Tom Wilson caught himself. He knew what was about to come out of his mouth went against years of hatred between his Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I don’t know why I’m saying this, but you respect a team like Pittsburgh,” the top-line right winger said. “It’s so hard to win, let alone to do it twice.”
The Capitals are trying to do just that after ousting the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions last spring on their way to the first title in franchise history. Now that the celebrations are over, being the champs and trying to bounce back from success are new challenges for Alex Ovechkin and Co. after year after year of playoff disappointment.
“Every team is going to try to beat us,” Ovechkin said. “But, for us, we just have to play the same way, at the same pace and try to win every game. … We understand what have to do to get success and that’s great things.”
Gone is coach Barry Trotz, who resigned amid a contract dispute, replaced by longtime assistant Todd Reirden. That is is one of very few changes for the Capitals, who traded backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer, let fourth-line center Jay Beagle leave in free agency but return 18 of the 19 players who took part in the Cup-clinching Game 5 victory in Las Vegas.
General manager Brian MacLellan pulled off a coup in keeping the band together. Top defenseman John Carlson signed a $64 million, eight-year contract to stay with Washington, key additions Devante Smith-Pelly and Michal Kempny re-signed, and the Capitals could raise their Cup banner Oct. 3 against Boston with almost the same forward lines and pairings as they had in the playoffs.
The team is almost the same, but the vibe is totally different after finally beating the Penguins, getting past the second round and ending Washington’s pro sports title drought that dated to 1992.
“I think the organization feels a little bit different,” MacLellan said. “There’s less tension or pressure. It doesn’t mean that we don’t want to win or repeat or anything like that, it just feels different. Maybe it’s hard to explain. I think the edge has been taken off us a little bit and we’re just playing.”
As they come down from the high of winning and attempt to avoid the typical Stanley Cup hangover, players figure getting each opponent’s best effort this season will only help.
“We play better when teams play good against us,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We seem to raise our level up to play against good teams. In the past, we’ve had more difficulty playing against the lower-level teams at times and trying to push ourselves to do the right things in the right areas when games get sloppy. So I think it’ll be good. I think it’ll be great to have every game guys pushing you to different levels.”
Reirden is just the fourth coach in the past 30 years to assume control of a defending Cup champion. The 47-year-old sought advice from hockey and football coaches on how to approach what he called a “unique challenge” and came away focused on trying to keep Washington from starting slow.
“It’s all calculated and it’s been thought through,” Reirden said. “I’ve been able to gather some real interesting information and hopefully that can help continue to point our club in the right direction.”
OVECHKIN 50 WATCH
After a league-high 49-goals in the regular season and 15 more in the playoffs as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Ovechkin is showing no signs of slowing down at age 33. MacLellan thinks the Russian superstar looks even leaner than a year ago and an eighth 50-goal season is certainly possible. Ovechkin’s whirlwind summer included taking the Stanley Cup home to Moscow and his wife giving birth to the couple’s first child.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Ovechkin said. “You don’t want to do too much and say too much. You just have to go out there and work hard and have success.”
Playing 54 regular-season games last year allowed Holtby to have the best playoffs of his NHL career as he went 16-7 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. With Grubauer gone and untested Pheonix Copley as the backup goalie, Holtby could have to start 65-plus games (again).
“I’m not a guy that likes time off,” Holtby said. “Through the playoffs was the best I’ve felt because I was playing every day. That’s just the way I like to do it. I find it easier when I’m playing. I find it really difficult when I’m not. That’s just the way I work.”
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