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At the beginning of training camp, one could sense the uneasiness of Capitals fans. Following back to back losses to the eventual back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Penguins, the Capitals had lost a sizeable portion of the all-star caliber team from 2017. Justin Williams, Nate Schmidt, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Karl Alzner had all departed in the offseason, leaving much of the offensive responsibilities to Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom. There were questions about the Caps’ depth on the forward and backend.
Facing the media regarding the mass exodus of his former teammates, captain Alex Ovechkin boldly declared “we’re not going to suck this year.” Expectations were initially low, but then this team started winning.
Fast-forward to May 2018 and the Capitals had won their division, defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, exercised their demons against the Penguins, and won an almost David vs. Goliath level showdown against the Tampa Bay Lightning (the seemingly consensus pick for the Eastern Conference champions). The end result: Washington is just four wins away from the NHL’s most coveted prize, one which has eluded Ovechkin and the franchise up until now. However, to win the Stanley Cup, the Capitals are facing off against an even more unlikely story in the Vegas Golden Knights (who I covered last weekend).
The Caps, who have had their share of juggernaut teams in the past, have at last reached the finals, comprised of a George McPhee drafted core and supported by the reclamation projects from other NHL teams (See Brett Connolly, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Alex Chiasson). And it worked, despite Brian MacLellan’s (the current General Manager of the Capitals) own admission in 2016 that the team had a “two-year window.” He has since clarified that statement, acknowledging that he was referring to his window with the aforementioned departed players.
So how did the Capitals get this far? What was different this year?
1.Imitation is the Most Sincere Form of Flattery
The Capitals took a page out of their Archrival’s playbook from 2016. Remember when the Penguins created one of the best fourth lines in hockey and also had the deadly third line pairing of Bonino, Kessel, and Hagelin (HBK line) that helped propel them to the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Championship? The Penguins had a lot of innovative, strategic ideas, hence why they won two straight Cups.
Every Cup Winner innovates the league and the Penguins certainly had their share of cutting-edge strategies. In addition to their great defensemen, the Pens had two elite Centers (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), two star goalies (Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury), the dominant HBK line that was sometimes broken up to shuffle lines, a great fourth line Center in Matt Cullen, an elite top six winger to pair with Crosby in Conor Sheary/Jake Guentzel (depending on which championship you’re referring to), another goal scorer in Phil Kessel, and a net front presence in Patric Hornqvist.
Enter the Capitals, who have since modeled their own core after the skeleton of Pittsburgh’s system. Washington boasts two elite Center (Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeni Kuznetsov), two star goalies (Braden Holtby and Phillip Grubauer), a dominant third line (comprised of Lars Eller and Brett Connolly), a great fourth line Center in Jay Beagle, an elite top six winger to pair with Kuznetsov in Alexander Ovechkin, another goal scorer in TJ Oshie and a net front presence in Tom Wilson.
- Forward Depth
However, other than the skeleton structure, each team’s systems differs. The Capitals have their own unique identity, especially for an Eastern Conference team. While they have some speed on their squad, the Caps are all about size and physicality, as evidenced by Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Furthermore, the Capitals have among the most underrated depth players in hockey. While their depth forwards don’t always score, they score at the right times. In the playoffs, sometimes that’s enough.
Beagle is the anchor of the Capitals. In 18 games, Beagle has 6 points and is +7. He is also 63% in the faceoff circle. Meanwhile, his PDO is an almost unfathomable 114%, showing that he refuses to allow goals against. Statistically, the Capitals goalies save 96% of the shots they face when he is on the ice. Plus, Beagle plays big minutes on the penalty kill and in the final minutes of games. After all, 74.4% of his zone starts occur in the defensive zone. That is trust.
Stephenson is the Swiss-Army knife for this team. He has played on the second, third, and fourth lines in the playoffs and does a bit of everything. Moreover, Stephenson is +3 and has 7 points in 19 games. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, he produces at the right time, often in subtle ways. For example, he is the player who canceled out an icing against Tampa Bay in Game 6, then immediately set up Devante Smith-Pelly for a huge insurance goal. Stephenson currently averages 15:58 minutes of ice time per game and was averaging over 18 minutes when Backstrom was out with an injury. By comparison, Tom Wilson is averaging 18 minutes per game while he plays on the top line. Stephenson makes smart defensive plays, intercepts passes, and blocks shots. Every contender needs a player like Stephenson. He may not get the credit, but he is undoubtedly a big reason why the Caps have advanced this far.
