There are only three Capitals players left that were around in 2010 when one of the franchise’s most devastating playoff defeats happened in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Capitals, the Presidents’ Trophy winners that led the league in goals and finished with 121 points, were eliminated in seven games in a stunning upset that catapulted the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Final. Ironically, they were defeated by Peter Laviolette’s Philadelphia Flyers.
Now, though, 12 years have passed and the Capitals are a vastly different team than the one that took the NHL by storm with the “Young Guns” running wild. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson are 36, 34 and 32 years old. Their style of play is one that favors physicality and structured play, rather than the run-and-gun fireworks show they put on every night.
And, most importantly, a Stanley Cup Champions banner hangs at Capital One Arena.
"Told It Here!" Podcast | Listen and Subscribe
There aren’t a bevy of comparisons to draw between that Capitals team and this year’s Panthers team. But the Capitals have been in the Panthers’ shoes before. And they’re optimistic their playoff experience will matter when the series begins on Tuesday.
"I think something you realize when you're a little older, I think, it doesn't matter where you're seeded,” Nicklas Backstrom said Sunday. “I think everyone's in the playoffs, anything can happen. So I think just knowing that and going into this as of right now the series is tied. Obviously, we believe in ourselves and we're going to do everything we can to win the series."
The Capitals are no strangers to expectations entering the postseason, as in each of their three Presidents’ Trophy seasons, they failed to win more than a single round in the postseason. But that trend hasn’t been necessarily Capitals-specific.
Since the 2004-2005 lockout, just two Presidents’ Trophy winners have won the Stanley Cup and only three have reached the Final. Five of the 16 winners have lost in the first round and nine of the 16 haven’t reached the conference final.
Of course, every year is different and history has little impact for what will happen between the Capitals and Panthers in the next two weeks. And this season, the Presidents’ Trophy winners present a historic offensive juggernaut.
They led the league in goals and were the first team in a quarter-century to average more than four goals per game. They have 14 double-digit goal-scorers, including four 30-goal scorers (Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair and Jonathan Huberdeau). In the regular season, Huberdeau tallied a staggering 85 assists and finished with 115 points.
But the Capitals, perhaps as well as anyone in the league, know how the game changes in the postseason. Now, contrary to the plan for most of the Ovechkin-era, their job is to do what they can to bottle the opponent's high-octane offense up.
“Yeah, we’ve been there,” Ovechkin said. “It’s going to be totally different games than the regular season. Obviously, they have a very solid group of guys, best team in the regular season. But in the playoffs, it’s going to be different. It’s going to be a different mindset. It’s going to be different speed. It’s going to be a different battle level.”
Though the Panthers have a bevy of playoff experience (notably Joe Thornton, Claude Giroux and Patric Hornqvist) on the roster, just Hornqvist has ever hoisted the Stanley Cup.
With a handful of players that have won the Cup and have been through long playoff series with some of the league's best for the last decade-plus, the Capitals' job now is to knock off the Panthers and, for a change, be the one's upsetting the Presidents' Trophy winners early in the playoffs.
“Playoff hockey is a little different — it's usually tight knit, work for your offense, play hard defense,” Tom Wilson said. “I mean, we haven't played them that much. This is obviously a new Panther team, they're playing really well, they're the best in the league right now, so we're excited to get down there and get started and try to make some noise and take Game 1.”