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Chasing The Cup: Can The Caps Do It Again?

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On June 7th, 2018, the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 44-year franchise history. Their surreal victory changed the losing narrative around D.C. sports into one of hope and passion. As Washington had tacked an empty net goal to go up 3 games to 2 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, radio play-by-play announcer John Walton proudly noted that “It’s OK to believe, people!” Caps fans truly did believe, as the team picked up the oh-so-elusive eighth win two nights later, and they carried the momentum all the way to Lord Stanley’s Cup. Captain Alex Ovechkin wore his (and the fanbase’s) emotions on his sleeve for that epic final month of hockey, and all throughout the summer. When he bid the Cup adieu in Moscow, a Capitals Twitter video captures him saying “See you next year.”

So what do the Capitals have to do to go back to back? They are already off to an energetic start, having put up thirteen goals in just two games. Both Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, who began the “back-to-back” chant at the parade, have indicated their desire for such a feat, but the doubters are already out there. Though Washington did not bring in a big name free agent this offseason, it retained 18 of the 20 players who dressed every night in their run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“We should see some comfort from the players at the beginning of the season,” said West Po junior and Caps fan Aidan Scheel. “Offensively, they look really good.” The entire top-six forward group will be back, along with all six starting defensemen. Despite losing fan favorite Jay Beagle and season savior Philipp Grubauer, the core is very much intact. The pieces of the puzzle are there, but can they put themselves together again?

5 Keys to Defending Lord Stanley

  • Own The New Role

After a team wins a championship, the following season they are said to carry a target on their back, and Washington will undoubtedly be in that position this year. Everyone wants to beat the champs. The Caps have struggled under pressure before, when they won the Presidents’ Trophy (for most regular season points) in 2009-10, 2015-16, and 2016-17 and failed to reach the Conference Finals each time. Last season, however, the Capitals finished third in the Eastern Conference, so they were not the team to beat like they have been before. “Now that we’ve won the Cup, I think it really proves the immense amount of skill that this team has,” said senior and longtime fan Corrin Anderer. “Defending the high ground is easier than scaling the mountain in the first place.” In order to stay dominant throughout the season, they have to enforce their style of play just like they did on their way to the Stanley Cup. The big difference is now they won’t be flying under the radar.

  • 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins

As hard a pill as it is to swallow for Caps fans, the team could do itself a favor by taking multiple pages out of the book of the Pittsburgh Penguins. In 2017, Pittsburgh became the first team to win the Stanley Cup in consecutive years since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. Going back-to-back is tremendously difficult, but the Penguins have provided a model for doing so in today’s game. “I’m excited to see them play this year, but winning the Cup back to back is twice as hard as winning in the first time because they call [the second season] the hangover season,” said West Potomac Hockey senior Oliver Kruszka. But when Pittsburgh set out to defend their title in the fall of 2016, they showed up to camp having only lost winger Beau Bennett and defenseman Ben Lovejoy, effectively curing the hangover. Caps GM Brian MacLellan has already set his squad up just as Jim Rutherford did for the Pens, holding onto all but two everyday players. Furthermore, the Penguins stuck with what worked. Their ferocious second-period-attack style of play, plus one of the most feared power play units in the National Hockey League, carried them to consecutive titles. The Capitals also have unique abilities, like their unmatched speed and special teams. “The Caps powerplay is the best in the league, they’ve got an all star lineup,” Kruszka pointed out. “And the neutral zone trap, it’s really hard for other teams to get into their offensive zone because the Caps are really skilled at shutting them down and springing an attack the other way.” They will absolutely need to capitalize on these assets of their game if they want to hang on to the Cup for another year.

  • Todd Reirden

Perhaps it seemed so easy for Pittsburgh to go back-to-back because head coach Mike Sullivan was at the helm both times. Washington will not have the luxury of the same bench boss, as it could not agree on terms with Barry Trotz. This was perhaps the hardest piece to let go, especially because the rival New York Islanders were so quick to ink him to the long term deal he wanted. Owner Ted Leonsis has never been known to pay a lot of money for a head coach, so it was announced that assistant coach Todd Reirden would be promoted. Reirden began his NHL coaching career with the Penguins in 2010, and came on staff in Washington in 2014. “He’s got big shoes to fill,” Kruszka said. “It’ll be exciting to see how he keeps the high tempo.” He is very defensive minded, having been a blueliner in his playing days, and has attracted both John Carlson and Michal Kempny of the top defensive pair to re-sign on long-term contracts. “I’m going to miss Trotz,” said Anderer, “but I have high hopes for Reirden; I think his prior experience with the Caps is going to be especially advantageous.”

