ARLINGTON, Va. —The grieving process lasted the entire summer of 2017 and continued well into the season.
The Capitals, who had the NHL’s best record two years running and nothing to show for it except heartache and a depleted roster, spent last year’s training camp coming to terms with consecutive second-round Stanley Cup playoff exits to the Pittsburgh Penguins that left them devastated.
The entire organization had to accept that loss, mourn it and, at some point, move on. It took months. Eventually, after fits and starts, they managed it. They won another Metropolitan Division title and finally, memorably, the Stanley Cup. This September features a much different problem for Washington. How do you let go of a championship?
“I was thinking to myself a couple weeks ago that we’ve got to realize that everything is going to be tougher to start and all the games are going to be tougher against us,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We better play our best hockey to start. That’s reality.”
The summer was a time for celebration. The Capitals won the Cup on June 7 in Las Vegas. They returned to Washington for one of the all-time great parties, almost a full week bender that ended with a parade down Constitution Avenue. They all left town eventually, but the Cup visited them in their hometowns or another place of their choosing.
It was only after their day with the Cup that most players could detach themselves and start planning and training for the upcoming season, which begins Oct. 3. That’s when they get the chance to defend their title.
“It’s extremely hard to do,” forward Tom Wilson said. “You get respect and — I don’t know why I’m saying this — but you respect a team like Pittsburgh. When you see a team repeat like that, you know, it’s so hard to win let alone to do it twice. It’s a huge achievement. That’s one that we’re ready for.”
The Penguins went on to win the Cup in 2016 and 2017 after eliminating the Capitals, who finally returned the favor with a six-game series victory in the second round in May en route to their own championship.
Players insisted their celebrations weren’t quite as long as they seemed on social media. T.J. Oshie joked that fans came up to him all summer and asked him to pull his shirt over his head and crush a beer as he did multiple times in the hours and days after the Cup win. He quickly began declining those requests with a simple “No, I’m good.”
Oshie, while acknowledging how hard that is, insists Washington can repeat. But he thinks back often to the playoff series where the Capitals imposed their will on the teams they played. He thinks of Game 4 in the first-round series against Columbus and Game 2 against the Penguins, both 4-1 wins, and the combined 7-0 drubbing they put on Tampa Bay in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference final despite being down 3-2 in the series and facing elimination. At the victory parade, Oshie started a “back-to-back” chant that had the huge crowd roaring.
“The reason I said back-to-back is because we brought ourselves to a level of playing where the other teams just didn’t play their game anymore,” Oshie said. “We brought people out of their comfort zone and we just stuck to what we had. That reassurance of winning the Stanley Cup with the guys we have is I think something that, it just sticks with you that you can do it, that you’re able to do it. Whereas before I feel like there were some doubts.”
Last September, management still believed it had a quality team, but there was a palpable fragility to it. There were too many untested rookies moving into the lineup, too much uncertainty about how the veterans would react as they got set to push the rock back up the hill after the Penguin losses and the departure of players like Nate Schmidt and Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk and Marcus Johansson.
General manager Brian MacLellan and defenseman Brooks Orpik, among many others, later expressed bewilderment that anyone expected the Capitals to just fade away. Owner Ted Leonsis said on the ice at T-Mobile Arena, as the Stanley Cup celebration whirled around him, that he never had any doubts.
But while all three men genuinely believed they still had a good team, that the window to win hadn’t closed on them completely, they’re only human. Washington had competitive teams almost every year since 2007-08. It never won. So while the doubts of outsiders fueled them, uncertainty still lingered no matter what they said months later.
“A year ago was tough,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “It was a situation where you lose a lot of guys from a very good team before and you go through a transition period. Every year is different that way. We learned a lot about ourselves last year how we can push through.”
Last year, head coach Barry Trotz was the one who had to guide them through that period. He’s gone now after rejecting a contract offer that would have kept him with Washington and instead took the same job with the New York Islanders.
Todd Reirden, his top assistant who enters his fifth year with the organization, is the new coach. He’s been here before. His first year as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010 came after they won the Stanley Cup. Reirden saw firsthand how that team, which included Orpik, handled the nightly challenge of playing with a target on its back. It was difficult. So he was blunt about his expectations with his players. Each one got a call before their day with the Cup.
“I was really clear with them,” Reirden said. “I sent them all an e-mail about what was to be expected of them to start camp. They knew that [the first day of camp] was going to be a difficult day, we were going to have a skate test, we were going to have a hard practice. They know that they were to come back here ready to work.”
Now they are back and ready to go. Washington has its first preseason home game Tuesday after losing in a shootout to the Boston Bruins on Sunday. There is little competition for roster spots in camp other than one or two forward spots on the fourth line, possibly a third-pair defenseman and backup goalie. Other than forward Jay Beagle and goalie Philipp Grubauer, it is very much the same group that won a championship together. To win another, they have to let that go.
“When you taste it, you want it more and more,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “I think you can see lots of guys still have memories of what they did with the Cup and how awesome it was when the whole town was just going nuts. It’s something special, you know. You just don’t want to stop it. You just want to continue to do it.”
Brian McNally is a senior staff writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He is also an award-winning multimedia journalist, who has covered the Redskins, Capitals and Nationals for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times and 106.7 The Fan and major events like the Super Bowl, NCAA basketball tournament, Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA playoffs, NFL Combine and NFL Draft.
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