with center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s. Expect the Capitals again to look to play Kuznetsov’s line, likely with wingers Tom Wilson and Ovechkin, against Aho’s, especially in the first two games of the series, when Washington has more control over the matchups with the last line change on home ice.
“It’s an exciting time of year,” Wilson said. “We’re just looking forward to getting back to that time of year, playoffs, and ever since it ended last year and we started this season, you can’t wait for this time of year, so it doesn’t matter who it is really. You just look forward to it, and you go out there and try to get the job done every game.”