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Capitals eager for shot at redemption

Washington driven to avenge past playoff disappointments against Penguins

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- In a way, it feels like time has stood still for some of the Washington Capitals since Nick Bonino scored the overtime goal in Game 6 that sent them home and the Pittsburgh Penguins onto, eventually, winning the Stanley Cup last season.

The memory of seeing that goal go in and the disappointment that followed that Eastern Conference Second Round series remains fresh for the Capitals as they prepare to take on the Penguins again in the second round starting with Game 1 at Verizon Center on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports). They've wanted another shot at the Penguins for almost a year and are determined to make the most of this opportunity.

"I was on the ice for that last goal, that last OT goal, so it feels like it was just yesterday still," Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie said Wednesday. "It's going to be really exciting to go out there and be in a playoff atmosphere and get a chance to rewrite that."

With the near-constant turnover of rosters from season-to-season in professional sports these days, it's not often that a team gets this kind of shot at redemption anymore. The Capitals and Penguins have made some changes in the past year (the Capitals added forwards Lars Eller and Brett Connolly and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk) and injuries are always a factor (Penguins defenseman Kris Letang had season-ending neck surgery and goalie Matt Murray is sidelined with a lower-body injury), but there's not a huge difference in personnel from the two teams that faced off last season.

Video: TOR@WSH, Gm1: Williams slams home Oshie's silky feed

So though they haven't played each other since the Penguins' wild 8-7 overtime win on Jan. 16 in Pittsburgh, there will be no need for introductions.

"We're very familiar," Capitals right wing Justin Williams said. "They're familiar with us. There's not going to be any real secrets."

From opening night at PPG Paints Arena, when the Capitals were there to see the Penguins raise their Stanley Cup banner, these two teams have seemed destined to face each other again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the Capitals are going to get the monkey off their backs and advance beyond the second round for the first time since they made their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998, of course they were going to have to go through the Penguins.

And the Penguins probably knew that if they are going to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, they'd have to get past the Capitals again. Each of the four times they've won the Stanley Cup (1991, 1992, 2009, 2016), they've defeated the Capitals along the way.

"Obviously, there's a history with the Penguins and I think it's fitting that we have to go through the Penguins at some point," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "So, change the narrative, hopefully, this year and that's what we intend to do."

The Capitals believe the narrative is different already. As Presidents' Trophy winners last season, they were the favorites heading into the series against the Penguins. They won the Presidents' Trophy again this season with 118 points, seven more than the second-place Penguins.

But Pittsburgh is the defending Stanley Cup champions.

"We have a different mentality going into this series than we did last year," Oshie said. "Last year, I feel like we were kind of the heavy favorites. We did a good job in the regular season and we were so far ahead of everyone that everyone just expected us to steamroll through the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup. For whatever reason, as a team we didn't play like that and I think this year we're a little more grounded and ready for the challenge."

If the Capitals weren't grounded before, they should be after their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who pushed them hard through six one-goal games, including five that ended in overtime. The Penguins had a comparatively easier time in their first-round series, eliminating the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games.

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

With the Penguins having already advanced, the Capitals knew they were waiting for them when Marcus Johansson scored the series-clinching overtime goal against the Maple Leafs in Game 6 on Sunday.

"We were disappointed last year, and the first thing you thought was about coming back and playing them again. And here we are," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. "Maybe not a surprise, but it's a good matchup. They're a good team. They're the Stanley Cup champs, so it'll be a really good match and we're excited about it."

The Capitals believe they never showed the Penguins their best game last season. They played well at times, but Pittsburgh was the better team in the moments that mattered most such as overtime in Game 4, when Patric Hornqvist scored the winning goal, and in Game 6.

"I still remember that OT goal and those OT goals in that series and that feeling when you come back to the room kind of thinking, 'We were that close. We could have had it. What a bummer,'" right wing Tom Wilson said. "So when you have those memories, you definitely want to make the most of the chance for redemption and the opportunity to kind of get back and end up with the upper hand this time around."

Maybe what happened last season and the familiarity between the Capitals and Penguins won't matter in this series. Every playoff series has its own script.

What matters most is how it ends.

"What matters is they won last year," Williams said. "They have a couple Stanley Cups that we want. We're jealous. We want to beat them." 

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