ARLINGTON – Things have not gone well for the Capitals the last few days. After taking a 2-0 series lead over the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington saw that lead evaporate with two losses in Raleigh as they were outscored 7-1 and lost T.J. Oshie to injury. But even as the series momentum has taken a serious shift in Carolina’s favor, the mood in Washington remains calm.
“You know it’s playoffs,” Jakub Vrana said. “You can’t ever get too low or too high. We’re going to try to manage as best we can in the situation that we are right now.”
The underlying calm and confidence the Caps feel comes from past experience. Having always been the team that came up short in the playoffs, now Washington is the defending Stanley Cup champion, and it is not as if their path to the Cup was without its challenges.
“We understand what we went through last year,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “This is part of the experience. We went through some difficult times last year whether it was injuries or suspensions or being down in series, whether it was 0-2 or 3-2 in different series and battling through some tough times. We managed as a group to come through it.”
The Caps went down 0-2 in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets before rattling off four straight wins to advance. They lost three straight games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final and faced elimination in both Game 6 and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. They responded with two perfect games, shutting out the Lightning in both. Washington lost Game 1 in three out of four playoff series in 2018 and trailed at some point in all four.
And yet, they still came out on top in the end.
Amid those struggles were a number of key losses on the roster. In the decisive Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Caps were without Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovksy and Tom Wilson. Backstrom and Burakovsky were out injured while Wilson was suspended. The team will need to lean on that experience now with Oshie out indefinitely.
“Obviously, that’s something that you never want to have is one of your top players going down,” Chandler Stephenson said, “But it shows that last year we had guys coming in and pulling their weight and doing a little more and it helped us a lot. It gave us a little extra spark and it’s just more opportunity for everyone and I think we’re ready for it. It’s obviously motivation in itself to do it for Osh now, too.”
This time, the team will be looking for a spark from Devante Smith-Pelly, a playoff hero from 2018 who was recalled from the Hershey Bears on Friday in response to Oshie’s injury.
“Yeah, it’s tough to not have Osh right now,” Vrana said. “He’s been a big part of this team but it is what it is and we’re going to try to fill the spot as best we can.”
Even Nic Dowd, in his first season with Washington, can feel the confidence in the room.
“That is why they make it best-of-seven,” Dowd said. “This is my first time doing this, but I've played in a lot of playoff hockey before this, American League, college, stuff like that. I think the confidence hasn't changed. I think we still are a calm team. Our guys are going to be ready. Like I said, it is the Stanley Cup playoffs. Every team that is left is a good team and every team wants to win."
While there are no such things as moral victories in professional sports, that does not mean good things cannot come from losses. The Caps have not played their best hockey in any of the four games in the series. Perhaps two losses in Carolina will provide the wake-up call Washington needs.
“Maybe that spurs us on to a different level of play because we need a different level of play from everybody,” Reirden said. “They pushed back and now it's our turn to return the favor when they come into our building. We worked hard and played hard all year to have this opportunity to have home ice in this round. Now it's our chance to see it through. It's something that we're going to need everybody and everybody's top game. Credit to them that they've played well, but I also know that there's another level our team can get to.”
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