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Capitals believe they're more prepared for Penguins

Washington confident it can avoid repeat of last year after surviving competitive first round against Maple Leafs

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

TORONTO -- The Washington Capitals never expected their Eastern Conference First Round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs to be easy.

Now that they've survived that six-game battle of wills -- all one-goal games, including an NHL record-tying five decided in overtime -- they believe they'll be better for it and better prepared to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

 

[RELATED: Complete Penguins vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

The best-of-7 series begins at Verizon Center on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2).

"This is the playoffs. It's going to be tight," said Marcus Johansson after scoring both Capitals goals in their series-clinching 2-1 overtime win in Game 6 against the Maple Leafs on Sunday. "It's never going to be an easy ride, and you know, I think it's good for us where we kind of got a start where everything didn't just go smoothly. You kind of get right into it and you have to work hard and battle for it, and that's what we had to do."

Video: WSH@TOR, Gm6: Johansson clinches series win in OT

The Maple Leafs pressured the Capitals throughout the series with their speed in a similar way to how the Penguins like to play. In fact, it appeared at times the Maple Leafs were following the same game plan the Penguins used to defeat the Capitals in six games in the second round last season.

The Maple Leafs don't have Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but they have plenty of highly skilled offensive players, including young forwards Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitchell Marner, plus talented veterans like Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk. And they have plenty of speed.

"The League is going quicker and there's two ways: You can be fast on your blades or you can play quick," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "And if you're fast on your blades and you play quick, then you're going to be hard to handle. We've adjusted our game to play quicker and you see that, I think, in the way we play. So that's the new NHL."

The Capitals recognized their need to play quicker because of how the Penguins played against them last season. That Stanley Cup Playoff series also made the Capitals realize they needed to improve their depth at forward and on defense.

The Capitals were able to hold the Penguins' top two lines in check for the most part with Crosby being limited to two assists and Malkin getting a goal and an assist in the series. But the third line of Carl Hagelin (three goals, four assists), Nick Bonino (two goals, three assists) and Phil Kessel (two goals, four assists) combined for 18 points in the six games, including Bonino's series-clincher in overtime in Game 6.

They tried to address the need in the offseason by signing center Lars Eller, who has fit in nicely as the third-line center, and left wing Brett Connolly, who scored an NHL career-high 15 goals. In addition, general manager Brian MacLellan acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in a trade with the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 27 partly because it had stuck in his mind how much trouble the Capitals had in their end against the Penguins last season, when Brooks Orpik was suspended for three games and Karl Alzner was trying to play through a sports hernia.

Video: TOR@WSH, Gm5: Oshie puts home rebound for PPG

That move already paid off in the first round when Alzner missed the last four games because of an upper-body injury and Nate Schmidt, who had been playing regularly before the Shattenkirk trade, slipped seamlessly into the lineup in his place.

Most of all, the Capitals think they are mentally tougher and more battle tested after having to get past the Maple Leafs. As Presidents' Trophy winners, they were heavy favorites against the young Maple Leafs, who hadn't made the playoffs since 2013 and qualified as the second wild card from the Eastern Conference.

With that came immense pressure. Add in five games that went to overtime and the Capitals could not afford to lose focus.

"That's something mentally that you have to go through a little bit because other team is going, 'We've got nothing to lose' and we're on the other side going, 'We've got everything to lose,'" Trotz said. "So that hardened us, too. We've handled that a lot better this year versus last year. That's why I like where our team is going in terms of the growth and finding the next level of maturity."

Video: WSH@TOR, Gm4: Ovechkin cranks slapper for PPG

Now the Capitals are looking to put the pressure on the Penguins. With 118 points during the regular season, the Capitals finished ahead of the Penguins, who were second in the League with 111. But the Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions and seeking to become the first repeat winners since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

The Capitals haven't made it past the second round of the playoffs since they made their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance against the Red Wings, in 1998.

"It's a perfect scenario," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "Even if we finish first in the regular season, they're the Stanley Cup champs, so we're the underdogs. It's perfect for us."

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