Sunday, August 19, 2018

Washington Capitals: One and Done -- Ryan Stanton: “I’ll Take ‘The Letter C’ for $200, Alex”

Since its founding in 1984, the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League have sent 60 players to the NHL.  Seven of that group played in the NHL without having been drafted, a group that includes three-time Stanley Cup winner Mike Keane.  It is a group that also includes defenseman Ryan Stanton, who spent parts of five seasons with the Warriors.

After his last season in Moose Jaw, in 2009-2010, Stanton was signed as a free agent by the Chicago Blackhawks, who assigned him to the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL.  He dressed for two games at the end of the 2009-2010 season with Rockford and then spent the next two full seasons there.  He spent almost an entire third season with the Ice Hogs, but at the end of the abbreviated 2012-2013 NHL season, he got a sweater for the Blackhawks’ regular season finale against the St. Louis Blues.  He skated 17:05 without a point, but finished plus-1 with two penalty minutes in what would be the only game he played with Chicago.  Hold that thought.

At the end of the following September, Stanton was placed on waivers by the Blackhawks and was claimed by the Vancouver Canucks.  It was there where Stanton found a home, or at least regular playing time.  In two seasons in Vancouver, he skated a total of 118 games, going 4-23-27, plus-14, averaging more than 15 minutes a night.

With his contract expiring at the end of the 2014-2015 season, Stanton was not extended a qualifying offer by the Canucks, and he became an unrestricted free agent.   He did not appear to draw a lot of immediate interest.  It was not until July 24th that he would sign a deal, inking a one-year/$575,000 contract with the Caps.  He opened the 2015-2016 season with the Hershey Bears in the AHL and appeared in 60 games for the Caps’ top minor-league affiliate.  There was that one call up in January, though.  The Caps already were missing defensemen Brooks Orpik to an injury when John Carlson caught the injury bug, and the Caps sent Connor Carrick down the Bears and brought Stanton up to face the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Caps went into Columbus on January 19th and overwhelmed the Blue Jackets with four straight goals in a span of less than 13 minutes after spotting the home team the first goal.  The outburst propelled the Caps to a 6-3 win that featured a four-assist night by Evgeny Kuznetsov and a pair of goals from Nicklas Backstrom.  Stanton’s line on the score sheet was more modest.  In 8:41 of ice time he was a minus-1, took a second-period holding penalty that led to a Columbus power play goal, and had an otherwise unmarked line on his score sheet.  It would be his only appearance with the Caps, and once Carlson was healthy enough to return to the lineup, he was reassigned to Hershey on January 28th.

At the end of the season Stanton would move on once more, signing a one-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche and extending a peculiar association with the letter “C.”  Originally signed by Chicago, moving on the Canucks, then to the Capitals, then to Colorado.  And then, in November 2016 he was traded to Columbus for defenseman Cody Goloubef.  Last summer he broke the string, signing a two-year free agent contract with the Edmonton Oilers.

The string Stanton has not been able to break since leaving the Capitals organization is the number of games played without a call-up to the NHL.  Over the last two seasons he played in a total of 94 games for three AHL clubs – San Antonio, Cleveland, and Bakersfield – but he has not cracked an NHL lineup.  At the age of 29, it is too early to say for certain (another “C”) that his NHL career is at an end, but for the moment it is that mid-January night in Columbus with the Caps that is his last NHL action.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Washington Capitals: One and Done -- Barrie Moore: Sometimes It's Over Before It Begins

The 1993 NHL entry draft was an odd one.  It was the draft of one of the more disappointing first overall picks in NHL history, Alexandre Daigle claiming that distinction.  Perhaps stranger still is the fact that of the players taken in the last three rounds, the draft being 11 rounds in those days, five players appeared in 500 or more games in their respective NHL careers – Mike Grier, Pavol Demitra, Kimmo Timonen, German Titov, and Scott Nichol.

Left winger Barrie Moore was one of the more conventional late round picks, taken in the ninth round, 220th overall by the Buffalo Sabres, a long shot to make an NHL roster and a longer one to leave a lasting impression. He followed a conventional path in his development, spending the last two of his four seasons with the Sudbury Wolves in the Ontario Hockey League after he was drafted, and playing most of his first professional season in 1995-1996 with the Rochester Americans in the AHL, where he won a Calder Cup.

