How the Caps can go back-to-back: Part III

Chris Russell
April 10, 2019 - 6:50 pm
How the Caps can go back-to-back: Part III

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

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The Capitals officially begin defense of their Stanley Cup on Thursday night.

Unlike last year, when most "experts" were picking the Columbus Blue Jackets, I've had a hard time finding anyone who is picking the Hurricanes. There's more that awaits the champs – Barry Trotz? Tampa Bay? – but Carolina is the first hurdle.

The Caps swept the season series over Carolina, including back-to-back wins over the Canes two weeks ago, but Carolina is 31-12-2 since late December, with two of those losses to Washington.

Playoff Tested

Even though the Hurricanes have some playoff grit and experience – like former Capital and "Mr. Game Seven" Justin Williams along with Teuvo Teravainen, who helped Chicago win a Stanley Cup back in 2014-2015 – this will be Carolina's first playoff game and series since 2009.

In that same span, the Capitals franchise has played exactly 100 Stanley Cup Playoff games starting with the 2009-10 season.

Experience? You want experience? The Caps have that and then some.

Related: Caps know anything can happen

In addition, their Stanley Cup run last year proved they can consistently overcome adversity and dig deep. They were down 0-2 at home to Columbus, down 1-0 at home to Pittsburgh and in trouble during a pivotal Game 5, down 3-2 to Tampa after blowing a 2-0 lead and down 1-0 to Vegas.

Can Carolina do that? Probably not.

Back-to-Back?

Then there's the burden of expectations and pressure of repeating.

"We're a hungry group in here. We're not satisfied. We want to move forward,” Nick Backstrom told reporters Monday. "But it's different when you know you have won it before."

A good different or a bad different? That's the ultimate debate. Did winning last year take away that edge and resolve they found last spring?

The last 10 Stanley Cups have been won by just five teams (Penguins/Blackhawks – 3, Kings – 2, Caps/Bruins – 1). Maybe there is an edge for teams who have reached the top.

A closer look reveals this: Pittsburgh went back-to-back in 2016 and 2017 before running out of gas against the Caps. Chicago and Los Angeles rotated championships in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Before Pittsburgh, the last team to repeat was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. The Pens also went back-to-back in 1991 & 1992. Washington would become only the fourth organization since 1989 (30 years) to repeat.

Clearly, the mountain in front of the Caps is enormous. Those are just two big-picture issues the Caps face.

Overcoming Kempny

Another major obstacle Washington must overcome is the loss of top-pair defenseman Michal Kempny. Acquired from Chicago at last year's trade deadline, Kempny was quickly paired with John Carlson and stayed there as the duo helped the Caps lock down a championship. Kempny tore his hip labrum in a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in March and will miss the rest of the year.

Nick Jensen is the most likely replacement to start, but that forces Carlson, as a right-handed shot, to the left side, which is unnatural.

This arrangement certainly seems fluid, and tentative at best. You might even see Brooks Orpik and Carlson paired late in games.

Who's This Year's DSP?

It could be Devante Smith-Pelly again as he's down in Hershey after being waived in February. He scored seven goals in the playoffs, three in the Stanley Cup Final, including the game-tying marker in the series-clinching win.

More likely is that the Caps getting some big points from Nic Dowd. He had two goals in his last five regular-season contests and racked up a career-high eight goals this season. He had nine in his career prior to this season, over 131 career games. He also finished with 14 assists.

Who's Flying Under the Radar?

Andre Burakovsky was in major trouble during the first half of the season. Almost everyone had him projected to be traded at or before the deadline. He was not and has been great since. Overall, he's racked up 12 goals and 25 points with a plus-two rating. Since the trade deadline alone, he's scored four goals and his explosive skating has been noticeable.

Tom Wilson, who continues to get better and better every year, racked up 22 goals in 63 games this season, while learning how to hit and control his body. He kills penalties and contributes on the power play.

The Todd Reirden Factor

Clearly it wasn't a normal year with Reirden's ascension to the head coaching job, but his familiarity with this group and the organization allowed for an easier path.

At times, he's juggled the lineups a bit too much and his team has gotten dominated for a period or more, but the Caps adjusted their style, tightened up their gaps and executed more consistently in the defensive zone since returning from the All-Star break. Washington finished the grind of the 82-game schedule 15-6-1 in their last 22 games, and 21-9-2 since Feb. 1, following a seven-game losing streak.

The Caps, if they continue to play how they have since February, are primed to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. Is it too much to ask for them to go back-to-back? Hell no! The opportunity is right there for the taking.

How the Caps can go back-to-back: Part I & Part 2

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