Capitals, with something to prove, set to open season vs. Penguins

All summer long, as Washington Capitals Coach Spencer Carbery spoke with his players and his coaching staff, one phrase appeared on repeat. Over and over, Carbery heard a nearly identical message about each person’s mentality for the upcoming season.

I have something to prove.

Carbery heard the phrase enough times that he realized it could be a motto for his team. In Washington’s locker rooms at both the practice facility and Capital One Arena, Carbery had bold letters that read “something to prove” installed for everyone to see on a daily basis.

“We have a lot of players and staff in a lot of different scenarios — whether you’re [forwards] Alex Ovechkin, Connor McMichael, [coaches] Spencer Carbery, Kenny McCudden, Kirk Muller, Mitch Love — that just sort of have a mind-set coming into this year of, ‘We’ve got something to prove,’ ” Carbery said. “All in different ways, collectively as a team and individually. … I just felt like it resonates.”

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The Capitals missed the Stanley Cup playoffs last season for the first time since 2014, and in most projections, aren’t expected to return to the postseason this campaign. The roster, already one of the oldest in the league, didn’t get meaningfully younger in the offseason, and while the number of injuries Washington dealt with last season is unlikely to be repeated, the Capitals can’t count on getting 75-plus games from their core players as they continue to age. Even Ovechkin, Washington’s famously durable captain, missed time on several occasions last season.

Optimism is rampant inside a team during training camp and early in a new season, but there’s no denying the difficult task ahead for Washington, which opens its 2023-24 campaign Friday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Washington’s veterans were frustrated by the way last season went, and believe they have more to give. There are also players on the younger side of the roster, including the 22-year-old McMichael, who entered this season hoping to show they’re ready to be full-time, productive NHL players. And there are also guys such as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Anthony Mantha, who were disengaged last season and say they want to show that last year was an aberration, not a pattern.

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“I think there’s a lot of guys in our lineup individually that have things to prove in a lot of different ways,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “You’ve got guys that signed long-term deals that I know will prove that they’re deserving of those long-term contracts. You’ve got older guys that have had a couple tough years of injuries that want to go out on their own terms and make another run at a Cup. We’ve got a chase for the greatest goal scorer of all time.

“You’ve got some young guys or some guys in the middle of the road that maybe didn’t have the best year last year. They need to step it up, whether it’s a contract year or just step up to their normal elevated play. You put all that together with falling short last year and not having the chance to win the Cup, I hope everyone is motivated.”

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Doubt may well be the most powerful motivator in sports; coaches and players alike are masters of identifying slights, whether they’re real or perceived, and using them as fuel. The things the Capitals believe they’re going to prove this season — that their veteran core players can still be valuable, that they can stay healthy, that their young players are ready to contribute, that they can return to the playoffs — come as much from an internal drive as they do from a desire to prove external perspectives wrong.

“Using that as a motivational tool — what people outside our building think our capabilities are — if that drives you a little bit. For some people, it does,” Carbery said in a recent conversation with Washington Post reporters and editors. “Some people, they could care less. Doesn’t move their needle. And for me, it doesn’t, but I know for teams and certain players, it does. I get that feeling with our group.”

Adding the signs to both locker rooms is one way for Carbery to turn doubt into drive. Whether it’s internal or external pressure to prove that things will be different this season, the Capitals now have a daily touchpoint to keep them focused.

“I still think,” Carbery said, “that we’re capable of being a playoff team.”

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