The 20-year old Moore did get a cup of coffee with the Sabres in that 1995-1996 season, dressing for three games at the tail end of the regular season.  It was an unremarkable debut, Moore blanked on the score sheet in each of the three games.  He got more exposure with the Sabres the following season, scoring his first NHL goal in his first appearance that season, a game-tying power play goal in what would be a 4-2 win over the St. Louis Blues to open the month of November.  It would not be a signal of prolific production to come, though, Moore going 2-6-8, plus-1, in 31 games.  It would be enough, however, to make Moore attractive enough to include in a trade package.  He was wrapped up with defenseman Craig Millar and sent to the Edmonton Oilers in mid-March for forward Miroslav Satan.

After appearing in four games with the Oilers at the end of the 1996-1997 season he found himself back in the minors for two seasons, skating with the Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL for the 1997-1998 season.  He moved on to the Indianapolis Ice of the IHL to open the following season, but by the end of it, he was moving on to a new organization once more.  In February 1999, the Oilers traded Moore to the Caps for forward Brad Church (who almost merits a story of his own, he and fellow Caps first round pick Miika Elomo appearing in only two career NHL games; only one first rounder of the 1995 draft appearing in fewer – San Jose Sharks pick Teemu Riihijarvi never appearing in an NHL game).

It would take Moore a while to find his way to Washington, spending the remainder of the 1998-1999 season and almost the entire 1999-2000 season with the Portland Pirates.  But there was that one game in January of that 1999-2000 season.  Moore found his way into the lineup of a Caps team on a four-game winning streak and points in eight of nine games.  Nine of 18 skaters recorded points in a 6-3 win in Tampa over the Lightning to make it five wins in a row.  Alas, Moore was not among the point-getters, and he logged just 9:50 in ice time in the win.

That would be the only 9:50 he would skate for the Caps and the last ice time he logged in the NHL, done at the age of 24.  Moore was claimed by the Columbus Blue Jackets the following summer in the 2000 expansion draft and spent the remainder of his pro career between playing in the minors and in Great Britain before ending his career after the 2004-2005 season.

Photo: Hockey Hall of Fame

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Washington Capitals: One and Done -- Chris Ferraro: Some Things Are Bigger Than The Game

The 1992 NHL entry draft is not one that was either deep or especially productive.  For example, there is no 500-goal scorer out of that draft, no 400-goal scorer for that matter.  It claims only one 300-goal scorer, and that one – Alexei Yashin (337 goals) – is better known for the bizarre fashion in which his career unwound more than anything he did on the ice.

Tucked deep in that draft was a young center from Port Jefferson, NY, who wasn’t even the first player taken from his family in that draft. Chris Ferraro, the twin brother of Peter Ferraro (taken 24th overall by the New York Rangers) was taken in the fourth round, 85th overall in that draft by the Rangers.  The Sedin Twins they were not, but twins making the NHL is quite an achievement.  Between them, they appeared in 166 NHL games over their respective careers, Peter in 92 of them over a six-season career that included four games with the Caps in his last NHL season, in 2001-2002.  It is Chris, though, that is of interest here.

It took Chris three seasons after he was drafted to reach the NHL, years he spent at the University of Maine and then with the Binghamton Rangers in the AHL for a season.  He got his call-up to the show late in the 1995-1996 season and made his debut against the Florida Panthers.  Although his Rangers would lose that game, 5-3, the debut would have an almost storybook quality to it.  He scored a power play goal in that first game, his twin brother Peter earning the primary assist.

Ferraro played one more game for the Rangers that season and 12 games the next, recording a pair of goals and three points in the 14 games overall.  However, it did not look good for his becoming a more permanent fixture in the Ranger lineup, and he was waived in October 1997.  The Pittsburgh Penguins claimed him, and he went on to have his career season with the Pens in 1997-1998, modest as it was, going 3-4-7, minus-2, in 46 games.

It was a good enough performance for Ferraro to be signed by the Edmonton Oilers as a free agent in August of 1998.  Unfortunately for Ferraro, that was the first in a series of short stops followed by signings as a free agent.  After appearing in only two games with the Oilers in 1998-1999 he was signed in July 1999 by the New York Islanders.  After appearing in 11 games with the Isles, he was signed in July 2000 by the New Jersey Devils, for whom he never played, spending the entire 2000-2001 season with the Albany River Rats.

