ARLINGTON — A year ago at this time, Nic Dowd was watching the Stanley Cup playoffs from home while most of his current Capitals teammates were on the run of a lifetime.
Nick Jensen, Dowd’s friend and college teammate at St. Cloud State, was in the same position back in Michigan. Neither player had ever reached the NHL postseason. Dowd’s Vancouver Canucks finished 14th in the Western Conference. Jensen’s Detroit Red Wings were 20 points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Neither could have foreseen the position they find themselves in now. Dowd and Jensen joined the Capitals this season – one via free agency in July, the other near the trade deadline in February – and are about to participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time. Washington plays the Carolina Hurricanes in a best-of-seven first-round series beginning Thursday.
“I’m excited. I’ve never even come close to making it to clinching playoffs or even playing [big games],” Dowd said after a 3-2 win against the Hurricanes in Raleigh on March 28 secured a playoff spot.
Unlike last year’s team, which relied on six rookies or playoff neophytes who had never been in the postseason before, including Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson and Christian Djoos, this year’s Capitals returned almost intact and loaded with experience. Only center Jay Beagle, backup goalie Philipp Grubauer, forward Alex Chiasson and defenseman Jakub Jerabek did not return to the organization among the 26 players who were on the playoff roster.
Forward Devante Smith-Pelly is in the minors with AHL Hershey, but began the year with the Capitals. So did defenseman Madison Bowey, who was traded to Detroit in the Jensen deal.
Jensen and Dowd are joined by rookie defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler and goalie Pheonix Copley as the only Capitals who have never been in a playoff game. And even Copley was around the team all last spring as a third goalie, though he was never active. He did get to lift the Cup on the ice at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and take part in the victory parade. He is the clear backup to starting goalie Braden Holtby, however, and it would be a shock if Copley plays.
Siegenthaler, for now, is the seventh defenseman, but could quickly be called upon if an injury hits the blueline. The Capitals have already lost Michal Kempny (torn hamstring) for the season. Siegenthaler appeared in 26 games this season as a rookie.
“The players that were not involved in it I have dealt with individually and talked to them about getting them ready in some of their cases for their first playoff action,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s been something I’ve been talking to those players about for the last 10 games to get them ready. Talked to them about decisions they make with the puck and how important that is in their role and their responsibility. ‘We can’t have that type of mistake in a playoff game.’ And when they have a great shift that starts to give us momentum then I let them know those are the type of shifts that we need from our fourth line in playoff hockey.”
So this will be new – at the NHL level at least. Jensen left St. Cloud State in 2013 after he, Dowd and their teammates reached the NCAA Frozen Four. He immediately joined Grand Rapids, the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, and was a black ace - a practice player who was scratched for games - on a team that won the Calder Cup. It wasn’t as sweet because he didn’t actually play, but there were lessons learned.
“One of the biggest things I saw with that Grand Rapids team was perseverance. Get knocked down, getting scored on, but getting right back up and scoring again and staying with it,” Jensen said. “I think that’s a big characteristic of a winning team. Can you get back up? You’re not just going to drift through playoffs winning every game. There’s going to be tough spots and you’ve got to find a way to get out of them.”
That describes exactly what the Capitals did last year en route to the Cup. They were down 2-0 in the first-round series against Columbus and playing in overtime of Game 3, but found a way to win. They lost the first game in the second round against Pittsburgh by blowing a two-goal lead in the third period and lost Game 1 in the Cup Final against Vegas. Washington bounced back every time. It clinched all four series on the road.
Dowd began his career with the Los Angeles Kings, who won the Cup in 2012 and again in 2014 while he was still at St. Cloud State. But Dowd did get his own taste of a long postseason run in 2015. He was a key part of a Calder Cup title by the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ AHL affiliate. Dowd had seven goals and six assists that spring in 19 games. But his first full NHL season in 2016-17, the Kings missed the playoffs by eight points. Dowd was traded to Vancouver early last season.
“They did win two Stanley Cups [in Los Angeles] before me so I know the atmosphere and the level play that is expected,” Dowd said. “It’s hard not to dream a little bit. But people keep talking about a long run. We’ve got to win the first series, we’ve got to win the first game and then the second game. I played in the American League playoffs and that took us two-and-a-half months and that was a grind. That’s as close as I can compare it to, but I’m sure the Stanley Cup playoffs will be an eye opener. I’m excited to get into it.”
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