Back to…..the Drawing Board

It was fun at the top while it lasted.

But the Caps didn’t do themselves any favors with their play in the playoffs. There were a lot of things that they could have done better. There’s things that they didn’t do last year that they did this year. There’s things they didn’t adjust to when the Hurricanes looked so much hungrier than the Caps did.

First, the biggest thing is the lack of pressuring when they were ahead. They were up in Game Five and let it slip away. They were up by two twice in Game Seven and it ended in a double-OT loss. Maybe it was just too many games for a lot of these guys and they kind of ran out of gas. Maybe it was not being able to adjust to injuries in their line-up. Maybe it was a lot of things…the Caps just couldn’t put the Canes away.

Second, defensively there were a tire fire. An honest to god tire fire. So many turnovers in their own zone leading to quality chances for the Canes was amazingly frustrating. Whether it be dangerous passes up the middle, whether it dangerous passes in front of Braden Holtby, whether it the forwards lack of breakout support for the the defensive which– hey– caused more turnovers. There so many times the Caps went for a home-run pass the length of the ice that the Canes played perfectly in the neutral zone that I lost count and just had a heavy sigh about it. Yet– there was no adjustment.

Rod Brind’Amour adjusted better than Todd Reirden did and it showed in the result. While they shuffled some lines in Game Seven, the grand scheme of things came down to Brind’Amour getting his team much more into it that Reirden could. To a man, Canes players were behind their coach and always commented about his fiery nature to get the team going. I didn’t hear one Caps say the same about Reirden, at least on the record.

And I won’t blame losing TJ Oshie to injury. That’s a part of the game and you have to adjust– which the Caps didn’t. One of the things it did take away was low-end options on the power play. Oshie’s play in the slot was some of the nice decoys for Ovechkin to get some more space. Without that option and a fill-in to act like that (sorry Tom Wilson), the Canes were able to give the Caps minimal chances to convert.

They did what they could though. The top line was solid with Nicklas Backstrom leading the way in the goal-scoring and Alex Ovechkin being the set-up man, which was an amazing change of pace. Tom Wilson was able to get into some dirty areas at times, but maybe could have done more.

Holtby was not himself, though. Lot of soft goals, lot of saves he could have made last year that snuck by this year. Like I said, his defense didn’t help him out at all. If anything, that’s a key point to look at for next year and how they can build around John Carlson and Nick Jensen. There needs to be some help out there because Dmitri Orlov and Matt Niskanen are hit-and-miss, Brooks Orpik is out of fuel, Jonas Siegenthaler needs more time, Christian Djoos somehow isn’t cutting it. They just need to hope Michal Kempny is ready to tear up the league next year.

Lest we forget the Luis Mendoza Line (all speed, questionable hands) of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jakub Vrana, and Carl Hagelin. When you need a secondary scoring line and it’s more of the third and fourth lines getting it done– there’s an issue. Kuznetsov, aside from the goal, seemed to be more than snakebit this series, Vrana was near invisible for the duration, and Hagelin was good on some penalty kills, but overall not worth retaining– unless they can get a good deal on him.

The Caps had a good season. It’s hard to top what they put forward last year and unless they would have swept everyone or beat everyone in Game Sevens, the dramatics were not there. Personally, this is probably the calmest I’ve been when it comes to losing a series, especially when you see them outworked as they were when you look at the greater picture.

Thank you Capitals for the ride over the past 10 months, it was fun while it lasted. Now, it’s time to reflect, figure out who’s going to be here next year, and find that hunger again.

Caps By The Numbers: Game-Time Decision Nets Game Winner

After leaving the game early in Game 2, Evgeny Kuznetsov was a game-time decision for Game 3. That decision wasn’t one, as he was probably going to play all along. It’s a good thing he did, as he netted the game-winner for the Caps in Game 3 under the blocker of Marc-Andre Fleury to help give the Caps a 3-1 win and a 2-1 series lead. Alex Ovechkin started the scoring for the Caps off a frantic series of events in front, going back-hand on Fleury’s blocker side. Kuznetsov scored in the second, but a botched clearing attempt by Braden Holtby allowed Vegas to cut the lead to 2-1 after Tomas Nosek made Holtby pay for his blunder. The Caps were undeterred, as a wonderful forecheck by Jay Beagle allowed him to strip Shea Theodore of the puck, pass it right on the tape of Devante Smith-Pelly, who then roofed it over Fleury’s glove for the 3-1 marker. Game 4 goes Monday, still in Washington.

Win number fourteen means it’s time to profile a #14 in Caps history.