It would be the following summer, in August 2001, that he was traded to the Caps for, what else, “future considerations.”  And then, in the space of less than two months, it would be the best of times and the worst of them for Ferraro.  He was called up to the Caps in mid-October.  He made his debut with the Caps on October 16th in Los Angeles against the Kings, recording an assist on an Ulf Dahlen power play goal in the second period that proved important in the Caps’ 3-2 overtime win.  It would be his first game with the Caps and his last, and his only point with the club.

It should have been among the happiest of times.  His team debut, skating with his twin brother, who by this time was also a Capital, contributing to the win on enemy ice.  It lasted as long as it took to make a phone call to his wife that went unanswered With his wife’s illness hanging heavily over the couple, he took a leave of absence from the club.

Ferraro tried a comeback of sorts, signing as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes in July 2003, took a turn in Europe for a couple of seasons, did the same with the Syracuse and San Antonio franchises of the AHL, and spent a season in Las Vegas in the ECHL.  But Ferraro would not play in the NHL again before his pro career ended after the 2008-2009 season, his first game with the Capitals being his last.

Photo: Getty Images

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Washington Capitals: One and Done -- Shawn Cronin: Going in for a Future Hall of Famer? No Pressure

In our first look at those players who dressed for only one game with the Washington Capitals, we looked at a player whose stop in the DMV came in the middle of a long career.  In this look back, we meet a one-and-done-er who played his one game with the Caps as his NHL debut before going on to compile a larger body of work elsewhere. 

Shawn Cronin had the sort of early start to his hockey journey that might seem a bit common these days, but was less so back in the early 1980’s.  As a 19-year old, undrafted by any NHL team, he landed at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1982.  After spending four years playing defense for UIC, he was signed as a free agent by the Hartford Whalers in March 1986.  He broke into pro hockey splitting time in the 1986-1987 season skating with the Salt Lake Golden Eagles in the International Hockey League, going 8-16-24 in 53 games there, and with the Binghamton Whalers of the American Hockey League, where he recorded one assist in 12 games.

Cronin spent another season in Binghamton, but it was his last in the Whaler organization.  He would be signed by the Capitals the following June, but he seemed destined to spend another season in an AHL sweater.  Then fate intervened.  Washington and the New York Rangers faced one another in a home-and-home set of games in October, the first of which was played in Manhattan.  In the 5-1 loss to the Blueshirts, defenseman Larry Murphy was injured, the victim of what was characterized as a “knee-to-knee leg whip” by the Rangers’ Tony Granato.  Murphy was held out of the rematch two days later, and Cronin was called up from the Baltimore Skipjacks to take his place in the lineup.

We would like to say that Cronin’s NHL debut was a success, both personally and for the team.  Sadly, it was not.  The Caps opened the scoring three minutes into the game on a power play goal by Dave Christian, but the Rangers answered with three power play goals of their own and added a Guy Lafleur tally early in the third period to sweep the home-and-home with a 4-1 win.  For his part, Cronin recorded neither a point nor a shot on goal in what would be his first and last appearance with the Caps.

It would not be his last game in the NHL, though.  The following summer, the Caps and Cronin parted ways, and he signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Flyers.  He never so much as dressed for training camp with the Flyers, traded to the Winnipeg Jets a month after his signing.  We use that word “traded” advisedly.  The return for Cronin was “future considerations” which would be cancelled as part of a trade that sent Keith Acton and Pete Peeters to Philadelphia by Winnipeg in October 1989.  In effect, Cronin was given to the Jets.

Nevertheless, Cronin did play three seasons with the Jets, recording one goal and 13 assists in 193 games.  He also logged 703 penalty minutes in those 193 games, largely on the basis of 61 fighting majors, earning him the nickname, “Cronin the Barbarian.” 

