Capitals' Nic Dowd and Nick Jensen are key postseason rookies for defending champs

The Washington Post

Washington Capitals center Nic Dowd and defenseman Nick Jensen have long been stuck watching the Stanley Cup playoffs through a television screen. For years, neither have had the chance to break into the coveted race for a championship with their previous NHL teams and experience what Washington now considers an organizational norm.

That will finally change this season. Playoff rookies and close friends, Dowd and Jensen are set to play in their first career postseason when the Capitals kick off their first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes Thursday at Capital One Arena.

With the Capitals making it to the postseason 11 times in the last 12 years, Washington is used to this feeling — and the expectation of success for a team looking to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

"Until you think about it, people don't understand how impressive it is what they do here and how much they won," Dowd said of the Capitals' success. "And to be a part of it, I think it just becomes the norm and it is what guys expect, which is how it should be, but for a guy like myself who hasn't been in the playoffs, I'm excited."

The trick now is for Dowd and Jensen to mentally prepare for something they've never experienced.

While Dowd and Jensen are two true playoff rookies, along with backup netminder Pheonix Copley, center Travis Boyd is the next closest thing. The 25-year-old only played in one postseason game last season - the second-round clinching Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which sent the Capitals to their first Eastern Conference Finals in 20 years.

"I remember I was pretty darn nervous before that game," Boyd said. "It was pretty much exactly how you would expect it. Every single time you touched the puck you were going to get hit, every time you have a chance, you have to hit someone and it's just, the game, it seems like it gets a little bit faster and on top of that it gets a little more physical."

But if there was one thing Boyd took away from his postseason appearance and overall playoff experience, it was an undeniable urge to want to do it all over again.

"Once you finally win a Stanley Cup and get to actually see what it is and what it is all about and what comes with it, I mean it's got to be one of the most addictive things in the world, right?"

In recent days the Capitals have tried to rekindle the energy that surrounded last season's Stanley Cup run, with Jensen and Dowd trying to absorb what they can.

"We've been kind of getting together as a team kind of trying to recreate some of the feelings that this team had last year," Jensen said. "I think that is kind of important for guys like me and the other guys that haven't won a Cup, to kind of understand a little bit of that feeling of what it is like because that is a dream for anyone to win it."

For Dowd and Jensen, the postseason will be yet another challenge experienced together. They've shared a lot of memories since they were college roommates and teammates at St. Cloud State University. Both worked their way up through different teams in the American Hockey League, were groomsmen in each other's weddings and now have carved out their roles with the Capitals.

After spending time with both Vancouver and Los Angeles last season, Dowd signed with the Capitals in July as a replacement for fourth-line center Jay Beagle, who departed in free agency. While Dowd ended up on a fluctuating fourth line and was a healthy scratch 18 times during the regular season, he managed to have a career year, scoring eight goals.

Before joining the Capitals for his fourth NHL season, he had nine career goals. This year, he not only scored the playoff-clinching goal for the Capitals, but he also scored the decisive goal for the Metropolitan Division title.

Meanwhile, Jensen's February trade-deadline acquisition added blue line depth to a team gearing up for the postseason. While playing top-four minutes with Detroit, Jensen's presence has proven even more impactful with the loss of defenseman Michal Kempny for the season after undergoing surgery for a torn hamstring last week.

Both Jensen and Dowd barely missed playoff runs with their previous organizations. Dowd, who was picked by the Kings in 2009 NHL entry draft, could only watch as the organization found postseason success when he was coming up through the AHL. He made his NHL debut in March 2016.

Jensen, who was chosen by Detroit in the 2009 NHL entry draft, later made his NHL debut in December 2016 - the first season in 26 that the Red Wings didn't make the playoffs. Detroit missed the playoffs the following year as well.

"When you miss it for the first time it feels a little bit like the end of an era," Jensen said. "It was a little tough, but I mean all teams go through that. But being able to be here and kind of go from a developing team that was really trying to grow and get back to the playoffs to a team that was sitting on top of the division and eventually clinch the division title just was pretty exciting."

While Dowd and Jensen had their share of playoff experience at the AHL level, have watched playoff hockey and been around players who have experienced the postseason, it's hard to replicate those pressure-packed contests. But Jensen thinks he and Dowd can bring a different type of edge to a team kept fairly intact after last season's championship run.

"I think it's a different kind of hunger," Jensen said. "Yeah, it's, 'I've never won and I want to win it.'"

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

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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