We already know there has never been a Washington Capitals’ spring like last spring. Something about raising a chalice and a parade down Constitution Avenue and a party on the Mall. Less obvious, though, is that means there has never been a Washington Capitals’ spring like the one to come. Out are the tired but necessary questions: “You think you can, but how do you know?” In are the newer versions: “You know you can, but will you?”
Think about what would be written in this space in every year before this one. It took mental gymnastics just to come up with a new way to frame the same story, which would either amount to, “Here’s why it could be different,” or, “Don’t get your hopes up; it will always be the same.” Bracing for disappointment became a spring ritual. Curling into the fetal position and questioning why sports matter — whether the emotional investment was worth it — was the norm.
Now the Capitals possess a quality they previously had only speculated about. Where there used to be doubt, now there is confidence. Not only confidence, actually, but hard-earned confidence, the brand backed up by real-life experience. The Caps’ Stanley Cup playoff run begins Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes. It may be long. It may be short. But the feelings that precede it are unprecedented around here.
“There’s just a belief,” said forward T.J. Oshie, among this generation of Caps who had never ventured beyond the second round of the playoffs before 2018. “There’s a reassurance in here that we have what it takes to get it done.”
Oshie said that not yesterday or last week but a month ago. That matters. It shows the feeling that hung over this entire season. It was there when the Caps were winning seven straight games in November. It was there when the Caps were losing seven straight in January.
Because they did get it done. Now, that says nothing about whether they will do it again. But suddenly they’re not the fragile favorites or the doomed never-wills. They’re actually more likely to be viewed as a dangerous, tough out. Yes, that’s because they have Alex Ovechkin’s goal-scoring and Braden Holtby’s goaltending and experienced team defense and a sound, disciplined structure. But it’s also because of something not easily X’d-and-O’d.
“Throughout the playoffs, there’s going to be certain times and moments where you’re going to have some downs,” said Carl Hagelin, a newcomer. “I think if you’ve been through it before, you know that there’s always something positive to come out of it. I think if you haven’t won before, maybe you keep digging yourself deeper and deeper. That’s the most important part of winning before and having that experience — that you can keep that swagger and keep going.”
Hagelin wasn’t with the Capitals last spring, but he knows their pre-Cup-winning iteration from the other side. In both 2016 and 2017, Hagelin was a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins teams that bounced the Caps from the playoffs, first in six games and then in seven, en route to Cups of their own.
Losses such as those left the entire organization doubled over at the waist, unable to breathe. They not only fit perfectly with the Caps’ tortured past, but they impacted the seasons that followed. Those memories, even with a Cup between then and now, surface easily.
“The way it ended the year before, just with everything that’s gone on with this organization in the playoffs before that, even training camp had a weird feel to it,” forward Brett Connolly remembered about the beginning of the 2017-18 season. “You could tell guys were bitter. There’s no question. It was hard, for sure.”
Now such thoughts aren’t as painful to review. They seem part of the process, necessary even, viewed differently in retrospect than they were in the moment.
The path back to the Stanley Cup finals will be difficult. Carolina, which the Capitals swept this season, should be beatable. But beyond that lies either traditional nemesis Pittsburgh or the surprising New York Islanders, coached by the man who led the Caps to the Cup, Barry Trotz. Survive that, and the reward is most likely a date with Tampa Bay, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning juggernaut that racked up more points than any NHL team since 1996.
That could seem daunting. Now it might be something to relish. These Caps know exactly what those Lightning are dealing with, and that’s the expectation that bulldozing your way through the regular season means you will bulldoze your way through the playoffs. That was the burden of the 2016 and ’17 Washington teams. It’s a burden these Caps are happy to leave to others.
“Last year at this time, the players and our staff were answering questions about how we were going to figure it out,” said Todd Reirden, Trotz’s former assistant who took over the head job. “For the last three weeks, those questions haven’t been coming our way. I know the players have commented on that being a nice, I’d say, relief to not answer that but also a reminder of what we went through.”
What they went through includes all the things they can draw from now: the comeback from a two-games-to-none deficit in the first round against Columbus, the vanquishing of the Penguins that previously seemed impossible, Games 6 and 7 in the Eastern Conference finals when they faced elimination but outscored the Lightning 7-0 and the four straight wins against Vegas that ended with Ovechkin hoisting the Cup.
“No one can take from us last year,” forward Tom Wilson said.
Nor can they take how it influences what’s to come. Shedding doubt and replacing it with belief guarantees nothing. But winning the Cup is an experience that wasn’t contained to spring 2018. It has an impact on these Capitals this year, on how they will respond when they’re down, on what they know is possible. What a thing.
“We’ll see how this one plays out, and we’ll deal with adversity as it comes,” Reirden said. “But I can say we’re hardened to it more so than we were last year at this time.”
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