Following the 1991-1992 season, Cronin spent another short stay in a city for which he would not dress.  In August of 1992 he was traded to the Quebec Nordiques for Dan Lambert, but barely a month later, on October 4th, he was waived and claimed by the Flyers.  He player 35 relatively quiet (37 penalty minutes) games for the Flyers in the 1992-1993 season while posting a career high in goals (two) before being traded to the San Jose Sharks for cash in August 1993.  It was there where Cronin spent his last two NHL seasons.  He would play another two seasons with the Fort Wayne Komets in the IHL before bowing out of pro hockey at the age of 33.  He finished the NHL portion of his career having played in 292 regular season games with four clubs, the first and only one of which was played in Landover with the Capitals as a fill-in for a future Hall of Famer.

Photo: Hockey Hall of Fame

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Washington Capitals: One and Done -- Rod Seiling: "We had a practice, played a game, then I was gone"

Last season, Alex Ovechkin became the first player in Washington Capitals history to appear in 1,000 career games with the club.  But of the 494 skaters to dress for the Caps in their 44-season history, how many players pulled on a Caps sweater for one, and only one game with the club?

It turns out there are more than you might think – 14 skaters to be exact, as well as four goaltenders.  Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at this group of “One-and-Done-ers.”  Some of them spent one game in a Caps uniform as part of a much longer career.  There is, for example, defenseman Rod Seiling.  He was signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1962 on the first stop of his career.  He would play only one game with the Leafs, though, before he was shipped off with Dick Duff, Bob Nevin, Arnie Brown and Bill Collins to the New York Rangers for Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney.    

Being a Ranger was not an experience without its adventure, and this is where the wacky world of hockey management spins around.  By the summer of 1967, the Rangers did not think enough of Seiling to protect him from the expansion draft, and he was taken by the St. Louis Blues in the sixth round of that draft.  However, on the same day as the draft, they thought enough of him to reacquire him in a trade, Seiling going back east, so to speak, for Gary Sabourin, Bob Plager, Gord Kannegiesser and Tim Ecclestone.  It would be in New York where Seiling spent most of his career, skating parts of 12 seasons there, compiling 50 goals and 248 points in 644 games.

By 1974, Seiling's game was starting to fade a bit, despite not yet reaching his 30th birthday.  After consecutive 40-plus point seasons, he slipped to 30 points in 1973-74.  There was also the matter of criticism directed at the Rangers for being underachievers, some of it directed at Seiling, and even to the point of verbal taunts directed at his sons. It made for a toxic situation for the player.

After four games to open the 1974-75 season in which he had one point and a minus-4, Seiling was placed on waivers, where he was claimed by the Capitals on October 29, 1974.  He took the ice in his only appearance in a Caps sweater on Hallowe’en night in the Montreal Canadiens’ first-ever visit to Washington (well, Landover, Maryland) to face the expansion Capitals.  Seiling did not record a point.  No one else did, either.  Montreal shut out the Caps, 3-0, the fourth time in their first ten games that they were blanked. 

And here is where the wacky world of hockey management spins around once more.  Two days after skating for the Caps for the first time, Seiling was traded to Toronto – the team with which he originally signed – for Willie Brossart and Tim Ecclestone, making it the second time he was involved in a trade that sent Ecclestone in the other direction.  Seiling went on to play in another four seasons with three clubs – Toronto, the St. Louis Blues, and the Atlanta Flames, where he wrapped up his NHL career in 1978-79.  Seiling finished his career at age 34, having played 692 games with five clubs, one of those games with the Washington Capitals. But he does have some “sepia memories.” 

Photo: Getty Images

Monday, July 30, 2018

Washington Capitals: Conquering Adversity

“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”
-- Moliere

It’s time to close the book on the 2017-2018 season, but in doing so we cannot help but think that a lot of effort goes into the winning of a Stanley Cup, and that the journey is both long and full of obstacles. In one sense, the journey for the Washington Capitals was 44 years long and the obstacles included teams that seemed to have their number – the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins come to mind. Add to that the team’s propensity, regardless of who was wearing the sweater, to give up the good fortune they earned in the postseason in the form of letting so many 2-0 and 3-1 leads in series get away.

The 2017-2018 Capitals were not a team into whose lap good fortune fell. More than most teams in recent history it was quite the opposite. Stanley Cup champions often have to face adversity, a dark night of the soul that they must conquer to win the prize. No team in recent history overcame more than these Capitals in their march to the Stanley Cup. From the opponents faced to the circumstances of each of the four individual series to the injuries fought through, this club was uncommon in its resolve and tenacity. Let’s take one last walk back.