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When it comes to #14s there has been a lot– some of which have been marred by allegation that were proven false, some have been there for a cup of coffee, while others just used it as a number. For this player, he could have been something that Alex Ovechkin is now, as he was a highly touted player coming out of juniors. However, a rash if injuries, including a devastating ankle injury– he could never get his career off the ground. Now, a look at Pat Peake.

Peake was a career Capital, albeit for all of 134 games over five seasons, but before that– he was a major junior superstar, collecting 138 goals and 319 points in three seasons (162 games) with Detroit Compuware/Jr. Red Wings; exploding for 58 goals and 136 points in 46 games in 1992-93.

Peake finally got to the NHL in 1993-94, where he played 49 games for the Caps, registering 11 goals and 29 points on the year. However, that’s when the injuries started to pile up. Shoulder injuries, kidney issues, torn cartilage in his thyroid, and then the injury that would eventually retire him.

Coming off a decent regular season with 17 goals in 62 games, Peake was playing against the Penguins in the playoffs and was skating to cancel out an icing call, he got tripped up, landed feet first into the boards, and shattered his heel, which the doctors said was equal to a construction worker falling off a building feet first. Peake would rehab and need numerous surgeries to try and get his life back together, but it would end his playing career.

Peake stayed in hockey, going from assistant coach, to agent, to head coach of a AAA team in Michigan. While he will go under as one of the biggest 1st round busts, it was a series of unfortunate events that kept him from reaching his full sucess.

Caps By The Numbers: The Save Gives Caps a Split in Vegas

For the first time in franchise history– the Washington Capitals won a game in the Stanley Cup Final. In what could be the best save in his career, Braden Holtby stopped Alex Tuch late in the third period to preserve the Capitals 3-2 lead, which ended up being the final as the teams go back to Washington tied up at one game a piece. Caps goals came from Lars Eller, Alex Ovechkin, but the game-winner came from Brooks Orpik– his first goal in 220 games.

The game didn’t come without a price, as Evgeny Kuznetsov took a hit from Brayden McNab in the first, looking like he jammed his wrist and didn’t return. Late in the game, Jay Beagle took a shot off the inside of his foot. He did play the rest of the game, but had a noticeable hobble when he was on the ice. Luckily, the teams have space between games, as they don’t play until Saturday night.

With the 13th win, we have a former Caps #13.

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Since it’s the first time that the Caps have won their 13 games in the playoffs, why not go with the first guy who wore the #13?? That feat didn’t happen until 1997 when it was the man they call Niko, who first donned the superstitious number after coming over from the Hartford Whalers. It’s time for Andrei Nikolishin.

Nikolishin came into the league as an offensive forward, but adjusted his game to the North American style, while also keeping his solid hands, impressive strength of skating, and one of the most balance players in the league, though the numbers never translated that. Coming to the Caps in the middle of the 1996-97 season, Niko was put into a checking role– which is something he happily went into. While he only peaked at 38 points for the Caps in his six years in DC, Nikolishin’s backchecking, forechecking, and ability to give up the body for the play was one of the big reasons why the Caps wanted him in the trade.

Of course, the relationship wasn’t without its drama with contract disputes. Nikolishin sat out most of the 1997-98 season due to trying to get a better contract, which limited him to only 38 games. However, once the playoffs came– Niko was a big reason why the Capitals were able to get into the Stanley Cup Final, putting up 13 assists in 21 games, while also providing the stingy defense that tends to win you championships.

Nikolishin would improve his offensive output after that season, peaking at 13 goals and 25 assists in 2000-01, complimenting that with a 13-goal, 36-point output for the Caps in 2001-02 before leaving the team to test the waters. With two failed attempts in Chicago and Colorado, Nikolishin went to Russia to end out his career.

Caps By The Numbers: Burakovsky’s Pair Lifts Caps to Stanley Cup Final

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After Alex Ovechkin scored 1:02 into the game, the Tampa Bay Lightning tried like hell to even up the game and take the lead. However, with the Caps setting up a wall in front of Braden Holtby and two Andre Burakovsky goals– the Washington Capitals will go back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1998. Holtby had back-to-back shutouts and Nicklas Backstrom had the empty net goal to finish it.

The Caps have beaten the Penguins, won a big Game 7, won the Eastern Conference, and now will try to slay another demon in beating Marc-Andre Fleury and George McPhee of the Vegas Golden Knights. Those games start Monday.

Win #12….and there’s only one.

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Before Alex Ovechkin, the Caps’ biggest superstar offensively was Peter Bondra. While he may not have had the national appeal that Ovechkin has, he was a big part of the Capitals offense in the mid-to-late-90s with nine of his 14 seasons being 30-plus goal seasons, including two 50-goal seasons in 1995-96 and 1997-98. Bondra was the new wave of goal-scorer with the exits of Mike Gartner, Dino Ciccarelli,Geoff Courtnall, and really made the team his own.

