After a summer of change, new-look Washington Capitals believe they can make the championship leap

Evgeny Kuznetsov, right, emerged as a top-tier player last season for Washington and will start the season playing on the Capitals' top line alongside Alex Ovechkin. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

The Washington Capitals' last two seasons ended in remarkably similar fashion: with a league-best regular-season record rendered irrelevant by a second-round loss to the eventual-champion Pittsburgh Penguins. That their seven-game series in 2017 lasted one game longer than the 2016 elimination at the hands of their Metropolitan Division rivals didn't lessen the Caps' collective heartbreak.

But after a summer that saw the departure of several key players, Washington's ultimate objective hasn't changed.

"The expectations aren't as big from outside our locker room, but they're still the exact same inside," said Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. "We have some young guys coming up who can bring some new energy and life and change the dynamic a bit. It will be nice to kind of just bear down and get to work right from the start with a good camp, a competitive camp. Zone everything out and just play."

That could prove challenging for a team that has established something of a regular-season reputation over the past 10 seasons, over which the Caps have seven first-place finishes and three Presidents' Trophies -- awarded to the team with the NHL's best regular-season record -- but not a single conference finals appearance to show for it. During that span, Washington has a 3-7 record in Game 7s and has been eliminated three times by Pittsburgh, with the Penguins going on to hoist the Stanley Cup each time.

"We get a lot of grief because we haven't gotten by Pittsburgh, but I do know for a 100 percent fact that no one has gotten by Pittsburgh in the last two years in the playoffs. We're not the only ones," said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. "We have to put last year behind us. I look back at us and Pittsburgh in that seven-game series. That might have been the two best teams [in the league]."

Moving on won't be easy. Not after the team appeared poised to break through last season only to sustain perhaps the most painful playoff disappointment in franchise history.

"It was tough, and I didn't carry the history of what some of those other guys have gone through there. I think it was very tough on them," said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who joined the team following a March trade with the St. Louis Blues before signing with the New York Rangers in July. "I feel like we played a good series against Pittsburgh. They were just a little more opportunistic than we were. That's playoff hockey, and that's where you have to shine in order to become a championship team."

Shattenkirk wasn't the only defenseman to depart Washington during the offseason. Karl Alzner signed with the Montreal Canadiens, while Nate Schmidt was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. Several key forwards are also gone. Veteran Justin Williams joined the Carolina Hurricanes as a free agent, and Marcus Johansson was dealt to the New Jersey Devils in a salary-cap measure that allowed the Capitals to re-sign forwards T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Just like that, the team that has won more games in the past three seasons than any club in the league had a new look.

"That winning feeling that we had, it kind of felt like you were addicted to it," Oshie said. "It's a weird, happy feeling, where everyone is working together and working hard. You want to feel like that all the time. We're going to try to get at that elite level as long as we can and stay there."

While Washington general manager Brian MacLellan kept busy managing his roster, Trotz experienced one of the more bittersweet summers of his lengthy coaching career. He watched as the Nashville Predators, the team he coached from their first game in 1998 until his firing in 2014, advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

"I was sort of jealous because I wanted to get to the finals. I even told them that. I said, 'I'm jealous that you guys are in the finals, but I'm so happy for all the guys who are my friends that are there and get to experience that,'" Trotz said. "That's just being honest."

Though it started earlier than they would have liked, the Capitals enjoyed an eventful offseason. Captain Alex Ovechkin got married in July in Moscow, while Trotz spent part of his summer in Russia with his son, Tyson, who has taught English in the city of Vladimir for the past three years.

Trotz wasn't able to attend his captain's lavish wedding. He didn't send a gift, either.

"I didn't send him anything because he's got everything," Trotz said with a laugh. "There's nothing I could buy him that he didn't have."

Ovechkin officially ended his bachelorhood, and Holtby even shaved his signature beard at the start of the preseason. But the Capitals' biggest changes became apparent with the start of training camp.

"To be honest, I personally couldn't care less about the Washington Capitals and the regular season. What are they going to follow it up with? Another Presidents' Trophy? Great. Show me what you can do in the playoffs," said former NHL goaltender and current TV analyst Jamie McLennan. "I'd like to see them have some adversity, and maybe this is the year. They're going have to get past Pittsburgh at some point. When I think of the Washington Capitals, call me in April."

Young players Kuznetsov and Burakovsky are expected to take on more prominent roles, and Trotz has cited prospects such as Jakub Vrana, Travis Boyd, Christian Djoos and Tyler Graovac as candidates to fill an everyday spot in the lineup. So this Capitals team might not resemble the powerhouses of years past. Considering the club's recent heartbreak, that might not be a bad thing.

"We've had enough hurt already. I think we have to look at this as a little bit of a clean slate. The last two years we were more of a veteran team. This year we're younger," Trotz said. "Are we good enough? I think we're a pretty good team. That message will not change. We felt that last year was maybe our best opportunity, with the salary cap and the players we had and all that. But you have to hit it right at the right time."

Inside the Capitals' locker room, there's no time quite like the present.