BIG SPORTS & BIGGER OPINIONS
PITTSBURGH – Gazing skyward and exhaling a deep breath, Alex Ovechkin’s look of relief reflected the feelings of an entire franchise and its fans so desperate for success. Finally, the Washington Capitals had overcome arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 20 years.
The way in which they disposed of the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions was calm, clinical, and courageous. There was no Tom Wilson (suspension) and no Nicklas Backstrom (injury), however that didn’t phase Barry Trotz’s men who banded together and silenced a typically riotous Pittsburgh crowd.
Despite looking the better of the two teams in the opening period, the Capitals were unable to take an early lead. The Penguins appeared nervous, lacking speed and often unable to maintain possession of the puck, and looked every bit a team on the verge of elimination on home ice. The Capitals however were unable to capitalize despite creating numerous chances on Matt Murray who was proving to be exceptional in goal.
Early in the second though, Australian Nathan Walker, making his playoff debut, showed his highly regarded speed beating a pair of Penguins before setting up a perfect pass to Alex Chiasson who beat Murray short side. It was just the second goal of Chiasson’s NHL playoff career and the assist was Walker’s first point. It was a just reward for the fourth line who looked good for most of the night.
The goal seemed to spark life into the Pittsburgh faithful who’s voice lifted their team as the intensity lifted on the ice. The Penguins were pushing hard and 11:52 into the period, Kris Letang put an inconsistent series behind him by tying the game, beating Braden Holtby with a one-timer that deflected off of Chandler Stephenson’s stick. The Penguins would continue to push for the remainder of the period, however the safety of the second intermission was welcomed by the Capitals with the game still tied at one.
The final period was controlled by the Capitals from the get-go, however it was the performances of both Murray and Holtby which stole the show. The goal-tending duo were simply exceptional, stopping everything which came their way in what proved to be a highly entertaining, free flowing period. Credit must also be given to the officials who put the whistles away and let the boys play hockey – it was a real lesson to the NHL which needs to push this agenda strongly as the conference finals await.
Still tied at two at the end of regulation, the teams headed to overtime where the Capitals continued to dominate. Searching for a game and series winner, it was Evgeny Kuznetsov who stood up and played hero 5:27 in, after receiving the puck at center ice from Alex Ovechkin before racing down the ice and beating Murray to send Washington fans into hysterics.
The win marks the first time the Capitals have reached the conference finals since the 1997-98 season. In between, there had been 12 failed playoff campaigns where exits in the first (six) and second (six) round were all too familiar and always full of unrivaled heartache. Five of those failed campaigns were at the hands of the Penguins:
Speaking after the curse was broken, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said:
“Finally! We beat the Penguins. Thank God it’s happened. Move forward.”
The Capitals now face the highly-fancied Tampa Bay Lightning who after finishing the regular season with a 54-23-5 record, have easily disposed of the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins, each in five games. The series will mark the first time in Alex Ovechkin’s glorious career he’s appeared in the conference finals and despite most believing the Capitals will have a tough challenge ahead of them, he can take comfort in knowing his team has won eight of its last 10 games against top quality opposition.
Anything is possible. #ALLCAPS
Just over half the Washington Capitals’ 2017-18 season is now in the books, with the team owning a 27-13-3 record and occupying first place in the Metropolitan Division. Despite the slow start, the team has found some consistency in recent months, tallying 36 standings points (17-4-2) in its last 23 games since November 16.
While Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom once again produce most of the team’s offense, the lesser-likes of Jakub Vrana, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Chandler Stephenson – among others – have all played vital roles in the team’s continued success.
The success and dependability of this next tier of stars has made life somewhat difficult for Australian trailblazer Nathan Walker, who unlike it was at the start of the season, is nowhere to be seen in the nation’s capital. Instead, he closed out the first half of his rookie NHL season in regional Pennsylvania.
It’s been a frustrating few months for the soon-to-be 24-year-old forward, albeit one full of learning and character building.
Breaking camp with a roster spot and scoring a somewhat fortuitous goal on NHL debut in the Capitals’ second game of the season, Walker’s name rose to prominence early and was the name on everyone’s lips in both DC and back home in Australia. However, he has spent much of his time since watching from the sidelines – absorbing the atmosphere, observing the game’s best skaters, learning more than he has ever done so before, and getting to know his more experienced, more accomplished teammates.
