WASHINGTON (WNCN) - Instead of packing their lockers and planning for a long summer off like they have each spring for the past decade, the Carolina Hurricanes are in Washington, D.C. preparing to take on the defending champions in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Captain Justin Williams is the only player on the 2008-09 roster when the Hurricanes last made the postseason. Rod Brind'Amour, now in his first season as head coach, was the team's second-leading scorer that year.
Williams earned the moniker "Mr. Game 7" as he helped win two Stanley Cups in Los Angeles. He then spent two seasons with the Capitals before returning to Carolina in 2017 in free agency. He knows playoff hockey and Carolina's opponent like no one else in the team's locker room.
"They're a veteran team. The games we lost this year (to the Capitals) were tight-checking games that they found a way to win, which is what good teams do," Williams said. "So, we can learn from that. We can look those and say we were right there, which we were. Playoff time is a whole new animal. Their stats are down to zero, our stats are down to zero, and off we go."
While they were largely close matches, Washington swept the four-game set. The first encounter between Washington and Carolina was in Raleigh on Dec. 14. The Capitals needed an Alex Ovechkin hat trick to escape with a shootout win.
The Dec. 27 meeting in Washington was a bit closer. The Capitals struck twice in the second period. Sebastian Aho cut the deficit to one before a last-minute goal put the game away for Washington. The Hurricanes lost again in D.C. on March 24 thanks to a three-goal third period by the Capitals.
Carolina took a lead into the third period two days later in Raleigh, but that negated by a Jakub Vrana goal 1:35 into the third. Nic Dowd's tally with less than five minutes in regulation was enough to see the Capitals finish 4-0 against the Hurricanes.
"How can you beat a team that's the best? The margin for error is very slim," Brind'Amour said. "You can't give them easy ones. You've got to make them earn everything they get. Then it's the mental toughness part of the game.
"You've got to be able to grind. We've done that all year, but you've got to be able to stick with it because they're not going to give you much. That's why they're the champs. They know how to win."
There will likely be a learning curve for the Hurricanes. There's a different feel to playoff hockey. Hits are harder, defense is stingier, and buildings have a different energy — and for most of the Carolina roster, these are all things they've been told but have little first-hand experience with.
Still, as the Hurricanes embark on their first postseason in a decade, they're trusting what got them there. Brind'Amour said there's a gritty, yet fast-paced style they've had success with this season that also lends itself to playoff success.
And success is what the Hurricanes are after. Carolina isn't satisfied with simply making it to the postseason.
"Certainly, we're expecting more," Brind'Amour said. "This isn't what we signed up for, you know, to end here (in the first round). We all understand it's a huge task. We're not going into this game, into this series, not expecting to win. That's for sure."
Puck drop for Game 1 in Washington is set for 7:30 p.m. Game 2 is scheduled for Saturday at 3 p.m. before the two come to Raleigh for Game 3 on Monday.