The summer of 2018 was a blissful celebration for the Capitals and their fans. For the first time in franchise history, Washington claimed the Stanley Cup.
For a city that had never experienced winning the Cup, the summer was an interesting mix of celebration and preparation for the upcoming season. It felt hard to know when to turn the page.
The first few days after the team won the Cup were a euphoric party complete with the Cup parade, taking Lord Stanley to a Nationals game, swimming in a fountain in Georgetown and getting new tattoos. As the players finally went their separate ways for the offseason, the party did not stop as it was time for each player to have their day with the Cup. Even as the season drew ever closer, the celebration ramped back up again as the team got its Stanley Cup rings and the Stanley Cup banner was raised to the rafters at Capital One Arena.
But then it was time to move on.
“There hasn't been much of an offseason and it's been a lot of work and a lot of self-reflection and much joy,” Ted Leonsis said. “But now that's being drained out of the equation because it's dawned on everyone that we get our rings this week, we put up the banner tonight and then it's next season. So trying to find that and strike a balance between celebrating and paying homage to the past and then being focused on making the playoffs and then trying to repeat is a tall order.”
There were plenty of jokes over whether the Caps were celebrating their championship a bit too much, but the fact is the summer after winning the Cup hardly gives players time to breathe. Now as the team returns from the bye week, they sit 27-17-6. A respectable record, but one that is overshadowed by the team’s seven-game losing streak which has dragged them down to third place in the division.
Washington got off to a slow 5-4-2 start to the season and it looked like the team was dealing with the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover.
“It's one of the big challenges this year is you've worked years and years to accomplish your lifelong dream, you accomplish it, now you're kind of finding that ‘now what?’ type thing,” Braden Holtby said. “As a team, you can tell we're doing the same things to kind of do that. It's just, we've got to find that way to get that extra motivation. I think having a bit of struggle off the start isn't a bad thing. It's a kind of reminder that this game never comes easy no matter who you are or what you've done.”
The team rebounded and won 16 out of 19 from November to the end of December, but they have struggled ever since.
It doesn’t matter what a team looks like the year after they win the Cup. They are always referred to as the defending champions regardless of how many players they may have lost in the offseason. Sometimes those teams look very different.
The Caps, however, do not.
General manager Brian MacLellan went to great lengths to keep the roster intact form last season with the only departures being Philipp Grubauer and Jay Beagle. So there’s no question that this team is good enough to compete for the Cup because the same roster won it last season.
But if there’s one thing the team has learned now 50 games into the season, it’s that repeating is hard. It’s not just going through the grind of another 82-game season, it’s going through an 82-game season after playing an extra 24 playoff games, after a shortened offseason, and and after celebration that didn’t end until the day after the opener.
On Oct. 3, the Caps opened the season by raising their championship banner and bashing the Boston Bruins 7-0. The real grind began the following day as they had to face a back-to-back immediately on the road against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
Suddenly, it was back to work for Washington.
It’s hard to turn the page so quickly and, as the team has learned over the first half of the season, it doesn’t matter how good your roster is, it’s hard to repeat.
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