The last time they won a playoff series, the Capitals were hoisting the Stanley Cup trophy to celebrate winning their first championship in franchise history. Washington hasn’t made it past the first round in the four seasons since, losing out to a different team each year but facing the familiar feeling of disappointment over not making a deeper run.
Last season, it was the Florida Panthers who ended the Capitals’ season. They had control of the series after splitting the first two games in Sunrise Arena and taking Game 3 in dominant fashion to jump out to a 2-1 lead. However, Florida then ripped off three straight wins, including two overtime victories, to snuff out Washington's Stanley Cup hopes.
That feeling — the one the Capitals felt in the aftermath of Carter Verhaeghe’s series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 6 — is still with them.
“It motivates you when you start your training in the summer,” defenseman John Carlson told reporters Thursday at training camp. “I think it motivates you now when camp starts. I think it motivates you when the season starts. It doesn’t matter how much success or failure you feel like you’ve had. The next year if you don’t win, you feel like s*** and nobody is taking that for granted and certainly, we’ll be ready with a little extra jazz from changing that narrative.”
With a core that has remained largely intact over the last half-decade, most of the Capitals’ roster has been around long enough to see the team knocked out of the first round a few times. Many of them were playing in D.C. from 2014-17 when they were eliminated in the second round three straight years — twice at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But as that 2017-18 season showed, sometimes all it takes is one good series to exorcise some demons and propel a team deep into the dance.
“Every playoff loss hurts,” center Lars Eller said. “It hurts you deep inside and it stays with you. But it should be…a motivator at the same time and again, I said before, I think in my experience teams that make a long run often — the first round is the toughest to win. It might just be the most challenging. It often is. So if you can win one round, you can win four.
“But we haven’t gotten it done. We haven’t gotten it done in the last, whatever, four years. I don’t know what to say other than I’m still hungry. I think the hunger is still in the room and I think that’s what it comes down to because we got the talent, we got the quality, we got the experience. We got all these assets now it just has to come together at the right time.”
Every season presents its own set of challenges and 2022-23 will be no different. Washington’s veteran core is another year older and long-term injuries started piling up long before the team arrived for training camp. While the front office addressed its uncertainty in net with the signing of Darcy Kuemper, the contenders at the top of the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference as a whole have the talent to match.
These Capitals have seen what it takes to put together a championship run. Head coach Peter Laviolette wasn’t around for Washington’s title in 2018, but he led the Carolina Hurricanes to a title in 2006 and made appearances in the Stanley Cup Final with both the Philadelphia Flyers (2010) and Nashville Predators (2017).
The feeling of those first-round exits still weighing heavily, Laviolette yearns to get back to the top of the hockey world.
“The last time I was able to win a Stanley Cup was a long, long time ago,” Laviolette said. “When you’re striving for that every year and you fall short, sometimes it almost burns more because you’ve tasted it once and now every year you go into it looking to do that again, looking to get back up on top again. And when you don’t have the success you want in the playoffs, it almost digs and burns a little bit more.”