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Conference Final

Capitals must refocus quickly for Game 1 against Lightning

Can't celebrate second-round victory against Penguins with best team in East up next

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals were back at work Wednesday, beginning preparations to play at the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

After a day off Tuesday following their series-clinching 2-1 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the second round on Monday, the Capitals understand that they remain eight wins away from their goal, which is to win the Stanley Cup.

"I think we've got to be greedy," Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "We've got to want more because this is a heck of a run. I don't know if there is a group out there that knows how hard it is to get to this point [more than this one]. So don't waste the opportunity by not being focused or realizing the situation and how big of an opportunity it is."

The win Monday was a watershed moment for many of their players, coach Barry Trotz and the city of Washington.  


[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]


Only three Capitals -- Niskanen, defenseman Brooks Orpik and center Lars Eller -- have ever played in a conference final. It's the first conference final for Trotz in 19 seasons as an NHL coach.

The Capitals are in the conference final for the first time since 1998; that's also the last time any of Washington's teams from the four major professional sports leagues -- Redskins (NFL), Wizards (NBA), Nationals (MLB) and Capitals -- reached the final four.

Plus, they knocked off their biggest nemesis, the Penguins, who defeated them in the second round on the way to winning the Stanley Cup in each of the past two seasons and won nine of the previous 10 Stanley Cup Playoff series between the teams.

So the outpouring of emotion following center Evgeny Kuznetsov's breakaway goal 5:27 into overtime Monday -- on the ice, in their locker room and throughout Washington -- was understandable. But they are quick to point out they haven't done anything worth celebrating yet.

"It was not really a celebration," said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who needed 13 NHL seasons to reach this point of the playoffs. "We just were happy. We're going to celebrate when it's over. I hope we're going to win the Cup and then we're going to be celebrating. But right now, it's just satisfaction we beat the Stanley Cup champions finally and we move forward and now we're going to play against a very good team, against very good goaltending and solid players over there."

Video: Capitals' focus moving forward after beating Penguins

Defeating the Lightning in the conference final will take the Capitals' full focus. Tampa Bay finished first in the East with 113 points (54-23-5), then eliminated the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in five games each in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

"We have to stay focused. We have to regroup quickly," Kuznetsov said. "It's going to be different hockey, different team and a different style of hockey. If we want to do something special, we have to play right away. [From] the first puck drop, we have to be focused because if those guys get a couple goals, it's pretty hard to score on them back."

The Capitals are getting closer to full strength. Forward Tom Wilson will return after serving a three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Pittsburgh's Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3, and forward Andre Burakovsky returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since sustaining an upper-body injury in Game 2 of the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Center Nicklas Backstrom did not practice Wednesday after sitting out Game 6 against the Penguins with an upper-body injury believed to be to his righ hand, but Trotz said Backstrom received treatment, worked out off the ice, and that he and Burakovsky will travel with the team to Tampa for the first two games of the series.

With or without Backstrom and Burakovsky, the Capitals will need to get back to the commitment, emotion and energy levels they played with Monday to have their best chance to win.

"Obviously, it was a good win," Trotz said. "We got a lot of demons out of the way, or what have you. And the way we did it, with the types of people that we had out, it showed a lot of resiliency, which I've said all year. Right after the game, we talked a couple minutes about a team win. And we talked about we're only halfway. We've got to the next round and we're going to play a real good opponent in Tampa.

"Just keep a level head and get the work boots and get ready to strap the helmets on, go to Tampa and go nose-to-nose with them."

This is the third conference final in the past four seasons for the Lightning. They know what it takes to play and win this deep into the postseason. Many of the Capitals will be learning as they go, but motivation to get past the Lightning shouldn't be an issue, regardless of what they've already accomplished.

"If you need anything really at this stage you may be in the wrong position," Washington forward T.J. Oshie said. "But if you need anything, they're in the way of getting us to where we want to go. It's going to be a tough obstacle to get past, but we have a good feeling in here we're up to the task."


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