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Caps Open Title Defense vs. Carolina

Despite two decades as division mates, there's never been much of a rivalry between the Caps and Canes, but that could change in the next two weeks

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps /

For the last 20 seasons, the Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes have been occupants of the same division. They were in the Southeast Division together beginning in 1998-99, and they've both been denizens of the Metropolitan Division since its establishment in 2013-14. But as far as developing a real rivalry, they've been two ships passing in the night.

The 2018-19 campaign marks just the third time in those 20 seasons that the Caps and the Canes both made the playoffs, and it's just the fifth time in 20 seasons that the two finished with a single-digit point differential between them in the season's final standings. 

When Carolina won the Stanley Cup in 2006, the Caps finished 42 points behind the Hurricanes in the regular season standings. When Washington won its first Presidents' Trophy in 2009-10, the Caps finished 41 points ahead of the Canes. Over the entire 20-season span, the average point differential between the two teams is 19.1 points.

On Thursday night in Washington, the Caps and the Hurricanes - who began their NHL existence as the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80 - will finally meet in the postseason for the first time. The Capitals come into the playoffs and the series as defending Stanley Cup champs for the first time in their history while Carolina is making its first foray into the postseason in a decade.

"I think it's over," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, of the team's status as defending champs. "It's a new year. What happened was great, so we're going to try to do it again."

Washington won its fourth straight Metro Division title in 2018-19, guaranteeing it a home ice advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs, as long as it can get past the upstart Hurricanes. Carolina may tend toward youth and inexperience, but anything can and does happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Last spring, the Caps won the Cup despite dropping the first two games on home ice in their opening round series with Columbus. Washington has dropped the first two games at home in two of the last four series in which it had the home ice advantage.

"I think we've got to have a better start," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "Obviously, that wasn't as good a start as we wanted, so if we can get off to a better start and play good right away, I think that's going to help us. But Carolina is a great team. They are a young and talented team, and we've got to be aware of them at all times because they're dangerous.

"So it's going to be a fun test for us, and we're ready. I feel like we've been waiting for this since last year. So let the fun things begin."

Seven years ago, the Caps were on the opposite side of this match-up. They were the lower seeded - seventh in the Eastern Conference - team that was trying to upend and upset the defending Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round, and the Caps pulled it off. Washington ousted the Bruins by winning three games in Boston, including Game 7 on Joel Ward's overtime goal.

A few core Caps remain from that series, including goaltender Backstrom and Braden Holtby, who got his first taste of Stanley Cup action in that series.

"It's not that I think Boston overlooked us then, it's just the fact that every series is hard," says Holtby. "No matter what, you've got to make sure that you're prepared and you make those little sacrifices and that full commitment in order to win.

"It's going to be the same. Nothing is ever easy in this league, especially in the playoffs. The guys that went through that will use it I'm sure as a reminder to make sure that we are ready for every moment."

After Holtby and the Caps lost Game 1 of that series by a 1-0 score in overtime in Boston, Nicklas Backstrom squared the set with an overtime game-winner in Game 2. Washington overcame a one-game suspension to Backstrom in Game 4 of that series, and all seven games were decided by a single goal. The first two and the last two contests went to overtime.

"Carolina, they're a young team building for now and the future," says Backstrom. "I feel like they have absolutely nothing to lose coming in here. But at the same time, we should have that mindset, too. We're coming off a win, but we're feeling good about ourselves, and we know we can play some good hockey. Hopefully we can use that to our advantage.

"Everything matters. But I think the most important thing is, whether you win or lose, you just move on and get ready for the next game. That's what playoff hockey is about. You might have a bad game at some point, but don't try to think about that too much. Maybe learn from it, and just move on."

Washington finished the regular season with the fourth best record in the league. Carolina tied for 10th in the circuit, but the two teams posted nearly identical records after the All-Star break in late January. The Caps went 21-9-2 over that span while the Hurricanes were a shade better at 22-9-1. Carolina's record was fourth in the league over that span, and Washington's was fifth.

During his playing days, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan won the Stanley Cup with the 1988-89 Calgary Flames. Like the Caps, the Flames won their division the following season. Washington hopes to avoid the fate of the 1989-90 Calgary team; it flamed out in the first round at the hands of Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. The Flames lost Game 1 and home, and when they fell down 3-1 in the series after taking a 12-4 drubbing in Game 4, it was all over but the handshakes. They were out in six games in the first round.

"We weren't at the level that we were the year before," MacLellan reflects. "There was a lot of shuffling of players, and it wasn't as stable. We got down to the stretch and we were still a good team, but they were still moving players around. They were unsettled on what they liked and what they didn't like. The environment here feels different. It feels stable, it feels a little bit fresher."

There will always pressure in pro sports, but that pressure can come from a variety of sources. After winning the Cup last spring, the Caps have alleviated a good deal of the outside pressure that plagued them for the previous decade. Most of the pressure now comes from within, which seems like a healthier type to deal with.

"I think it's mainly internal," says Holtby. "You get that feeling - you win it once, and you want it again. It's about proving to ourselves that we can do it again and go through it. I don't think we feel any pressure outside of that anymore, which is a big difference. You can use pressure in the right way, especially if it's internal pressure to play your best, get better and see what you can get out of yourselves. You can accomplish a lot."