  • Evgeny Kuznetsov

Despite being a fourth-liner, Jay Beagle’s departure to Vancouver is going to be a big shake up in the District. For the last ten years, Beagle has taken and won a ridiculous number of faceoffs (56.4% career) and has been one of Washington’s best penalty-killing forwards. He is no longer there to be put on for a quick defensive zone draw; all the centers will have to take faceoffs for themselves. The weakest faceoff guy right now is Evgeny Kuznetsov, who won only 450 of the 1018 draws he took last year (44.2%). In order to truly rise to superstardom, Kuznetsov will have to improve his ability to win faceoffs. “Kuzy’s definitely a talented player, I think if he really put in the work this offseason on his faceoffs he can fill (Beagle’s) role,” said Kruszka. Also, it has been rumored that he will be getting more work on the penalty kill this year. Forwards who can kill penalties are fabulous defensive assets, and it would be another great step in the young phenom’s development. Not to mention, think of all the shorthanded scoring opportunities he can create. “Obviously Beagle is gonna be missed, but Kuznetsov has the scoring ability to make up for that.”

  • Braden Holtby

After first and second place finishes in the Vezina Trophy (best goalie) voting in 2016 and 2017, Braden Holtby had a rough 2017-18 season. He lost his starting job in mid-February, but Philipp Grubauer picked up where Holtby left off the season before, posting an impressive 11-3-0 record over 17 appearances down the stretch. Grubauer started the first two games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but he was pulled in Game 2 after allowing four goals before the end of the second period. Holtby picked him up, and the Capitals would win 16 of his 22 starts en route to the Stanley Cup. This season however, Holtby will be starting the year on much shorter rest than he is used to, and Grubauer doesn’t have his back. “Without Grubauer, there’s probably a lot of added pressure on Holtby,” noted Anderer. Pheonix Copley, who has played a grand total of 83 minutes in the NHL, will be the backup. “Holtby is going to have to take on a heavy workload without a proven backup so I expect to see him grow tired and bruised as the season goes on.” said Scheel. The veteran goaltender will likely have to start at least sixty games like he did in Trotz’s first three seasons. He is certainly capable of doing so, especially after his nearly flawless Stanley Cup Playoffs, but he has to keep it up for the duration of the 6-8 month season.

Washington began its quest to defend the Stanley Cup on October 3rd against the Boston Bruins, and the championship banner rose to the rafters at Capital One Arena before the game. They thrashed the Bruins in a seven-goal affair, and had another offensive field day in Pittsburgh the very next night. Caps fans everywhere are already bringing the same energy they brought in June, and everyone around the NHL is anxious to find out if Alex Ovechkin is right with his hope that he and his Capitals can be “not suck, back to back.”

 

Capitals October Schedule

Wed 10/3 vs Boston Bruins, 7:30 PM, NBC Sports Network (W, 7-0)

Thu 10/4 at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7:00 PM, NBC Sports Washington (OTL, 6-7)

Wed 10/10 vs Vegas Golden Knights, 8:00 PM, NBC Sports Network

Thu 10/11 at New Jersey Devils, 7:00 PM, NBC Sports Washington

Sat 10/13 vs Toronto Maple Leafs, 7:00 PM, NBC Sports Washington

Wed 10/17 vs New York Rangers, 7:00 PM, NBC Sports Network

Fri 10/19 vs Florida Panthers, 7:00 PM, NBC Sports Washington

Mon 10/22 at Vancouver Canucks, 10:00 PM, NBC Sports Washington Plus

Thu 10/25 at Edmonton Oilers, 9:00 PM, NBC Sports Washington

Sat 10/27 at Calgary Flames, 4:00 PM, NBC Sports Washington

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Chasing The Cup: Can The Caps Do It Again?