Conference Quarterfinal -- The Coach

The Capitals have had their issues with teams, but rarely with individual coaches. One coach who seemed to be an especially difficult obstacle was John Tortorella. Washington won two of the first three series in which they faced Tortorella, losing to his Tampa Bay Lightning in six games in 2003 before beating his New York Rangers in 2009 in seven games and in five games in 2011. But starting in 2012, Tortorella would inflict particular pain on the Caps, his Rangers winning a seven-game series in that postseason and following that up with a seven-game win against the Caps in 2013.

In 2018 the Caps had their first chance to face Tortorella as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets. And when the Caps went down to the Blue Jackets in excruciating fashion in Games 1 and 2 – both games settled in overtime – it looked as though Tortorella would extend his winning streak against the Caps without much pushback. That view would be wrong. The Caps stormed back to win the last four games of the series to advance to the second round.

This was the first time since the NHL went to a best-of-seven for all four playoff rounds (since the 1987 postseason) that a team lost Games 1 and 2 in overtime, won the series, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Conference Semi-Final -- “The Demons Have Been Exorcised”

From 1991 through 2017, the Capitals faced the Pittsburgh Penguins ten times. They won once, in 1994, when the number one song on the Billboard charts was “Bump n’ Grind” by R. Kelly, the number one book of fiction on the New York Times’ best seller list was “The Celestine Prophecy” by James Redfield, and Apple was introducing its “Power Mac” personal computer.

The Caps lost to the Penguins in the playoffs nine times in that span, sometimes in horrific ways. There was 1992, when the Caps won Games 1 and 2, and then after losing Game 3, pounded the Pens, 7-2, in Pittsburgh to take a commanding 3-1 lead in games against the defending Stanley Cup champs. They dropped the last three games, two of them on home ice, by a combined 14-7 margin.

There was 1995, when the Caps went out to a 3-1 lead in games again and had the series in their hands when Game 5 went to overtime. The Caps lost. They went quick and quiet after that, outscored by the Pens, 10-1, in the last two games.

There was 1996, and the Caps had a chance to go up, 3-1, again. But Game 4 went to overtime…and then another…and then another… and then another. The teams almost went to a fifth overtime, but late in the fourth extra session on a power play, Petr Nedved scored to even the series. Pittsburgh closed it out by winning the next two games.

There was 2001, when the Caps had a chance to bring the series home for a Game 7. But in overtime, Sergei Gonchar was the victim of some bad ice at his own blue line, lost the puck, and looked on as Martin Straka picked it up, skated in alone on goalie Olaf Kolzig, and won the game and the series.

There was 2009, when the Caps and Pens renewed their rivalry in the first meeting of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. In Game 7, Ovechkin had a chance to put the Caps up early on a breakaway. He was foiled by Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Pens steamrolled the Caps after that, 6-2, to take the series.

There was 2016, in some ways a replay of 2001, the Caps having a chance to bring a series back to Washington for a Game 7, but Nick Bonino scored in overtime of Game 6 to sink the Caps again.

And there was 2017, when the Caps gamely came back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the series in Game 6 in Pittsburgh. Then, they didn’t show up for Game 7, falling by a 2-0 margin.

That brought us to 2018. The Caps were facing the two-time defending champions, and when they dropped Game 1 at home, it had the look of a too-often watched episode of a bad TV series from the 1990’s. But the Caps tied the series in Game 2 in a dominating 4-1 performance. Then they went to Pittsburgh and won in a fashion not seen by a Caps team – a goal in the last 90 seconds of regulation, swatted out of mid-air from the top of the Penguin crease by Alex Ovechkin to give the Caps a 4-3 win. Washington lost Game 4, 4-3, to tie the series, setting up another of those moments such as those in the past in which the Caps wilted and the Penguins moved forward. This time – Game 5 – was different. The Caps, adding bizarre to the unusual, stormed back from a 3-2 deficit after two periods to score four unanswered goals in the final frame to win and put the Caps on the brink of victory in a 6-3 win.

The Caps were not through the woods yet, though. The Penguins were two-time champions for a reason, and they played like it in Game 6. Washington opened the scoring early in the second period, but the Pens tied it mid-way through the same frame. That would be the extent of the scoring in regulation. The teams fought through five minutes of overtime when the Caps finally drove a stake through the heart of their demon...

