ARLINGTON, Va. -- In previous seasons, the Washington Capitals would have approached a Game 7 with the weight of past Stanley Cup Playoff disappointments on their shoulders.
When they play the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Capital One Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, SN360, TVAS, NBCSWA, FS-CR), recent experience is more likely to inspire confidence than dread.
In the 2018 Eastern Conference Final, the Capitals trailed the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 but won Game 6 at home (3-0) and Game 7 at Tampa Bay (4-0). Washington also came back from down 2-0 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, and 1-0 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round and the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final before winning each series.
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"The thing we had success with last year was the situation didn't bother us at all, we just played our game," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said after an optional practice Tuesday. "That's one thing that we could've done better in this series, and now we have a chance to keep improving on that with an opportunity to win a series. Every year's different. You just take where you're at and get the best out of your team."
The Capitals are 4-7 with Alex Ovechkin in Game 7, 2-5 at home. That includes a 2-0 home loss to the Penguins in the second round of the 2017 playoffs after Washington won the Presidents' Trophy for a second straight season.
Capitals coach Todd Reirden said he thinks his players last season established a greater home-ice advantage that already has been felt in these playoffs. Washington has won each of its three home games in the series.
"I just think that a whole different aura was created last year," said Reirden, who was an assistant to coach Barry Trotz last season. "In the beginning of the playoffs the crowds were better than they were during the regular season, but then by the end of it we had the streets filled. We have so many people that are hockey fans from the D.C. area that were supporting it, that got hooked on hockey and it grew into something really special."
In addition, the Capitals have a number of players who don't carry the baggage from many of the playoff disappointments in this decade.
"I've only been here for a successful playoff run," said forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who scored seven goals in the 2018 playoffs. "Last year, even with all that stuff, I felt a confidence in the room. All the guys were very confident. I would expect the same (Wednesday)."
In a first round highlighted by upsets, the Capitals, who finished first in the Metropolitan Division, are looking to become the only division winner to advance following the elimination of the Lightning (Atlantic Division), Nashville Predators (Central) and Calgary Flames (Pacific).
Washington appeared poised to move on and play the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference Second Round after a dominating performance in a 6-0, Game 5 win at Capital One Arena on Saturday, but Carolina responded with a three-goal third period for a 5-2 win in Game 6 at PNC Arena on Monday.
The home team has won each game of the series, and home teams are 100-72 (.581) in Game 7.
"Home ice has been a big advantage for teams, and we worked hard to achieve that during the year, and now we have that opportunity to use it," Reirden said. "Our Game 5 was our best of the series and we shouldn't stray too far from that game if we're looking for how to have success in this series."
Perhaps because of their success in 2018, Holtby expressed confidence despite the result of Game 6.
"The consistency hasn't been there through the series, but it doesn't matter now, it's one game," he said. "We know we'd take our team in any one-game series, so the confidence doesn't waver that way. We just need to do the work and get that full commitment that we're going to need to win a hockey game."
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