The Caps, now used to ‘high-stakes hockey,’ feel ready for playoff pressure

Just to give themselves a chance to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Washington Capitals had to play what essentially were playoff games for the better part of a month. Their hopes were on the line nearly every night, and by the time they won Game 82 in Philadelphia on Tuesday — a win-and-get-in matchup for the Capitals — it almost felt like a playoff-style handshake line should have followed Washington’s celebration after the victory.

Now, as the Capitals prepare to open the first round against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, they believe that weeks of living on the edge have put them in a stable position to handle the pressure of the postseason.

“We’ve won three in a row. We’re feeling good,” center Dylan Strome said. “The momentum’s kind of with us, and obviously we feel good. It’s going to be a tough building to play in, tough rink, but I think as hockey players you want to be confident, you want to feel confident in your own game and our team.”

On paper, matching up against the Presidents’ Trophy winners as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference after needing a final-day victory to squeak across the line doesn’t look favorable for Washington. Translating regular season results to what might happen in the playoffs isn’t exactly a straight comparison, but as Strome was quick to point out, the Capitals went 2-2 against the Rangers in the regular season — winning by scores of 4-0 and 2-1 and losing by scores of 5-1 and 3-2.

Just last season, the President’s Trophy-winning Boston Bruins were upset by the Florida Panthers — who sneaked into the eighth seed after a late-season push — in the first round.

“If you look throughout the whole hockey season, any team can beat any team on any given night,” Strome said. “We played the Rangers pretty well this year. We were 2-2, both had nine goals for, nine goals against. And I think anything can happen in playoffs. You saw what happened last year: The best team in regular season history loses to Florida because they had a good end of the season and they kind of carried it toward playoffs.”

These Capitals are not quite last year’s Panthers, who were only one year removed from winning a Presidents’ Trophy of their own when they knocked off the Bruins and made a run to the Stanley Cup finals. Washington hasn’t won a playoff series since it won the Cup in 2018, and it took nearly everything the Capitals had just to get across the line this year.

But in living on the knife’s edge for the better part of a month, if not longer, Washington also grew comfortable with the kind of hockey that’s required to win in the postseason. In tightly contested, hard-checking games, the Capitals tend to be the best version of themselves; it’s when things open up that they’re in trouble.

“I think we’ve been playing playoff hockey for the last month now,” center Connor McMichael said. “We’re already in that mode and in that mind-set. We want to prove that we’re able to compete with any single team in this league. It’s a great opportunity for our team to take on the Presidents’ Trophy winners. They’ve got a really good team over there, but I think we’re up for the challenge.”

Washington Coach Spencer Carbery cautioned against taking too much confidence from the end of the regular season, knowing that the playoffs will bring a new level of difficulty.

“It’s a clean slate. It’s a new season now,” Carbery said. “Do we feel good about where our game is at? Do we feel good and have taken some positive steps to us being more difficult to play against, doing things that are quote-unquote playoff-style games, getting through those, getting some results? For sure, and that will help. We’re going to have to replicate some of those games that we’ve played and some of the things that we’ve done inside of those games if we’re going to have success against the Rangers.

“We’ll focus on those and try to carry that momentum as best we can, knowing that it is a whole new animal and it’s a clean slate.”

But even as Carbery attempted to set reasonable expectations, his players aren’t tempering their belief in themselves, drawn from what they had to do just to get into the postseason.

“We’ve been playing high-stakes hockey here for quite some time,” goaltender Charlie Lindgren said. “And I think that bodes well for us, too, going into the dance. We got a great group of guys here, and I think every single guy would agree with me that this group’s been special all season long.”

Leonard returns to Boston College

Top prospect Ryan Leonard, whom the Capitals selected with the No. 8 pick in the 2023 draft, chose to return to Boston College for his sophomore season. Leonard set a Boston College record with 31 goals, the most by a freshman in program history, and was tied for fourth in the country with 60 points in 41 games. The Eagles lost to Denver in the national championship game.

“We support Ryan’s decision to return to one of the best programs in the nation to continue his development,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said in a statement. “… We will continue to monitor his development and progress next year and look forward to watching Ryan build upon his successful freshman season.”

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