The Washington Capitals will begin their quest for a second straight Stanley Cup on Thursday night when they take on the visiting Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round matchup.
Washington won the franchise's first championship last spring, beating Columbus, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and then Vegas for the Stanley Cup. This year's playoff run begins with a Carolina team that the Caps swept during the regular season.
The regular season saw Washington edge out the New York Islanders for first place in the Metropolitan Division by one point (104-103). The Capitals rebounded from a midseason slump that included a seven-game losing streak and played better down the stretch.
Alex Ovechkin led the league in goals with 51, the eighth time he's scored at least 50 in his career. He finished with a team-high 89 points. The overall defense and penalty kill improved significantly in the final weeks of the season, as did goalie Braden Holtby.
Holtby is 5-0-0 in his last five games, sporting a 1.60 goals-against average and .947 save percentage during that span.
Midseason trades for wing Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen proved helpful, especially on penalty kills. Jensen has stepped up now that the Capitals have lost defenseman Michal Kempny for the season (hamstring surgery).
Washington has plenty of offense with players like Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson. Kuznetsov helped carry the Caps to the title last year but was inconsistent at times this season.
After reaching the mountaintop a year ago, the Capitals aren't lacking for confidence.
"There's just a belief," Oshie told the Washington Post. ""There's a reassurance in here that we have what it takes to get it done."
But the team will not overlook the Hurricanes just because it swept them this season.
"Carolina is a great team," Backstrom told the Post. "They're a young team, and we've got to be aware of them at all times, because they're dangerous."
Carolina is in the playoffs for the first time since 2009. None of the players from that team are on the current roster, although Rod Brind'Amour, the captain of that club, is now the Hurricanes' head coach. Of the team's regulars, 11 have never played in the postseason.
The Capitals' expected Game 1 lineup has more than 1,200 games of playoff experience. Carolina's lineup has just over 300, with captain and former Capital Justin Williams accounting for 140 in his career.
Williams recently told the media in Carolina that the Hurricanes know what they're going against, but they're ready to roll.
"Obviously we're the underdogs," Williams told those reporters. "We're playing the defending Stanley Cup champions. But do we feel like we are 1/8underdogs 3/8? No. We're going to work our tails off and see, as I said... see how good we can be."
Carolina had balanced scoring this season and finished with 99 points, just five behind the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division. Sebastian Aho led the Hurricanes with 30 goals and 83 points. Williams was second in goals (23) and third in points (53), while Teuvo Teravainen -- who won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015 -- ranked third in goals (21), first in assists (55) and second in points (76).
The Hurricanes started slowly in the first part of the season while trying to break out of the NHL's longest active playoff drought. Everything starting to change around New Year's, though. Sitting at 15-17-5 entering Dec. 31, Carolina went 31-12-2 over the final 45 games.
Only the league best Tampa Bay Lightning (34 wins) had more during that span.
Overall, the Hurricanes finished 46-29-7, marking the second-best record in the history of the franchise. The only team that was better? The 2005-06 squad, which went 52-22-8 and went on to win the only Stanley Cup in the team's 39-year history.
--Field Level Media
Copyright 2019 by STATS. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS is strictly prohibited.