Capitals ready for challenge of defending Stanley Cup title

The summer of celebrating is over and on Wednesday night the Washington Capitals will raise a Stanley Cup banner to the Capital One Arena rafters. The distributing of their rings and the pre-game ceremony signifies the turning of the page from the 2017-18 season for the defending champions.

The Capitals’ players know that a slow start can have dire consequences in April and the focus must be on the now and not what happened that June night in Las Vegas. But for Lars Eller, his goal that broke a 3-3 tie in the Cup-clinching Game 5 is a memory he probably won’t stop looking back on this season.

“I don’t have a number,” Eller said earlier this month when asked how many times he’s called the goal up online, “but I’ll keep watching. If I’m in a bad mood I’ll put it on.”

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As the Capitals go about defending their title this season, they know they have the target on their backs. Every night, teams will want to knock down the champs and they’ll be on the receiving end of opponents’ best games. They feel ready to accept that challenge. T.J. Oshie recalled that when they played against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the seasons after their most recent Cup wins, it was used as a measuring stick game. You want to see how your team, with all of its changes from the previous year (or in Washington’s case, the lack of changes), stack up against the team who had it all go right for them. 

That’s the expectation the Capitals will have for every game this season.

“It’s going to be a different scenario when we walk into the first game,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “At the same time, we have so much to build off of. This gave us confidence. If we can keep that going I think it’s going to be a good year again.”

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When asked during training camp last season, captain Alex Ovechkin stated his goal for the season quite simply: “We’re not gonna be suck this year.” He ended up being quite right. So how do the Capitals follow that up in 2018-19?

“Not suck back-to-back,” Ovechkin said at the start of training camp.

The Capitals’ Cup win also doubled as the removal of a monkey from Ovechkin’s back. Since entering the NHL in 2005, he’s had to watch Sidney Crosby and the Penguins win three titles as his team felt short of expectations numerous times, unable to to even get past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But when Evgeny Kuznetsov backhanded a shot through Matt Murray’s legs in overtime of Game 6, demons were exorcized and the series-clinching goal opened up the opportunity for them to finally get over the hump.

Now the 33-year-old Ovechkin won’t have to worry about ending his magnificent NHL career without a championship.

“It’s gone,” he said. “Right now, we have to think of different questions.”

The question now facing Ovechkin is whether the Capitals can repeat. They have a new coach with former assistant Todd Reirden stepping in for Barry Trotz and a very similar roster to the one that was on the T-Mobile Arena ice in June passing the Cup around. Gone is goaltender Philip Grubauer and forward Jay Beagle and back are key pieces to their championship run in Tom Wilson, John Carlson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Michal Kempny, and Brooks Orpik.

Repeating comes with its own set of challenges. Only three teams since 1990 have been able to win back-to-back Stanley Cups, with the Penguins achieving the feat twice in 1992 and 2017 and the Detroit Red Wings repeating in 1998. Three other defending champions have lost in the Cup Final, while another five fell in the conference final.

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Of the 28 champions since 1990, nine have been booted in the first round and three missed the playoffs completely the following season. The dreaded Stanley Cup hangover with a short summer full of celebrating has affected plenty of teams. Having a target on your backs every night and knowing opponents will really get up for your games is another hurdle to overcome. Personnel losses in free agency have made major impacts on repeat opportunities, as well as injuries derailing the quest for another title.

The Capitals will be reminded of last season often in 2018-19. The repeat talk will come up if they’re having another successful year and find themselves back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in April. But that can be a distraction.

The best way to approach it? Take Kuznetsov’s advice.

“That’s history already,” he said. “I already forgot about that. If you keep talking about that, keeping thinking about that, we’re going to be bad. You have to focus. The league gets better every day… We’ve got to get back to that mentality when we get hungry, when we want to win every game.

“It’s not going to be easy. The way we finished last year people are going to expect us to start in the same way, right?”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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