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Caps Start Season in St. Louis

After a season as defending champs, the Caps take on the newest defending champs at outset of '19-20 campaign

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

Oct. 2 vs. St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center

Time: 8:00 p.m.

TV: NBCSN

Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, FAN 106.7

 

Washington Capitals 48-26-8 in '18-19

St. Louis Blues 45-28-9 in '18-19

For the first time since 1962-63 and for just the second time in modern (since 1943-44) NHL history, the two most recent Stanley Cup champions will play their first regular season game against each other on Wednesday night in St. Louis. The Caps won the Cup in 2018 and St. Louis won it three months ago, and they'll tangle at Enterprise Center after the Blues' banner-raising ceremony.

The Capitals have been banner-raising magnets this decade; Wednesday's pomp and circumstance will be the fourth banner ceremony Washington has witnessed in the last seven seasons. In addition to their own ceremony in 2018 and the Blues' this year, the Caps were on hand in Chicago when the Blackhawks raised the banner in 2013 and they watched the Penguins do the same in 2016.

"It's a big night for them," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "I remember last year it was very emotional for us. Obviously it sucks we have to see another team raise it, but good that we're playing them the first game."

While the Blues will be seeking repeat as Cup champs this season, the Caps are seeking to follow in the skate-steps of the Los Angeles Kings (2012 and 2014) and the Chicago Blackhawks (2013 and 2015), two teams that won two Cups in three seasons in this decade.

Video: Nicklas Backstrom | October 1

Washington is also seeking to bounce back from a disappointing first-round exit in last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs.

"It presents a different challenge to you; it's not like we made it to the Final and then we lost out," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "We were dealt a difficult first-round defeat, and in return we have made some adjustments to our roster and our personnel. We are looking for some more from some different people in a leadership capacity, and we added some new guys. I think it's going to add some real good energy to our team, and that's what I'm looking to piggy-back on, that energy level and that desire to get back to the top. It may have been a short summer two years ago, but it's certainly something that we are looking to try to do again."

For the Caps, the summer of 2019 was as different as could be from the summer of 2018. It was six weeks longer, and much less joyous.

"It was a long break," says Caps right wing T.J. Oshie. "I'm excited to get going. When you're a hockey player, you grow up playing hockey; it's really all you do. So when you take a full four months off, it's weird. It feels like you're almost missing something a little bit. For me, I'm just excited to get back to playing hockey, and playing for real."

Oshie isn't alone in having that hunger to get back on the ice and get back to work. It's a common thread throughout the room on the eve of the season opener.

"This was my longest summer, so I'm really excited to play this first game," says Caps left wing Carl Hagelin. "I think when you win and you come back, you might be a little mentally fatigued or drained or something. But right now, I'm super excited. I'm looking at this game as a great opportunity to start the season off in the right way."

Don't discount the motivation of going up against the defending champs, either. The Caps were kings of the hill all last season, and they're very familiar with the feeling of every opponent being motivated to topple them from that peak every night for 82 games.

"I think I used to have a few more butterflies in the stomach in the early days of my career," says Caps center Lars Eller, of playing in the season opener. "Now, maybe not quite as much. But going up against my old team, and with the last two champs playing against each other, that's a big motivational factor. That alone should put plenty of fire and fuel in my tank for [Wednesday] night."

In addition to fire and fuel, the Caps are itching to get back to work, back on the road, back into the rhythm of the 82-game, six-month grind of a season that is stretched out in front of them. If nothing else, the longer summer afforded them a much-needed mental break. But when the calendar rolls around to October, these horses are ready to run.

"I think you feel the benefit just as much mentally as physically," says Oshie. "Mentally last year, I feel like we had a pretty decent start to the year. But you wanted another six weeks before you came back. And now this summer, it feels like that extra six weeks was almost too long, and you wanted to get back sooner and get going. So mentally, you're more refreshed and you're definitely refocused when you don't win it and by our standards fall pretty short of getting there, so it's a lot different.

"Last summer, I could have taken another month and a half or two months, and this summer I was ready to get rolling two months ago. It's funny how things work like that, but the rest will help a lot of guys, I think. We don't have a lot of guys over 30 anymore, but the couple who are, it's going to help them out a little bit."

St. Louis will be celebrating the first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history, just as the Capitals did at this time last season. The Blues had their ring ceremony on Monday night, picking up their hard-earned hardware at a team dinner.

"It's great for the city and for the fans, to raise the banner," says Blues center and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O'Reilly. "It's a great thing, a great accomplishment. But at the end of the day, it's another game and we're preparing for it the same way."

Video: Todd Reirden | October 1

The Blues beat the Caps twice last season, doing so within a span of 11 days in early January, just as they began the process of lifting themselves from the basement of one of the toughest divisions in the league to a championship in a span of about five months. St. Louis rolled up a 30-10-5 record after the turn of the calendar, and starting with its 5-2 win over Washington on Jan. 3 here in Missouri.

Washington knows how hard it is to repeat as champs, but strength of the Central Division notwithstanding, the Blues should be able to take a run at it. They're not an ancient team overall, and they didn't suffer much offseason roster attrition. The Blues' most significant loss was likely that of winger Patrick Maroon, a St. Louis native who totaled 10 goals and 28 points in a bottom six role in his only season with the Blues. Maroon signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning over the summer.

"Every night you come into play a team, every opposition is always talking about playing the defending champs every night," says Reirden, of the challenges of repeating as champs. "Every night, you're getting the other team's best games. I think the fatigue of playing the style of hockey that St. Louis played and the style of hockey that we played - a bigger, heavier game where you're physical - it wears on you.

"So those are the challenges that will be ahead of coach [Craig] Berube and his staff and the organization. But it's not a bad problem to have. That I can tell you. It's pretty amazing, and they deserved it. I thought they played outstanding, and certainly the story of how they turned their season around was one for the history books in terms of how that worked."

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