The Washington Capitals and visiting Pittsburgh Penguins will be looking for a fresh start Friday, even though only one of them will be playing in a season opener.
Both teams are looking to rebound after missing the playoffs last season, but only the Capitals will be dropping the curtain on 2023-24.
On a team closely identified with 38-year-old goal-scoring machine Alex Ovechkin, Washington has incorporated a new slogan, Something to Prove, which is displayed in the locker room.
While there are some new faces among the players, the fresh beginning starts with first-year coach Spencer Carbery, the youngest head coach in the NHL at 41.
“Whenever you have a new coach and a new staff, there is always a breath of fresh air into the (locker) room,” Capitals winger Tom Wilson told the team website. “(Carbery) comes in and he’s hungry. He’s passionate. You feel the excitement when you talk to him. He brings an energy to the group that’s exciting.”
With their opener later than most teams, Carbery took the Capitals to the Maryland Eastern Shore for a few days of team-building activities and a practice away from home earlier this week.
“Guys will have their game faces on (by Friday),” goaltender Darcy Kuemper told the Washington Post. “Opening night’s always a special one.”
Ovechkin, who has scored at least 50 goals nine times, opens this season with 822. That’s 72 behind Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record of 894. He scored 42 last season, a sign he’s not slowing appreciably.
Pittsburgh played Tuesday, but the Penguins didn’t exactly turn the page as they hoped.
Despite a roughly 50 percent turnover in the roster during the offseason, they were plagued by lingering frustrations from last season. They had some defensive lapses, didn’t rev the engines later in the game and blew a two-goal lead in a 4-2 setback to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Most of Pittsburgh’s newcomers could be described as players in support roles. The main guys, then, saw all-too-familiar problems in the opening loss. Last season, the Penguins lost nine games in which they led after two periods.
“We set (the tone) in the first period; we didn’t set the tone for the rest of the game,” long-time Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. “Kind of (fell) back on our heels. Just tried to play, like, a casual game. We have to be way harder to play against.”
Pittsburgh goaltender Tristan Jarry noted that even after a competitive preseason that led to high expectations, the group still needs to jell.
“We have to get familiar with each other,” Jarry said. “The quicker we can do that, the quicker we’re going to be a good team.”
Pittsburgh is hopeful that first-line left winger Jake Guentzel, a former 40-goal scorer who flanks star center Sidney Crosby, will continue on an upward trajectory after he had an assist in the opener.
Guentzel had right ankle surgery Aug. 2 and was expected to miss at least the first handful of games but beat those expectations despite having only had a few full-fledged practices before Tuesday.
“For his first game, he competed really hard,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “His timing and things of that nature will get better as he plays.”