But after years of external pressure and postseason autopsies to determine what led to their latest premature playoff demise, that's one line of questioning the Caps haven't had to deal with this season, and they've found it somewhat refreshing.
Pressure is, always has been, and always will be a part of professional sports, particularly at this time of year. But this time around, the pressure is more internal than external.
"I think this pressure is more of a challenge," says Caps general manager Brian MacLellan. "Can we do it? Can the players do it? Can they duplicate what they did last year? And it's a huge opportunity to go back-to-back. We've gotten this far. In our minds, if we can accomplish that, it would be a huge deal. We have a chance to do it, and that's all we wanted coming into this year."
Third Man Theme - The Caps recalled goaltender Ilya Samsonov from AHL Hershey on Thursday, perhaps raising some eyebrows as to why they would make that decision with the Bears set to start their own playoff voyage next week, following a resurgent second half.
"It's just standard practice for us to make sure we have a third goalie in these situations," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "So he'll be here through Game 1 and 2, and then we will go from there."
Video: Todd Reirden | April 11
Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have both played well for the Bears this season, in particular during the second half of the season, during which Hershey pulled at least a point in a franchise record 17 straight games. The Bears still have three games remaining in their regular season - which ends on Sunday - and they've already clinched a berth in the Calder Cup playoffs. So Samsonov being here in Washington through the weekend will not hurt Hershey in that regard.
After the 2017-18 season, the Caps recalled goaltender Pheonix Copley from AHL Hershey. That was a bit of a different situation, given that the Bears did not make the playoffs last spring. Copley remained with Washington throughout the postseason, and although he never saw game action, those two months of almost daily practice and hands-on experience with goaltending coach Scott Murray were valuable in his development.
During the regular season, if a team loses both of its goaltenders because of injury, there is a standby goaltender in the building - generally an amateur who might have played in college or something of that nature - who will dress in the event of emergency, and who could be pressed into service, as we've seen on a couple of occasions around the league over the years. While that may be fine for the regular season, teams would much rather have their own professional third goaltender on hand for just such an emergency at this time of year when the stakes are so much higher, which is the primary reason for the recall.
But it's not the only reason. As we know, playoff games with 7:30 p.m. start times don't always end promptly by 10 p.m., as most regular season contests would. I've started the trek home from playoff games at 2 or 3 a.m. on a handful of occasions over the years, and then been back at the rink for the following morning's practice. That's fine for me; I didn't play the night before.
Let's look at one possible scenario. What if tonight's Game 1 of the Caps-Canes series goes to overtime, or even multiple overtimes? You can't expect Braden Holtby to be fresh as a daisy (hat tip to the late, great Doug Sahm) by 9 or 10 the following morning. And truth be told, given the grind of a long playoff run, there are going to be some mornings where Holtby might rather have a day off - even after a game that ended after 60 minutes - which he should absolutely be able to do. But if he takes that option, that leaves only Copley available for practice. Two nets and only one goalie makes for a poor practice scenario for the rest of the team.
Video: Braden Holtby | April 11
During the regular season, the Caps' healthy scratches stay out for late work with the assistant coaches at the conclusion of the morning skate, and sometimes that includes the backup goaltender for that night's game. Expecting to be the back-up, and not knowing when he might be pressed into service again, that back-up is generally going to go all out at the morning skate, in the belief that he won't be needed that night.
On more than one occasion over the years, I've seen the starting goaltender come down with an illness or ailment between the end of morning skate and the start of that night's game. In those cases, that backup - who may have emptied or depleted his tank at that morning's skate - is now pressed into service on short notice. On most of those occasions, that night's game has not gone very well for those goaltenders.
But with Samsonov up and able to stay out late after morning skate, both Holtby and Copley have fuller energy stores for that night's game. They can come off the ice with the rest of their teammates upon completion of the morning skate, and when the team is on the road, they can take the first bus (rather than the second, later bus) back to the team hotel, partake in the team meal, and then have the remainder of the afternoon to get full rest, a nap or whatever their individual pregame routine might be.
This is merely a matter of leaving as little as possible to chance, and putting the parent NHL team in the best position for any random circumstance or emergency that might arise. Ten teams played their first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Wednesday night, and seven of them had a third goalie listed among their healthy extras for those games. One team - Columbus - is currently carrying four goaltenders.
Finally, the recall of Samsonov need not be permanent, as Reirden notes. The Caps could even opt to bring Vanecek up at some point - though both would not be up simultaneously - giving both goaltenders a taste of the day-in, day-out of the NHL playoff existence, which varies slightly in some ways from the regular season. It also gives them the opportunity to face NHL caliber shooters in practice and to get quality work in with Murray.
It's also worth noting that last season was Murray's first as the Caps' goaltending coach; he came up from Hershey to fill the post when the legendary Mitch Korn moved into a goaltending director role. Murray is a believer in having an extra goalie for the playoffs, so the Caps had one last year and they've got one this year. Korn is now director of goaltending for the New York Islanders, and it may be worth noting that the Isles were one of only three teams in action on Wednesday night that did not have a third goaltender on their roster.
"For the experience of working with Scott Murray, our goalie coach, and just being around the atmosphere is huge," says Reirden. "And then on top of it, it's a great precaution to have from a coaching standpoint. So there is really nothing to lose in this situation, only to gain, and guys were happy to see him and know that he's got a bright future."
Washington wants both Samsonov and Vanecek to get valuable Calder Cup playoff experience this spring. It would also be beneficial for both to have some time with the parent club during its postseason run for the reasons outlined above, and the Caps are fortunate to have two good goaltending options at Hershey, where Samsonov and Vanecek split the workload fairly evenly during the regular season. If the Bears had a clear-cut No. 1 netminder whose presence in Hershey was critical to its own Calder Cup playoff hopes, the scenario might be different, and perhaps the Caps would have called up the Bears' backup.
