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.”

[How will Golden Knights follow up historic first season?]

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.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

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.

P.K. Subban gets a warm tribute during his return to Nashville

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It would have been silly for Nashville Predators fans to boo P.K. Subban during his return to “Smashville.”

Subban didn’t choose to be traded from Montreal to Nashville, and he didn’t elect to be sent from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils, either.

Sports fans aren’t always so rational, though. Really, it makes sense: spending so much money, time, and emotional energy on a game isn’t exactly the most rational thing to do. So there was some concern about how Subban would be received, especially since he’s already booed in an honestly uncomfortably large number of NHL arenas already.

Subban and others can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as while not everyone greeted Subban with open arms in as literal a way as Roman Josi did with their hug on Saturday, the team gave Subban a fantastic welcome back tribute video:

Not only does that video include some of Subban’s great moments during his three seasons with the Predators (that Stanley Cup Final appearance, a Norris Trophy win), it also captures some of the off-the-ice qualities that make Subban so fun and entertaining (and make people sometimes get perplexingly, maybe troublingly mad about him). He got up and decided to sing some Johnny Cash upon arriving in Nashville, was a fantastic charitable presence, and was a lot of fun.

(No Listerine was spilled in the making of the ad, but you can’t have it all.)

Anyway, good on the Predators and their fans for welcoming P.K. back.

As a reminder, Montreal Canadiens fans greeted him with love upon his return, too:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Avs’ rising star Cale Makar shaken by hit from Bruins’ Marchand

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The Colorado Avalanche have done a masterful job, for the most part, when it comes to rolling with injury-related punches to key players such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They have to hope that Saturday didn’t send another such haymaker their way.

Rising star defenseman Cale Makar (who just fell under a point per game on Saturday with 28 in 29 contests) was clearly shaken up by a hard hit by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

It didn’t seem like a heinous hit by Marchand, although there are some who wonder if it was a bit high.

Either way, Makar’s reaction is troubling. You can see him shake his head multiple times following the hit, which gives the impression that he could have suffered a concussion. That doesn’t guarantee that Makar did, but it’s a situation to watch — and one the Avalanche should absolutely be careful about.

The Avalanche ended up beating the Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Laila Anderson, bone marrow donor attend Blues game

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If it got a “little dusty” at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday, that’s understandable, because the continued story of Laila Anderson meeting Kenton Felmlee, her bone marrow donor, is sure to make most get a case of heightened allergies.

(Is that a leak from the ceiling? /Sobs)

Anyway, Felmlee was Anderson’s guest during Saturday’s Toronto Maple Leafs – St. Louis Blues game, giving the two another chance to bond, and beyond that, for Anderson to thank Felmlee for helping her in her battle with the rare immune disease HLH.

It’s great stuff, even if the actual Blues game isn’t going so great for St. Louis.

This longer clip from their first meeting earlier this week is worth watching, unless you don’t want people to see you openly weeping’n’stuff:

(Personally, I’d say it’s worth it.)

MORE ON LAILA ANDERSON AND THE BLUES:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Canucks’ Miller scored an awesome water bottle breaker in OT

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Over time, you can become jaded as a sports (and specifically hockey) fan.

Stories about abusive coaches, lockouts, fans booing players for simply no longer being on their teams — it can sap some of the joy of the game.

Thankfully, we have highlights, and I can’t think of many simpler joys than someone scoring a goal and absolutely obliterating the goalie’s water bottle in the process. (As long as no one gets too dehydrated in the making of such films.)

Vancouver Canucks winger J.T. Miller did it one better on Saturday: he scored an important goal that way. Miller presented the ultra-rare OTBBGWG (overtime bottle-breaking game-winning goal) as the Canucks beat the Buffalo Sabres 6-5 in OT.

Bask in the glory of that goal in the video above this post’s headline. Here’s a fun alternate angle:

By the way, Miller continues to be a deadly offensive weapon for the Canucks. This one-goal, one-assist output extended his current point streak to an impressive eight games (5G, 6A for 11 points). Overall, Miller has 31 points in 30 games during his first season in Vancouver.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.