A Caps fan at the 2018 Stanley Cup champions parade
A Caps fan at the 2018 Stanley Cup champions parade Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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If the Washington Capitals squint hard enough at the opposing bench in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they might think they were peering through a time machine.

Today, the Caps and the Carolina Hurricanes franchises couldn’t be more different. The Capitals are the reigning Stanley Cup champions, four-time Metropolitan Division winners, and are competing in the postseason for the 11th time in the past 12 years. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are making their first playoff appearance since 2009, having squeaked into the NHL postseason as a wild card.

While the similarities between the two clubs may stop at their red jerseys, the Capitals can understand what this young Carolina team is trying to do and the size of the challenges they face. Until last year’s triumph, the Caps entered each postseason with an albatross called “history” tied around their necks. No championships. No runs deeper than the second round in 20 years. Inexperience, uncertainty, and doubt were storylines surrounding the Caps.

But this time around, things are different. The snide editorials about inability and mental toughness no longer swirl like razor blades. It’s now the underdog Hurricanes staring down the barrel of a big, bad Washington juggernaut—at least during the first two games of the series.

And for his part, Capitals head coach Todd Reirden is enjoying the change in roles.

“Last year at this time, the players and our staff were answering questions about how we were going to figure it out … And for the last three weeks, those questions haven’t been coming our way,” Reirden said during the final week of the regular season. “A lot of our players have commented that that’s been a nice relief.”

Perhaps nowhere has that relief shown up more than in the play of Washington center Nicklas Backstrom. Through the first three games of these playoffs, Backstrom leads the Caps in goals (3) and points (4), slots just behind Alex Ovechkin in total shots (10), and trails only ultra-versatile winger Tom Wilson in average ice time per game among forwards.

“Right now, [Backstrom] is a scoring machine, and I’m Backstrom,” Ovechkin quipped to the media after he assisted on Backstrom’s goal in Game 2. The big Russian winger surely knows a thing or two about being a goal-scoring machine, but while he credits his teammate’s skill, Backstrom chalks it up to the confidence of being a Stanley Cup champion.

“It’s a positive thing for us that we’ve been through it, we know how to handle it. It’s good; we can use that as experience,” Backstrom toldNBC Sports Washington’s Rob Carlin just before the start of Round 1. Where once there was trepidation, there’s now only eagerness. “I want to get started now. I want to play playoff hockey again.”

And for the first time in recent memory, Capitals fans across the region share that swagger. For a fan base that endured 44 years of uniquely heartbreaking defeats, these 2019 playoffs feel different. That shiny silver trophy has introduced a new word: confidence.

“I feel a sense of calm about the Caps this year—no nerves, no anxiety. This is something I’ve never felt before,” says D.C. native and Capitals fan Fatou Bah. “They finally know how to win, and I feel confident saying I believe they’ll repeat.”

Last year’s run to the Stanley Cup included plenty of scares for Caps fans, including in the first round, when Washington went down 0-2 against the Columbus Blue Jackets before storming back.

“Last year felt like walking on eggshells because they had flamed out so many times before,” adds William Day, a fellow Caps fan, pointing to three straight seasons of second-round losses prior to last year, including back-to-back campaigns as winners of the regular season’s Presidents’ Trophy. “I’m more confident, if for no other reason than this group of guys is more or less the same as last year’s and they’ve proven they can crest that hill.”

Day and Bah are right. But for the Caps, proving they can win it once is one thing. Doing it again? That’s another, especially when there’s a hungry, talented young Carolina team standing in their way. The Caps return to the ice on Thursday with a 2-1 series lead.

“There’s a lot of good teams out there,” Backstrom says. “Anything can happen in the playoffs.”