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Round 1

Capitals hungry to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions

Poised for another long playoff run after smooth transition to Reirden as coach

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals were celebrating their 2018 championship when forward T.J. Oshie stepped to the podium at the rally following their Stanley Cup parade and boldly suggested they could do it again this season by leading the raucous crowd in a chant. 

"Back to back!"

The Capitals' quest to make Oshie's chant a reality is about to begin. They open the Eastern Conference First Round against the Carolina Hurricanes at Capital One Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVAS, FS-C, NBCSW) with a belief no previous Capitals team has carried into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"I just had so much confidence in what we were able to bring out in each other and so much confidence in how we played the game that if we stuck together and played for each other like we did during last year's run that we'd have a realistic chance at doing it again," Oshie said. "We got the first part done, the regular season. We put ourselves in a good position, and now the fun begins." 

The Capitals (48-26-8) finished first in the Metropolitan Division for the fourth straight season with a roster that closely resembles the one that won the Cup last season. They won't have defenseman Michal Kempny for the playoffs because of a torn left hamstring, but of the other players who dressed for their clinching Game 5 win against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final, only backup goalie Philipp Grubauer (Colorado Avalanche) and fourth-line forward Jay Beagle (Vancouver Canucks) are gone. Forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who finished the season with Hershey of the American Hockey League, is expected to be recalled.

The biggest change for Washington was behind the bench with Todd Reirden being promoted from associate to replace Barry Trotz after Trotz was unable to agree to a new contract, resigned and was hired by the New York Islanders. With that transition going smoothly, it's understandable that the Capitals believe they can win again.

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Capitals clinch a playoff spot

"We basically have the same team," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "That experience we have is going to help us a lot."

The Capitals know how difficult it was to win the Cup once. Before last season, their four-game loss to the Detroit Red Wings in 1998 was their only appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, and they hadn't advanced beyond the second round in the playoffs since.

So winning again won't be easy. Before the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup in 2016 and 2017, no team had repeated as NHL champions since the Red Wings won in 1997 and 1998. 

But last season's championship has transformed the Capitals' previously fragile psyche.

"We have every chance like anyone else in the playoffs," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "I feel like a lot of teams are good this year and anything can happen. But the good thing is we've got a chance to do it again, and we're going to do everything in our power to try to."

Video: WSH@FLA: Backstrom hammers Oshie's feed past Luongo

Forward Carl Hagelin, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 21, won the Cup with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017 and his repeat experience could prove invaluable for the Capitals. In fact, Reirden has met with Hagelin to pick his brain about what he went through with the Penguins.

"Every team is different, but there's always a couple pointers I can give them," Hagelin said. "There's always hard moments throughout the playoffs, but I think the second time there might just be more harder times and you've just got to stick with it. You've got to realize what you did the year before to be successful and you've got to realize it won't be easier."

The Capitals' road to the Cup last season was far from smooth. They lost the first two games at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round before Lars Eller's goal in double overtime of Game 3 turned that series around.

They also trailed in each of their other three playoffs series.

"Those are some of the positives that we can look back on just dealing with situations where you're down 0-2 in a series and you still believe," Reirden said. "You still believe in the guy next to you. You still believe in the system that you're doing. You still believe in all the work you've done all year that if you continue to trust and believe in it that it can come true and that's something that no one can take from us."

Any questions about whether the Capitals would be hungry enough to win again seemed to be answered almost 10 months ago when Oshie began that chant. As fun as it was to win and celebrate then, that long-awaited taste of success is driving them to do it again.

"You make a lot of sacrifices out there to get the job done," Oshie said. "You play through a lot of injuries. You take a lot of shots. You put forth a lot of effort. But once the celebrations come around and your day with the Cup and you look back on those days, I don't know how you can't think it was all worth it. So, I don't expect us to take a step back and not leave everything out there."  

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