"Because we won it, I think it shifts the whole mentality of it," says MacLellan of the '18-19 Caps. "There is more of a quiet confidence that you can do it, versus the pressure of not fulfilling expectations. In my mind, that kind of hung over us every year, because you get the same questions and you get the same energy. And it creates a mindset that there is pressure on us to win it.

"This year, we have a goal and can we accomplish the goal, and can we do what we did last year? Can we maintain that high level of play? And I think our guys and our coaches feel confident that we can. So it's a different feeling, it's a more confident feeling."

The Capitals weren't the favorites to win the Cup last spring, and even as defending champs, they're still seen by most as underdogs this time around. Few pundits out there in the hockey media world are picking them to repeat, which makes sense, because it's a tall task under any circumstances. But the Caps are fine with lying quietly in the tall grass, out of sight and out of mind.

"Anytime you can go thorugh sceanrios that are basically dealt with in the confines of your room," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, "then you can help guide it and push it in the direction that you want. It's when outside influences get involved that things take a turn.

"For us, we talk about removing the noise. Focus on our task at hand here. I think that situation is different than it was in the past. Also the fact that we have that experience now in our room; we've gone through it - outside of a few players - and we have added some players that have some other experience as well, like a Carl Hagelin, who has gone through this. So I think we're learning from him as well. It's a real healthy environment right now where our team had a chance to refocus."

The Canes' midseason addition of winger Nino Neiderreiter in a heist of a trade with Minnesota legitimized Carolina's top six. Neiderreiter was nearly a point-per-game player for the Canes after arriving in Raleigh in mid-January. He skates the left side of the team's top forward trio with center Sebastian Aho and right wing Justin Williams, a former Capital and a three-time Stanley Cup champion.

Aho led the Canes with 30 goals and 83 points this season, and the 37-year-old Williams led all NHL forwards aged 35 or older in both goals (23) and points (53).

A healthy Jordan Staal centers the second line, with Micheal Ferland on his left and Teuvo Teravainen on his right. Staal was slowed by injuries this season but he has been a puck possession beast for more than a decade and has delivered relatively consistent offensive production as well. Ferland came to Carolina in an offseason deal with Calgary, and he provides some size and muscle in addition to secondary scoring. Teravainen is coming off a second straight stellar season; he led Carolina with 55 assists and recorded a career high in points (76) for the fifth straight season.

Carolina's top six can hold its own with Washington's, but the Caps should have an advantage in terms of both production and playoff experience in the bottom six. The Canes feature teenaged rookie sensation Andrei Svechnikov on the left side of their third line. The second player chosen overall in the 2018 NHL Draft, Svechnikov scored 20 goals as a rookie in 2018-19, all of them coming at even strength. Four of his goals were empty-netters, but it's impressive that he was trusted enough at his age and stage of development to be on the ice in such key situations.

While Svechnikov is Carolina's lone 20-goal scorer in the team's bottom six, the Canes have an array of double-digit scorers on their third and fourth lines, including Jordan Martinook (15 goals), and Lucas Wallmark, Brock McGinn and Warren Foegele (10 each).

The Canes also rely on an active and talented blueline corps for secondary offense. Carolina's top four defensemen combined for 44 goals in '18-19, and all four recorded at least 29 points. Dougie Hamilton led the way with 18 goals and 39 points, but Justin Faulk scored 11 goals. Along with Montreal, Carolina is the only Eastern Conference team that boasts two defensemen with double-digit goal totals.

Perhaps the biggest reason for Carolina's turnaround and its 16-point improvement - the team's largest since it won the Cup in 2006 - is between the pipes. Scott Darling was a washout as a free agent last season, so Carolina placed a one-year bet on free agent Petr Mrazek and claimed veteran journeyman Curtis McElhinney off waivers from Toronto.

Mrazek, a 27-year-old native of the Czech Republic who cut his NHL teeth with the Detroit Red Wings, had his best season since 2015-16, when he was still in Motown. Mrazek went 23-14-3 with a 2.39 GAA and a .914 save pct.

It was the third time in his NHL career that the 35-year-ol McElhinney was claimed off waivers. After winning 21 games over the previous four seasons, McElhinney won 20 games for Carolina in 2018-19, the first 20-win season of his career.

Carolina had a league-worst .893 save pct. in 2017-18, but improved to .906 - good enough for 14th in the circuit - in 2018-19.

After a 10-year playoff drought, the Hurricanes are happy to be back in the playoffs. But they're also excited about the challenge of taking on the champs.

"As a team, they're more dangerous because they've figured it out, right?" says Canes coach Rod Brind'Amour, who captained Carolina's Cup-winning team in 2006. "They always had the team to win. I don't think their team has changed all that much, but they just didn't quite have it figured out. And then all of a sudden, the light bulb went off on some of their elite players, and now they're the best. You watch them play, there is a reason they are the Stanley Cup champs."

"We know what we're in for, but that's what's awesome about it. It's a great challenge."

The Caps are concerned with a different type of challenge, the challenge of repeating. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins (2016 and 2017) have done so on the last two decades.

"Obviously that's the goal," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. "That is the dream, and it was an amazing feeling. We can use that as motivation. There is really nothing better than what we went through last year, so we want to get back there again, and we want to do that and accomplish that again."

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