Wilson is the energy guy for the team. After having TJ Oshie play with Alex Ovechkin and Backstrom for the last two seasons, the Capitals created a new line that is paying dividends. Kuznetsov centers Ovechkin and Wilson and it’s magical. In 2018, Wilson grew his game while playing with his Russian linemates, and his offensive production is now more consistent. Similar to Stephenson, Wilson does a little of everything, only with more grit. He hits, fights, blocks shots, scores a little, plays on the PK, stands in front of the net, and agitates the other team. He is also great on the boards. In 16 games, Wilson has 11 points and is +3. Additionally, his fight with Braydon Coburn in Game 7 of the ECF was a huge turning point for the Capitals.
Smith-Pelly has been the clutch performer. While he only has 5 points in 19 games, DSP does the right things at the right time. He has had some great hits, board wins, and shot blocks. Additionally, his five points were as clutch as they come. In Game 6 of the ECF, he scored a huge insurance goal to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead in a do-or-die game. In Game 2 of the ECF, he scored the tying goal in the second period, which helped spark 5 unanswered goals on route to a 6-2 victory. In Game 6 against Columbus, DSP scored an insurance goal to give the Capitals a 4-2 lead on route to a 6-3 victory. In Game 3 against Columbus, he assisted on Lars Eller’s game winning goal in the second Overtime, which helped spark the comeback against the Jackets on route to four consecutive wins for Washington. Finally, in Game 1 against Columbus, Smith-Pelly scored to help the Capitals regain the lead, 3-2; although they later lost that game in overtime.
When Backstrom went down, DC needed someone to step up. Enter Lars Eller. The third line center (of whom I was admittedly skeptical last season) looked like a top line Center in these playoffs. Eller has 13 points in 19 games and is +8. He also has a 55.7% Corsi in the playoffs and scored a huge clutch double Overtime goal against the Jackets in Game 3. If the Caps didn’t win that game, they would likely have been eliminated in the first round. He also scored the go-ahead goal (and eventual game winner) in a pivotal Game 2 against the Lightning. His responsibilities have only increased during his time with the Capitals and he has really grown as a player over the last two seasons.
- Holtby Being the HoltBEAST
After a very sub-par season from Holtby, the Capitals were carried down the stretch by Phillip Grubauer. As a result, Grubby was named the starter for Game 1 and Game 2 against the Jackets, but it didn’t go as planned. Grubauer exited the series with a .837 save percentage and whopping 4.55 goals against average in two games played. After losing both games at home and with their backs against the wall, DC turned to one of the best goalies in hockey, hoping he had regained his star caliber form. And did he ever…
Holtby helped spark a turnaround for the Capitals, who have gone 12-5 since Game 3 against Columbus. The Beast currently owns a .924 save percentage and a 2.04 goals against average. Additionally, number 70 shut out the Lightning in Games 6 and 7, helping the Capitals advance to their second ever Stanley Cup Final. In Game 6, he turned away all 24 shots on goal, while in Game 7, he turned away all 29 shots. He even made a key save on an Alex Killorn breakaway to preserve Game 7 for the Caps. While he will now face the best goalie of the season in Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury, Holtby has outdueled other great goalies this season, including Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Lightning, Sergei Bobrovsky of the Blue Jackets, and Matt Murray of the Penguins. The Capitals will need their starter to replicate Game 6 and Game 7 to defeat the Knights.
Game lapses have been his weakness, as Holtby did not look like himself in Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Therefore, he will need to continue his steller play to give the Caps a chance of winning.
4.Ovechkin’s Last Stand
Remember when people questioned Ovechkin’s leadership and ability to win? Yeah, he has all but secured his legacy by finally reached the Cup Final. Whether the Caps win or lose, Ovechkin deserves a lot of credit for this playoff run. After years of disappointment, he has finally made it. It is also impossible to foresee if he will ever get this far again, so he has had to make the most of this season.
Although Ovechkin has always been a good playoff performer, he has been almost Herculean in 2018. He has produced 22 points in 19 games and is +5. 8 of his 12 goals are at even strength, while the remaining 4 are on the powerplay. He also has two game winning goals and is shooting a red hot 15%. Ovechkin has been a leader, as evidenced by his shot blocking, big hits (especially on Crosby and the Lightning defense), and offensive setups (he has 10 assists).
Ovechkin looks like a man on a mission, which is also why you can’t help but root for this guy. I mean, objectively, was there anything more heart-warming than watching him carry around the Prince of Wales trophy on the ice?
