April 11 vs. Carolina Hurricanes at Capital One Arena
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, FAN 106.7
Carolina Hurricanes 46-29-7
Washington Capitals 48-26-8
Eighty-two games and a fourth straight Metropolitan Division title are in the books, and now the Capitals are on to what really matters, the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the first time in their history, the Caps enter the 2019 playoffs as defending champs, and their first-round draw is the Carolina Hurricanes.
Washington hosts Game 1 of the series at Capital One Arena on Thursday night as it sets out to defend the title for the first time. The Caps are heading into the playoffs for the 11th time in the last 12 seasons, and Carolina is the seventh different first-round foe Washington has faced in its last seven postseason journeys.
Video: Caps 365 | April 10
"This is the best time of year," exudes Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, speaking for virtually all of us. "You know, we're a little spoiled because we've been making it every year recently. So you kind of just look past the regular season a little bit. It doesn't seem right, but you kind of inevitably do. But now it's on. This is what we play for, this is what we're all about now. I can't wait for it to start."
Once the All-Star break was in the rear view, the Caps and the Canes were among the top five teams in the NHL the rest of the way. Washington secured the Metro title while Carolina landed its first playoff berth in a decade. At season's end, only six points separated the top five teams in the Metro Division, and there were five points between the first-place Caps and the fourth-place Canes.
"I think they have a pretty good group of guys out there," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. "They battled through all year, and I think they are right now in a playoff mode because they were fighting for their spot and they play hard. For us, it doesn't matter which opponent - first year or Stanley Cup champions. We just have to play our game. Just play smart, play hard and get the result done."
The two teams saw one another twice in late March, so they'll go into Game 1 with a reasonable level of recent familiarity with their first-round foe.
Video: Practice Locker Room | April 10
"I think we are going to be a little more familiar," says Caps right wing T.J. Oshie, "And there might not be as many adjustments as you would typically see in a series, just because we have played each other a couple of times recently. So I feel like there will already be adjustments off of that.
"But Carolina, they're a tough team to play against. If you're not playing smart with the puck, they can exploit you. So we've got a tough test on our hands here."
The Hurricanes thrive on transition in short-ice situations, and they are like used car dealers when it comes to putting pucks toward the net - they deal in volume. Carolina put more shots on goal than any other team in the league, and a fair number of those shots come from its blueline.
The Canes are the only team in the league with two defensemen in the top 10 in shots on net among blueliners. Dougie Hamilton ranks third with 259 and Justin Faulk is seventh at 217. Both are ahead of Washington's leader in that department, John Carlson (185). Hamilton's 18 goals ranked second in the circuit among defensemen, and Faulk finished with 11, one of 29 blueliners in the league to hit double-digits during the regular season.
"They don't give up on much," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby of Carolina. "They're really good at picking off pucks, recovering pucks. They are - for lack of a better term - annoying when you're coming out of the [defensive] zone because they never give up on something. I think that's where they get a lot of their offense from. So as long as we recognize that - don't quit on any play or take a breath or anything - you've got to keep committed to moving the puck, especially out of the [defensive] zone."
"They're going to play with a lot of enthusiasm, I know that," says Niskanen of the Canes. "They work hard as it is, so that will be up to another level, like it always is with every team. They're a good team. We can't take them lightly at all. I have a pretty basic theory: if we play well, we have a pretty good chance to win. If we don't, we'll probably lose. That sounds pretty generic, but that's how it is."
Video: Todd Reirden | April 10
Carolina fully expects to have its hands full with the defending champs, and the Canes are well aware that their group level of playoff experience is no match for that of the Capitals.
"It's tough right now, because we haven't gotten to it yet," says Canes coach Rod Brind'Amour. "I think the worry for me, a lot of these guys we talk about haven't been there. It's tough, and I think you learn so much your first time. So I'm hoping it's not a learning experience, but we'll see.
"It's an exciting time. These guys have earned the right to be here and to be excited about what's going on. Now, you still have to go out there and make it happen."
For the second straight season, the Caps finished with a flourish. After they inserted trade deadline acquisitions Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen into the lineup, the Caps went 14-5-1 over their final 20 games. But they're not looking back now, nor are they looking beyond Thursday's season opener with the Canes.
"Start here with the first game against Carolina," says Hagelin, a two-time Cup winner with Pittsburgh. "That's where our mind is at right now. You can't look too far ahead in the playoffs; that's for sure. Any bad night can be the difference maker, and you need to limit those."
Bad nights and losing streaks are the bane of every team's postseason existence. Losing two in a row can mean peril, and the Caps are the rare team to drop three straight - in the Eastern Conference final against Tampa Bay last May - and still survive it. It's the longest losing streak a team can afford in the playoffs, and often, it's death.
Washington goes into the postseason without suffering consecutive regulation losses over its final 34 contests this season, but the Capitals believe they are still stretching upward toward their collective ceiling.
"There is still another level for all of us to get to," says Holtby, "and that's what we're building toward."