If Evgeny Kuznetsov is as good as Capitals hope, keep that Stanley Cup warm

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There is a quote that is often attributed to former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe that cautions against the seduction of success — “It’s hard to get up to do roadwork at 6 a.m. when you are wearing silk pajamas.”

In other words, it’s hard to become champion. It’s even harder to stay champion.

Wednesday night at Capitol One Arena, the Washington Capitals held a silk pajama party with 18,000 of their closest friends, celebrating the raising of the Stanley Cup banner, a piece of championship cloth that never hung at the old Capital Centre and, after 20 years, was still absent from the rafters of the old MCI Center.

But there it was, the final step of the lifting of the burden of the pain of generations of loss suffered by fans and players alike. Every step of the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup — from the viewing parties on the streets of the District to the celebrations from Georgetown to Rosslyn with the treasured trophy to the parade just a few months ago that drew hundreds of thousands of people to now one last skate around the ice with the Cup by Alex Ovechkin — it’s all been silk pajamas.

Then the trophy was put away, the puck was dropped, and 24 seconds into the defense of their Stanley Cup, the Capitals scored. The silk pajamas are gone.

Don’t lose them, though. They seem to fit well.

The Washington Capitals looked every bit the worthy defending champions in their 7-0 demolition of a possible contender for their title, the Boston Bruins, starting with the opening goal by T.J. Oshie, followed by another goal less than two minutes later by Evgeny Kuznetsov, one of two power play goals the Capitals‘ newest superstar had on the night.

There had been a lot of talk leading up to the opener about a Stanley Cup championship hangover, on several levels. One was the shorter turnaround time to get ready for the season. From their clinching game on June 7 to the start of the 2018-2019 season Wednesday night, the Capitals had about a month less time off than they’re accustomed.

And there were the celebrations jammed into that compressed offseason, both here and back home for players who were wined and dined, deservedly so, as National Hockey League champions and cheered and applauded while spending their individual days with the Stanley Cup.

Also, it’s a legitimate question to ask, after so many seasons of early playoff exits, if success would serve as an anesthetic for both players and fans alike. For one night at least, the answer was no.

Finally, there was the opener itself: How difficult would be to focus on playing hockey after the hoopla of the pregame festivities?

Not very, apparently.

New head coach Todd Reirden, the four-year assistant who took over for the departed Barry Trotz (whose name was never mentioned in the ceremony lifting the Stanley Cup banner) said he drilled into his team all the pitfalls of championship complacency for this one game and the season.

“I challenged the leadership group about how they were going to respond and how they were going to set the tone for our team tonight,” Reirden said. “I said, ‘Somebody’s going to do it, who’s it going to be in there?’ Not surprised to see our leadership step up like they did and throughout the first five minutes of the game. They sent a strong message. I was really proud of them.”

I think how they responded caught some by surprise. It’s not what we are used to seeing. But maybe everyone needs to adjust their vision of this team moving forward.

The Capitals have, throughout the Ovechkin era, always been seen as a team of underachievers, falling short of expectations most years. If we chose to believe that talent was not what held them back, then you have to consider the possibility that what was missing was inside their heads and hearts.

What if they found it? What if we are seeing a group of players who have convinced themselves they know the path to the Cup now, because they paved it last year? This wasn’t a group of young players coming into their own. It was a veteran team that expected to win multiple Stanley Cups with Ovechkin, but couldn’t figure out how. Now they know.

It doesn’t mean they will. We all know how hard it is to repeat. But if they fall short this time, these Capitals probably won’t be sitting in front of their lockers wondering why.

All this a little too abstract for you? Okay, let’s make it simple.

Kuznetsov.

What if Kuznetsov takes the next step to NHL stardom? What if he becomes the most feared scorer on the ice for the Capitals? What if Kuznetsov, coming off his 32-point performance in last year’s playoffs and two goals Wednesday night, is a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate?

All signs are pointing to Kuznetsov raising his game, and with it, making an already formidable Capitals offense absolutely frightening for opponents.

Consider this — if you could drop the 2018-2019 Kuznetsov on the ice for any of those failed Capitals playoff squads, could history have changed?

We may find out this year. Keep those silk pajamas handy.

You can hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan every Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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