Video: Rinkside Update | John Carlson
Back To School Days - The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs got underway on Wednesday night with a five-game slate. Washington has the luxury of an extra day in between, which is good for some Caps players and annoying for others, who might have preferred to get going on Wednesday.
As they set out to defend their title, the Caps can go to school on some of the events of last night, where two of the league's four division winners suffered setbacks to wild card teams on home ice. Most notable was Tampa Bay, which squandered a 3-0 first-period lead in falling 4-3 to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Lightning won 62 games during the regular season, tying an NHL mark for wins in a season and running away with the Presidents' Trophy.
But as the late, great Lou Reed might say/sing, "Those were different times." Everything resets to zero now, and falling behind is generally not a recipe for success. Teams work hard for six months to gain home ice advantage, and to lose it one game into a series is by no means damning, but also well south of ideal. And Washington has lost its first two home games in two of the last four playoff series in which it enjoyed the home ice advantage.
"Every series is difficult, I think," says Reirden. "We've talked quite a bit in the last 10 days and even going into the last few games of the regular season about how it's not always going to be perfect. It was a battle, it was ugly, there were times things went our way, and there were times when things didn't go our way last year. You have to be prepared and be emotional and under control to be able to handle those things.
"I think what you saw [Wednesday] night in that [Tampa Bay] game and the advantage to [watching] it - because it is an advantage - is the importance of momentum swings within the game. If it's not going in your direction, you've got to have a player or a line that stops that. It went on for extended periods of time in a couple of those [Wednesday] games that ended up hurting those teams.
"So it's important, but again, home or on the road, whatever it is, and how those games went, they all have a different story behind them. But the important thing to know is that there is no easy series, especially in the first round. We know it's going to be a battle right from the drop of the puck tonight against a hungry team that's getting their first opportunity in quite some time. So we are going to have to at our best, and if we are, then we are going to give ourselves a chance to have success."
In The Nets - Holtby heads into the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs as the team's clear-cut No. 1 netminder, which was not the case last season. Philipp Grubauer's excellent late-season work while Holtby was undergoing a "reset" was strong enough for the Caps to give the German goaltender the starting nod in each of the first two games of Washington's first-round set with Columbus.
By the third period of Game 2, the net was Holtby's once again, and it would stay that way for the remainder of the postseason and the run to the Caps' first Stanley Cup title. On Wednesday, Reirden was effusive of his praise for Holtby's handling of what could have been an awkward situation for some goaltenders.
"I really can't express myself strongly enough about how important that was for him, and what a challenge that was for him," says Reirden. "To me, that's his best growth moment as a hockey player, where you're not the starting goaltender, you're down 0-2 [in the series], and you have to come in and basically run the table or at least get a win for your team, or you're in some serious doubt of having success in the series.
"To me, that was the biggest statement he had made at that time as a goalie. Obviously, you go on and you have 'The Save' in the game in Vegas in Game 2 and you go through some different things, but to me that said a ton about his character, his belief in himself, and his response to proving people wrong. That one, to me - and I've referenced it a number of times with him - I have a lot of time for what he accomplished last year."
Holtby went 16-7 in the postseason last spring, and his 2.16 GAA led all goalies in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. He also posted a .922 save pct.
Holtby is now sixth among all active goaltenders with 82 career games played in the playoffs, and his 2.04 career GAA and his .929 save percentage are both tops among all active goalies in the league.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | April 11
For Carolina, Petr Mrazek is expected to get the nod in net for Game 1. Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney split the Canes' goaltending chores fairly evenly this season, and both were in their first seasons with Carolina. They helped the team go from last in the league in save pct. in 2017-18 to a much more respectable 14th in the circuit this season.
Mrazek has seen action in three different playoff years, two with Detroit and one with Philadelphia. Although his body of work totals only 11 games (10 starts), he has been extremely impressive from a qualitative standpoint. Lifetime in the postseason, Mrazek is 4-6 with three of the wins coming via the shutout route, and with a 1.98 GAA and a .927 save pct.
Caps defenseman Nick Jensen was a teammate of Mrazek's for years in AHL Grand Rapids and in Detroit, and he offers up the following by way of a scouting report on his former teammate:
"I played with him in Grand Rapids and Detroit," says Jensen. "He's a really solid goaltender. When he plays and he starts to get those saves, he plays with a lot of confidence. And when a goalie is playing with a lot of confidence, he makes those spectacular saves that you think should be goals on most goaltenders. He has that confidence and he is able to feel it out there, and he is able to make those saves.
"So we've got to make sure that we don't build his confidence up like that. We talked about quality chances, having quality chances and kind of getting as many goals on as few shots as possible is going to be one of the keys for us for sure in trying to break that confidence that he has."
When facing a goaltender's whose confidence generally begins burgeoning with each save, getting to him early is also a strong strategy.
"Yeah, absolutely," agrees Jensen. "Get some on him early. There are a lot of things that go into this, and net presence is also going to be huge. We are going to have to have people in front of him the whole time so he can't see the puck. That's just a weakness of any goaltender; if you can't see the puck, you're more than likely not going to be able to make the save. So I think that's going to be one of our biggest keys going against him."
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and the Hurricanes to look when they meet on Thursday night in the District for Game 1 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
62-Hagelin, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
13-Vrana, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
65-Burakovsky 26-Dowd, 18-Stephenson
6-Kempny (lower body)
21-Niederreiter, 20-Aho, 14-Williams
79-Ferland, 11-Staal, 86-Teravainen
37-Svechnikov, 48-Martinook, 23-McGinn
13-Foegele, 71-Wallmark, 42-McKegg
4-Fleury, 57-van Riemsdyk
44-de Haan (wrist)