ARLINGTON, Va. -- This is the time Alex Ovechkin has been waiting for all season.
The Washington Capitals captain had another stellar regular season, leading the NHL with 51 goals and helping the Capitals finish first in the Metropolitan Division for the fourth straight season. But the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs means Ovechkin and the Capitals are that much closer to having a chance to get their hands on the Cup again.
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That's why they are very much looking forward to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Carolina Hurricanes at Capital One Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, FS-CR, SN360, TVAS).
"That's why we play all those games, just to be in the playoffs," Ovechkin said. "It doesn't matter which spot you are. The most important thing is you're in the playoffs because you never know what's going to happen."
After spending much of his first 13 NHL seasons answering questions about the Capitals' inability to win the Stanley Cup, Ovechkin relished in shedding that weight from his shoulders last season. He danced with and sang to the Cup, and joined his teammates frolicking in fountains and sharing the celebration with the people of Washington.
Then he took the Cup home to Moscow and celebrated some more.
But Ovechkin's party ended the moment he placed the Cup back in its crate in Moscow last July. From there, his focus turned to trying to win it again.
Video: Ovechkin scores his 50th goal of the season
"I think that taste that we had last year was pretty incredible," Ovechkin said, "and hopefully we're going to do it again."
Riding a high from last season's championship, the 33-year-old left wing played this season with a joy that brought back memories of his younger days. During a 14-game stretch from Nov. 16 to Dec. 15, he scored 17 goals, including hat tricks in consecutive games against the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 11 and the Hurricanes on Dec. 14.
That pace was impossible to maintain. But his effort remained consistent, and he won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's goal-scoring leader for the eighth time. Ovechkin finished the season with 658 goals, 13th in NHL history.
"I've seen him really relaxed and he's just doing what he loves -- playing hockey on the highest level," longtime linemate Nicklas Backstrom said. "I think for him especially and for us as a team, we're not satisfied. We want to do it again. We want to end with that same feeling we had last year."
Backstrom understands the pressure to win that Ovechkin was under previously as well as anyone because they went through much of it together. Ovechkin was the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft. Backstrom, 31, was the No. 4 pick in the 2006 NHL Draft.
Despite all their regular-season success, including winning the Presidents' Trophy for having the most regular-season points in 2009-10, 2015-16 and 2016-17, they were never able to advance past the second round in the playoffs. After finally doing it last season and going on to win it all, with Ovechkin also winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs, that pressure is gone.
Video: Previewing the Hurricanes-Capitals First Round series
"Obviously, we don't have that kind of pressure, but as soon as the playoffs start you're the defending Stanley Cup champ and you have to prepare yourself that it's going to be tough games," Ovechkin said. "It's going to be different games than the regular year. But, it's a good thing we have experience. What we did last year, we know exactly how we have to play and hopefully we'll play like that again."
The idea the Ovechkin underperformed in the playoffs was always more of a myth than reality. He is Washington's all-time postseason leader with 61 goals and 117 points in 121 games; his average of 0.50 goals per game is the best among those who've played at least 50 playoff games since he entered the NHL in 2005-06.
He set a Capitals record by scoring 15 playoff goals last year and joined Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (15 goals in 2009) as the only players to score that many in a postseason since 1997.
The main difference in Ovechkin last season was his improved two-way play. He committed like the rest of the Capitals to their defensive system, making sure he was in the right position and sacrificing his body to block shots when necessary.
"I feel like he's always had a really great playoffs, so that's never been a question of mine or a concern," forward T.J. Oshie said. "We expect him to be our best player and I think he expects himself to be our best player, so we'll jump on his back and have him lead us out there."
Ovechkin would like nothing more. If he felt relief when the Capitals won last season, he seems to be feeling something else now in anticipation of the start of another playoffs.
"More now than the relief is his excitement for the opportunity to try to do it again," Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. "I'd say maybe early on in the year I felt the relief, but now I'm starting to feel this gaining excitement and that's good to be a part of."