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Defending the Title

The Capitals are drawing on their Stanley Cup experience to overcome hurdles this season

by Ben Raby @benraby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

When the Capitals returned to Vegas' T-Mobile Arena in early December, they brought with them lasting memories from last spring's Stanley Cup triumph. They also arrived with a healthy swagger, still reaping the benefits from their deep postseason run.

"I think we learned a lot from our team last year," says forward Tom Wilson. "When we get down, we don't roll over and quit. A lot of guys in this room have played on the biggest stage so you can always draw back on that experience."

The Capitals heard all the talk over the summer and into the preseason. As the Stanley Cup champions, it would only be human nature, they were told, to have a slow start to the 2018-19 campaign. After playing at such a high intensity into June and coming off the shortest offseason of their pro careers, the Capitals had a pretty good built-in excuse had they stumbled out of the gate. It turns out, it's a moot point.

Instead of suffering from the proverbial Stanley Cup hangover, the Capitals hit the midpoint of the regular season back in their familiar perch atop the Metropolitan Division.

If anything, a case can be made that the Capitals are experiencing a 'Stanley Cup Carryover,' as they've frequently drawn on their experiences from last spring to get them through some early-season hurdles.

Consider that because of injuries and suspension, the Capitals went more than a third of the way through their schedule before playing a game with their optimal lineup. Through the first 30 games of the season, the Capitals played a total of four periods with their top 12 forwards all in the lineup at the same time.

Despite being shorthanded in some areas, the Capitals were up to the early-season challenge. Head coach Todd Reirden says last spring's playoff experience gave his players confidence in their ability to get through it.

"I think there's really no situation we haven't gone through," Reirden says. "Now that we went through what we did last year as a group, we're hardened to some situations."

When the Capitals won the Stanley Cup last spring, they acknowledged that they better handled adversity than in years past. Among the challenges was winning with a shorthanded lineup. When the Capitals eliminated the Penguins in Round 2, Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky were injured and Wilson suspended.

It's an experience the Capitals say they have relied on early this season. They showed as much while winning nine of 11 games when T.J. Oshie was sidelined with an upper-body injury from Nov.16 through Dec.11. Within that stretch, the Capitals went 6-0 when Evgeny Kuznetsov was also out.

"You saw it in the playoffs last year too against Pittsburgh and Tampa," says forward Devante Smith-Pelly. "Guys jumping into the lineup and helping out is nothing new. We've done it at the highest stage so we weren't too worried if guys could step up. We knew they could."

Third-line center Lars Eller was among the players who stepped up last spring when Backstrom missed time with an injury. In the playoffs, Eller moved up the depth chart and took advantage of increased ice time with a top-six role. It was more of the same this fall when Kuznetsov was out and Eller was again called upon to help fill the void.

When the Capitals beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-4 in overtime on Nov.19, Eller scored the game-winning goal in OT and played a career-high 22 minutes and 25 seconds, while filling for Kuznetsov on the No.1 line.

"Every time you've done something it gives you a stronger belief that you can do it again," says Eller.

The Capitals have also shown themselves to be a resilient bunch this season. Five times during a seven-game winning streak in late November, the Capitals rallied from behind. Twice they overcame multi-goal deficits.

The Stanley Cup champs also developed a knack for the comeback last spring, becoming the second team in NHL history to overcome a series deficit in all four rounds.

"Being down in a series or being down in games - big games - all that stuff we learned from and we got through it as a team," says Smith-Pelly, "so when things aren't going well here, we can go back to last spring when obviously it really mattered and us getting through it as a team."

Defenseman Matt Niskanen, now in his fifth season with the Capitals, says nothing fazes this year's team.

"It feels different," Niskanen says. "We got pushed to the brink numerous times last spring where, when we needed a response or we absolutely had to have our best game, we'd get it. So I think it's just a mentally and belief that we can do it."

Oshie concedes that early in the season, it was sometimes tough to manufacture the intensity and adrenaline that came so naturally last spring. But, he says, with so many players returning from last year's roster and with limited changes to how they play, the Capitals can always fall back on their structure.

"I think first and foremost confidence comes from the style of play we have," he says. "That is so ingrained and such a big part of our success last season through the postseason and getting so many guys back that are comfortable with that and know the systems, I think that's a good building block."

Then there are the players who seemingly picked up this season right where they left off in June. Take Jakub Vrana and Michal Kempny, for example, as two players who may have benefitted the most from the extra two months of hockey last spring.

Vrana emerged as a key cog on the playoff run, going from a healthy scratch in the first round, to a top-six forward by the Cup Final. The 22-year-old has been a fixture on the second line this year and already surpassed his goal total from last season. Vrana was arguably among the Capitals' most consistent forwards during the first three months of the season.

Kempny proved the perfect complement to John Carlson as a defensive pair during the 24-game postseason and was eventually rewarded with a four-year contract to remain in Washington. Kempny and Carlson have remained a tandem for much of this season with both ranking among the league leaders in plus/minus.

And fresh off winning the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring as playoff MVP, Alex Ovechkin had certainly earned himself some leeway had he eased into the season. Instead, he hasn't missed a beat, turning his 14th NHL season into one of his best, while continuing to play a 200-foot game like last spring.

"This for me is the best two-way hockey I've seen him play in the regular season," said Reirden.

Even lower down the depth chart, players like Madison Bowey, Travis Boyd and Pheonix Copley, who played one playoff game between them but were with the club throughout the run as black aces, are reaping the benefits from the extra practice time and having been around a championship team.

"It was a growth moment for all of them," says Reirden, who often stayed on the ice after practice to put in some extra work with the black aces. "Definitely the fact that they got to taste it and be around it and be close to it probably made them more eager to push for a spot and a bigger role this year. All of them had discussed wanting to have a bigger role and they've all responded this year in that regard."

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