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Capitals' Stanley Cup title defense will begin against red-hot Hurricanes

By the time he got to his dressing room stall and started taking off his skates, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin seemed vaguely aware that a night that started with three different options for a first-round playoff opponent ended with the Carolina Hurricanes locked in. He also didn’t care.

“It doesn’t matter who we’re going to play against,” Ovechkin said, which he repeated twice more by the time his interview was completed.

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Ovechkin is merely confident that the Capitals have the talent to beat any team as long as they do the right things, and last year’s franchise-first Stanley Cup was evidence of that. As Washington looks to repeat as champions, it will do so starting with a club it has never faced in the postseason before. The Capitals swept their four-game regular-season series against the Hurricanes, who ended a 10-year playoff drought with this berth, but Carolina presents a challenge in that it’s been one of the hottest clubs down the stretch, accumulating the third-most points in the NHL since Jan. 1.

The Capitals host the first two games of the series at Capital One Arena with Game 1 on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

“Every year, you think you can pick which opponent you want to play or think the first round is just a given,” Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It’s not. You’ve got to play well, no matter who you’re playing.”

Washington played Carolina twice in three nights less than two weeks ago, and while forward Brett Connolly said those two Capitals wins gives the team “maybe a little” extra confidence, players also understand that regular-season results tend to have little bearing on what happens in the playoffs. These Hurricanes have a captain the Capitals are well acquainted with: forward Justin Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup champion who played in Washington for two seasons from 2015 to 2017. Rod Brind’Amour is the first-year head coach of the group, and Carolina has taken on the identity he had as a player with a hard-working, hard-to-play-against, grind-it-out style.

“They’re a really good team, extremely improved, play with a ton of speed, great (defense) corps in terms of mobile guys, depth scoring and then their goaltenders have been outstanding for them,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “If you look at their team from the all-star break on or even earlier than that, they were one of the best teams in the league, so we know we’ve got to be on top of our game and it’s going to be a real challenge.”

One area Carolina gave Washington some trouble was special teams. The Capitals were awarded just three power-play opportunities in their two most recent games against the Hurricanes, but Carolina’s eighth-ranked penalty kill expertly handled Washington’s man-advantage. On the season, the Capitals’ power play has scored 20.8 percent of the time, but it finished the season in a slump with just two goals in 18 tries over the final eight games. In the teams’ first meeting of the season (Dec. 14), the Hurricanes scored three man-advantage goals off six power plays, but Carolina didn’t convert on a five-on-four power play in any of the three other games against Washington. The Capitals’ shorthanded unit has been much improved since the team added forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen before the late-February trade deadline.

The Hurricanes’ turnaround this season was sparked by the deal for offensive-minded defenseman Dougie Hamilton and edgy forward Micheal Ferland, both acquired in a trade with the Calgary Flames in June. Carolina then infused its lineup with more skill with the in-season addition of forward Nino Niederreiter, who scored 14 goals with 16 assists in 36 games with the Hurricanes. But the biggest offensive threat will be top center Sebastian Aho, who led the team in scoring with a career-high 30 goals and 53 assists this season.

Aho finished the season with no goals and just six assists in his final 14 games, but he’s had a knack for coming up with big games against the Capitals. For his career, the 21-year-old has eight goals with nine assists in 12 games against Washington. The Capitals managed to keep him to just one point in their two games against the Hurricanes last month, and Washington did that by countering Aho’s speed and skill with center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s. Expect the Capitals to again look to play Kuznetsov’s line, likely with wingers Tom Wilson and Ovechkin, against Aho’s, especially in the first two games of the series, when Washington has more control of the matchups with last change on home ice.

“It’s an exciting time of year,” Wilson said. “We’re just looking forward to getting back to that time of year, playoffs, and ever since it ended last year and we started this season, you can’t wait for this time of year so it doesn’t matter who it is really. You just look forward to it and you go out there and try to get the job done every game.”

NHL playoffs first round

(Best-of-seven)

Thursday, April 11: Carolina at Washington, 7:30 p.m., USA

Saturday, April 13: Carolina at Washington, 3 p.m., NBC

Monday, April 15: Washington at Carolina, 7 p.m., CNBC

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Thursday, April 18: Washington at Carolina, 7 p.m., TBD

*Saturday, April 20: Carolina at Washington, TBD

*Monday, April 22: Washington at Carolina, TBD

*Wednesday, April 24: Carolina at Washington, TBD

* — If necessary

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