After just seven appearances in two months with the Capitals, in which he averaged just over nine minutes of ice time per game and failed to etch his name on the scoresheet a second time, Walker was placed on waivers in early December and claimed by the Edmonton Oilers. Here, he again watched more than he played, and in a tenure which lasted just 20 days with the team from Western Canada, skated only twice – failing to add to his single NHL point and averaging 10:20 on the ice per game. The short tenure was ended just prior to Christmas when he was deemed as non-essential goods, and with no other team putting in a claim the second time around, he was re-claimed by the Capitals. Shortly after in late-December, he was assigned to the AHL Hershey Bears with the intent to boost his workload.
In the weeks since joining the Bears, Walker has enjoyed far more ice time and has collected three assists in four games, boosting his AHL career tally to 93 (38 goals, 55 assists) in 238 games dating back to 2013-14. While he would be somewhat disappointed to be back with the Capitals’ minor league affiliate, the greater ice time will help continue his development and ensure he’s ready for a return when next called upon.
The time spent with the Capitals has been historic and immensely important for Walker’s development, and while failing to produce the offensive returns which had been hoped, his tenacity, speed, and work ethic was evident – as has been the case his entire pro career. Throughout his limited appearances he laid some big hits, generated some excitement, and wasn’t afraid to go into battle for his teammates. These appealing traits are what he’s renowned for and exactly why he’s progressed as far as he has done to date. He, quite literally, is a coaches favorite – sentiments echoed by Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz on numerous occasions.
With the Capitals flying and in search of yet another division title – and hopefully improved playoff success – it appears Walker will need to bide his time in the AHL for the foreseeable future. More opportunities however should await the gutsy winger, with many eyes in DC checking scoresheets and highlight reels after every Bears game.
On the back of consecutive President Trophy winning campaigns, where they finished with 120 and 118 standings points respectively, the 2017-18 season was always anticipated to be far more challenging for the Washington Capitals who entered the campaign without the likes of Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, and Nate Schmidt. That experienced group of five contributed 53 goals and tallied 150 points combined last season, leaving Head Coach Barry Trotz with an unsettled roster and a few significant holes needing to be filled both in attack and defense.
The new-look team took a while to find its feet throughout the opening weeks and to make matters worse, it was also hurt by some untimely injuries – most notably to Matt Niskanen. After 12 games the Capitals owned a mediocre 5-6-1 record and had lost seven of their last 10. While far from panic stations, the efforts on the ice were concerning and questions were cialis generique being raised as to whether the team could challenge as they had done the two seasons prior. Defensively, they looked lost at sea, conceding on average one extra goal per game to what they had done last season as well as allowing in excess of 32 shots on goal per game.
In the weeks since though, the roster has improved its health (T.J. Oshie excluded) and the new-look lines are starting to gel. While there’s still been some concerns maintaining possession of the puck and a few too many defensive lapses for Trotz’s liking, the team is looking more fluent and creating more A Grade opportunities – and importantly, making them count. Having won 16 of their last 22 games, including 10 of their last 12 since November 22, the Capitals have surged back into first place in the Metropolitan Division, currently holding a two point advantage over the second-placed New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Alex Ovechkin has continued his incredible season, scoring 10 goals and collecting 17 points total over the Capitals’ impressive 12-game revival. The ‘Great 8’ has tallied 23 goals and 37 points on the season, and is on pace for 55 goals and 89 points – his most since 2008-09 (56 goals) and 2009-10 (109 points) respectively.
Evgeny Kuznetsov has also been hot, collecting six goals and 13 points of his own during this stretch to take his season tally up to 36 points, while Jakub Vrana has scored six times and picked up one assist, and now has 10 goals and 15 points total on the season. The 21-year-old who had scored just three career goals prior to this season commencing has performed far better than many could have expected him too, and he has quickly established himself as one of Trotz’s most dangerous men.
Two others who have lent a helping hand during this time are Nicklas Backstom (four goals, eight assists) and Tom Wilson (three goals, six assists). Wilson’s four point game on December 6 was the first of his career, scoring twice and assisting on Backstrom and Ovechkin’s.
In goals Braden Holtby and Philip Grubauer have really hit their strides over these 12 games, with Holtby saving 92% (267 of 291) of shots fired his way, while Grubauer, who collected wins on November 24 (Tampa Bay Lightning) and December 4 (San Jose Sharks) has been even more impressive, working to a 97% (66 of 68) mark.
The Capitals will look to continue their hot form on Tuesday night with a tough road match up against the Dallas Stars (18-14-2), before heading further west to face the struggling Arizona Coyotes (7-23-5) on Friday. They finish their challenging pre-Christmas road trip on Saturday night in Las Vegas against the incredibly impressive Golden Knights (20-9-2).