It was a novel kind of curiosity. Entering their first postseason with the designation of defending champions, the same Washington Capitals who had died dozens of excruciating playoff deaths returned to this tension chamber with their newfound dignity and stature, and you needed an identity check.
How would they respond? Who are they now? How does the Stanley Cup change a team, especially one that chased and chased the pinnacle for years with a penchant for making playoff life as hard as possible? Would the breakthrough free them to play loose and show dominance more easily? Or would they revert to their herky-jerky, live-on-the-edge ways?
In typical Capitals fashion, the answers proved inconclusive Thursday night at Capital One Arena. They opened their bid to win back-to-back championships with an amazing eight-minute burst during the first period and nearly lost a three-goal lead to the Carolina Hurricanes in the third. When the emotional somersault ended, they prevailed, 4-2, exhaling only after Lars Eller guided the puck into an empty net with 36.6 seconds remaining.
The song “Eye of the Tiger” blared through the speakers in appreciation of Eller and his nickname. The sellout crowd released nearly 20 minutes of anxiety as the home team survived two third-period goals by Andrei Svechnikov. For about two-thirds of Game 1, the Capitals made a statement. And then they received a reminder that, no matter how powerful a championship carry-over can be, it can carry them only so far.
“I think that’s a good lesson to learn,” said John Carlson, who had three assists.
In the first period, the vibe felt like June 2018 again. The Capitals won their first championship June 7 last year. It might as well have been June 8 rather than 10 months later. The party atmosphere was back, and so was the well-oiled, determined team.
At 7:31 p.m., the video board showed highlights of Washington winning it all and then flashed to footage of the parade and of the red-clad players roaming the Earth with the Stanley Cup. It was so moving that even stone-faced observers must have been at conflict over whether to cry, laugh, howl or make their lips curve upward into a wide U shape. And this was merely the appetizer of an uplifting start.
At the beginning, the heavier and more powerful Capitals introduced Carolina to playoff physicality. Brooks Orpik, the strapping Washington defenseman, nailed Svechnikov with a big hit. Tom Wilson checked Jordan Staal. Carolina stood its ground and delivered its blows early, too, but the speedy Hurricanes aren’t going to win a brawl.
The Hurricanes are a motley, scrappy crew of mostly young and fast players employing an analytics-driven style. They’re clever, a little unorthodox and fun. They specialize in creating opportunities in which the puck loiters in the vicinity of the goal, but they’re a couple of skilled players shy of taking full advantage of their aggressive style. They resemble the person at the club who dances near the apple of their eye but fails to engage enough to receive full attention. They know how to threaten, but they haven’t graduated to a consistent threat.
Still, they’re always lurking.
“They’re not going to give us anything,” Carlson said. “It doesn’t matter what the score is. They’re not just going to concede. The more we can stay aggressive, I’d say, is key.”
The Capitals, of course, are eminently dangerous. It took them 9½ minutes to generate their first shot on goal. But on their second shot, center Nicklas Backstrom scored the game’s first goal 9:58 into the game. He zipped a wrist shot from the high slot over Petr Mrazek’s glove. It was a deflating first goal — a play that Mrazek has to make — for the Hurricanes to allow. In their first playoff game in 10 years, they were already trailing, and the arena was rocking, and it was about to get much worse for Carolina.
Three minutes later, during a power play, Backstrom scored again, off a wonderful assist from Evgeny Kuznetsov. The pregame chants of “Back to back!” had become a double entendre, with Backstrom opening this playoff run with the first two goals. About five minutes later, Alex Ovechkin drilled a shot off a rebound through the net to give Washington a 3-0 lead. It was another power-play goal for the Capitals, who struggled to capitalize on those opportunities late in the season. Penalty kills had been a strength for Carolina, but the Hurricanes awakened the defending champs.
Then again, after winning the Cup despite losing three out of four Game 1s last year, perhaps experience and triumph have taken the Capitals to another level. It’s too soon to know for certain; in winning this uneven game, Washington simply accomplished the requirement of defending home ice. Game 2 will provide a more definitive answer of whether Washington has learned to dominate an early playoff series. But in the unpredictable Stanley Cup playoffs, it means much to maintain order. While the Capitals know they can fight through anything now, they should relish playing from ahead for as long as they can. This time, they won’t have to climb out of an 0-2 hole in the first round.
“We got to have a better start,” Backstrom said before Game 1. “That wasn’t as good a start as we wanted last year [against Columbus]. If we can get off to better start, I feel like right away I think that’s going to help us.”
Later, Backstrom said: “I feel like we’ve been waiting for this since last year. Let the fun things begin.”
Fun things, huh? These games used to be the stressful things that follow incredible regular seasons. Win a title, and the 82-game schedule feels longer than ever. It makes the playoffs more of a relief, not an overbearing stressor.
It’s time to play, for real. No more pacing for the postseason. No more periods of diminished focus. For the most part, the intensity was there. And then the Capitals had to survive a barrage. The Hurricanes were credited with 29 shots to the Capitals’ 18. Carolina goes for it. Washington is more selective but potent. Even with a new coach guiding the team through the postseason for the first time, the Capitals will stick to their championship identity. They know they must play better offensively at even strength, however.
“We’ve seen what it takes to have success,” Wilson said. “And we won’t stray away from that.”
New playoffs, new reputation, same challenge: outlast the drama. It wouldn’t be the playoffs if the excitement and tension weren’t at odds. At least now the Capitals know what settles them.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.