Once over from what is now Slovakia, Bondra formed a kinship with Michal Pivonka, who helped Bondra and his family get accustom to life in the US and the NHL. While Bondra would also use Dmitri Khristich as a resource, Pivonka and Bondra seemed to be the bosom buddies. With the same agent, both Bondra and Pivonka held out for a period before the 1995-96 season, where they would play in the IHL with the Detroit Vipers. Both would come back and had his top goal scoring season with 52 goals in only 67 games.

As the Caps were sinking, the team felt they owed Bondra the chance to go for a Cup, to which they traded him to Ottawa for Brooks Laich. A chapter of the Caps had closed, but due to that trade and others during the end of 2004, it paved the way for Alex Ovechkin to take the reigns and be the new face of the franchise. Luckily, Bondra is still in this organization, serving as a community ambassador and should be the next in line to get his number retired.

Caps By The Numbers: Quick Start Helps Caps Take Game One

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Though they were heavily put as the underdog in this series, the Caps got out to a quick start in Game One– scoring two goals in the first thanks to Michal Kempny and Alex Ovechkin, then two in the second from Jay Beagle and Lars Ellers. While they had four goals, they had to hang-on, as Tampa Bay had two goals in the third and were pressing late, but Braden Holtby was equal to the task for the Caps 4-2 win in Game One of the Eastern Conference Final. The Caps won again without Nicklas Backstrom and hope to keep a good pace going for Sunday’s game.

With a ninth win, we get to number nine of the Caps history chart.

While he didn’t pan out as a Flyers’ first round pick, Dainius Zubrus started to live up to expectation when he got to Washington…but not just on the ice. Formerly one of the poster boys for Easton Hockey, Zubrus couldn’t transition his game to the North American style when he first game over. Zubrus was brought to Washington in 2001 and took off as a bit of an offensive threat– at least to the Capitals side of things, as they were going through their rough times.

In his six seasons with the Capitals, he hit season-highs in points and goals, netting three straight 20-plus goal seasons towards the end of his run with the Caps, before his trade to Buffalo. As I mentioned, Zubrus was part of the teams that were going through the rough phase of contenders to tanking and having a difficult rebuild ahead of them. However, Zubrus was traded away before he could see the full bloom of the rebuild.

Yet, the most important part of Zubrus’ tenure with the Capitals was what he was able to help a new young star for the Capitals, doing something that may not have been done for him when he came into the league. When Alex Ovechkin came over to North America, Zubrus was not only a mentor to the young winger, but he played the role as translator, roommate, and someone to get Ovechkin comfortable with the game. Once Zubrus was traded, Ovechkin’s production in his sophomore season slowed down a bit. As we know, he’s gotten back on track– but Zubrus made a big impact for Ovechkin coming over and maybe allowed the Caps to have their franchise face develop quicker because of Zubrus’ off-ice help.

Caps By The Numbers: Four Unanswered in Third Lift Caps

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In what could be one of the most sloppily played defensive game, the Caps used Jakub Vrana bumping up to the first line to help propel them to four unanswered goals (including two empty netters) in the third and gave the Caps a 3-2 series lead. Evgeny Kuznetsov had the game-tying goal and two assists, but the rest star was Braden Holtby. Holtby kept the Caps in the game after a barrage of Penguins chances and shut the door on them in key moments to keep the Caps alive and ahead.

That’s win seven in the playoffs, which means we look at the ONLY #7.

In the 43 seasons the Capitals have operated, there has only been one player to wear #7 and it’s the man who has ties to the organization and area– that’s Yvon Labre. While he only played 334 of his 371 games with the Capitals, he kept himself involved with the team after his retirement in 1981.

Labre was picked from Pittsburgh in the Expansion Draft of 1974, while being fourth in scoring in the inaugural season with the Caps and top amongst defensemen. Labre was the first player to score a goal at home for the Caps and was captain from 1975-76 until 1977-78 before starting to see some injuries mount up on him and forced him into retirement at only 31 years old.

However, Labre was dedicated to the DC area, taking part in a number of community projects, while also staying with the team as a coach, scout, and community ambassador. His number 7 was the first to be retired by the team, as he continues his time around the community with the Capitals and around area hockey. The Yvon Labre Award is given to the high school senior in the Maryland Student Hockey League based on dedication, work ethic, skill, and leadership.

Labre is always going to be remembered by Caps fans, though it was probably more for his contributions off the ice, as little is remembered from his on-ice days for more.