- Subtle Defensive Contributions from Their Depth Players
The Capitals’ biggest weakness all year was their blue-line. Earlier this season, prospect Madison Bowey looked lost at times, Aaron Ness and Jakub Jerabek were inconsistent, and Taylor Chorney turned the puck over too often.
Then the Capitals made a subtle trade at the deadline, sending a third round pick to the Blackhawks for pending UFA Michal Kempny. Kempny has since earned a place in the top four as has been the consistent defenseman the Capitals have needed all year. His 2 points in 19 games and +1 certainly don’t paint the full picture of how much Kempny has meant to this team. He pairs with John Carlson perfectly and the two play off each other really well. He has been a good shutdown defenseman, which allows Carlson more freedom to contribute offensively. Additionally, while Kempny is on the ice, Capitals goalies are stopping 96.6% of the shots they face.
Brooks Orpik has played a similar role. While he is inconsistent (sometimes missing assignments, or sometimes making key shot/pass blocks or boxouts), statistically, Orpik provides a lot of value, especially by clearing out bodies in front of the net, using his size behind the net, or protecting the slot on the penalty kill. When he is on the ice, his teammates are shooting over 15% and his goalies are stopping 96.6% of the shots they face. He has also been a leader and a mentor for the other young DC defensemen, like Christian Djoos.
- Kuznetsov Takes Flight
Remember when I said the Capitals have two elite Centers? Kuzy is the 1c. Owning a 54.3% Corsi, he leads the Caps in points this postseason with 24. He has also added 11 goals, including 8 at even strength. He is second to Ovechkin for the team lead in goals and shots, and scored a huge game winning goal in Overtime to eliminate the defending champs. Furthermore, Kuzy is playing big minutes, as his 21:31 average of ice time leads all Capitals forwards in the playoffs.
- John Carlson.
Every great team needs a number one defenseman. The Caps have JC. Carlson has 16 points in 19 games and he is +9. He also averages close to 26 minutes of ice time per game, which is no easy feat. As the quarterback of the Capitals powerplay, Carlson is responsible for the setup. He either cycles down to his right to Kuznetsov, lets a shot rip from the point, or goes to his left to set up Ovi for a chance from the office. He is dangerous in that role, as he has produced 3 powerplay goals, which is good enough to tie him for third most on the team. 7 of his 13 assists are on the powerplay.
Carlson has been Norris Trophy good all season, but these playoffs have really shown off his two-way game. He currently owns a 54% corsi in the playoffs and a 104 PDO.
- The Caps Road Record
The Knights have a great home record, but the Capitals are 8-2 on the road in these playoffs. They’ve also won in some pretty tough barns, like Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Tampa. They’ll need to keep it up if they have a chance of winning in Vegas.
At home, under Holtby, the Caps are 4-3.
- Shutdown D
Defense wins games and the Capitals can certainly do that. Like every great playoff team, their defensive structure has left their opponents looking frustrated. While the team gives up the occasional breakaway, or lapses and turns the puck over, their defense typically wears down their opponents. Backstrom, Oshie, Wilson, Smith-Pelly, Stephenson, and Eller are all above average defensive players. Meanwhile, Kuznetsov and Ovechkin have really grown their defensive game within the Capitals’ system under Barry Trotz.
The blue line also features some great defensive pieces. John Carlson is very underrated in terms of his actual defensive game (most people think of him in terms of his offense), Orpik has had a stellar playoffs on defense, Kempny fits like a glove, and the pairing of Matt Niskanen and Dmitri Orlov have been great most of the time.
The problem is that their defense is inconsistent. In some games, the other team cannot even enter the zone. While in others, the Capitals are turning the puck over and making ill-advised passes. If they can tighten up their structure and play it for the full sixty minutes each night, the Capitals have a great chance at the Cup.
- The Powerplay
Special teams are huge in the playoffs and the Capitals are no stranger to their powerplay.
With a number one unit comprised of Backstrom, Oshie, Kuznetsov, Carlson, and Ovechkin, it is easy to see why the powerplay has been a strength. How would you like to defend against them?
Kuznetsov: 3 powerplay goals, 6 powerplay assists
Backstrom: 9 powerplay assists
Oshie: 5 powerplay goals, 4 powerplay assists
Carlson: 3 powerplay goals, 7 powerplay assists
Ovechkin:4 powerplay goals, 5 powerplay assists
Keys to Success
-The Capitals need consistent efforts on each shift
-Holtby needs to stay red hot
-Kuznetsov and Ovechkin need to keep scoring
-The Capitals need their road record to continue against the hottest home team in hockey
*stats from hockey-reference.com and nhl.com