Conference Final – The Better Team

Back in October, many in the hockey media had the Capitals as perhaps a wild-card qualifier for the playoffs, but few if any had the Tampa Bay Lightning as anything other than an Atlantic Division winner or contender. The Lightning did not disappoint, finishing the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference, five wins and eight points better than the Caps.

There was the history of these teams, too. They met twice before in the postseason , in 2003 and in 2011. Tampa Bay won both series, besting the Caps in six games after dropping Games 1 and 2 in 2003 and sweeping them in four games in 2011. The Caps had eight straight postseason losses to Tampa Bay and had yet to defeat the Lightning in a playoff game on home ice.

For the first time in this postseason the Caps got out to a series lead. In fact, they won both Games 1 and 2 in Tampa to put the Lightning in a deep hole. But that was how the 2003 series started, too, and the Caps went out in six games. The 2003 memories became much too clear for comfort when the Lightning came to Washington and evened the series with wins in Games 3 and 4, denying for at least a while longer the Caps first postseason win on home ice against this team. When Tampa Bay won Game 5 in Florida to put the Caps on the brink of elimination, fans might have been forgiven for at least taking a peek toward the summer and next season.

And then, a funny thing happened. No one scored in the first period of Game 6. And then a funnier thing happened. Jay Beagle took a penalty in the first minute of the second period to put the Lightning on a power play. This was the sort of opening the Caps have given teams in the past in the postseason and lived to regret it. But the Caps killed off the penalty, and then they scored on their own power play late in the period to take a lead to the third. The Caps got an insurance goal by Devante Smith-Pelly mid-way through the period, and T.J. Oshie scored an empty netter, his second goal of the game, to complement Braden Holtby’s 24-save shutout in a 3-0 win, the Caps’ first against the Lightning in the postseason on home ice.

It was the sort of win that in the past served only to make what followed more disappointing for Caps fans. In the past, the Caps might lose on a strange play or by not rising to the occasion, but what was in common was that they lost in Games 7. The Caps served notice early in this edition of Game 7 that this was a different year with a different team intent on writing a different ending. Alex Ovechkin scored just 62 seconds into the game, Andre Burakovsky scored a pair of goals seven minutes apart in the second period, and Nicklas Backstrom added an empty-netter to seal the win, Braden Holtby stopping 29 shots to become the first goaltender in more than 80 years to pitch consecutive shutouts in elimination games in the postseason after not having had a shutout in the regular season (Earl Robertson did for the Detroit Red Wings in 1937).

Stanley Cup Final -- “The Words That D.C. Fans Have Been Waiting to Hear Since 1974...”

Plucky expansion team of cast-offs reach Stanley Cup final. Rooting against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup final, even with the parallel story of Alex Ovechkin playing for his first Stanley Cup, was the rooting equivalent of kicking a puppy. Never mind that the Caps, in 44 years, had never won a game in a Stanley Cup final, either (they were swept in four games in their only previous appearance in the final, in 1998 against the Detroit Red Wings).

The Caps would have to wait a bit longer for that first win, Vegas taking the series opener by a typically Vegas 6-4 margin. By this time, though, the Caps had proven themselves a team made of stronger stuff than their predecessors. They won Game 2 to split the games out west, a game punctuated by what might be the single most important play in the playoff history of the Capitals, a play that will be known henceforth as "The Save"...

Buoyed by that save and that win, the Caps returned to Washington and swept two games to put the Golden Knights on the edge of elimination.

It would be typical of this postseason for the Caps to face adversity once more and prevail, and this is just what they did. Twice they took a lead in Game 5, only to see the Golden Knights tie the game. And then, Vegas took a lead in the last minute of the second period. The Caps would have to come from behind on enemy ice, trying to close out a 3-1 series lead of the sort they failed so often to do in the past.

Gradually, the Caps took command of the action, and mid-way through the third period they got the equalizer. The oft-denigrated Brooks Orpik kept a loose puck on the offensive side of the blue line and fed the unsung Devante Smith-Pelly for a shot that he would take while being tripped to the ice, the shot eluding long-time nemesis Marc-Andre Fleury to tie the game. Less than three minutes later, Fleury could not squeeze his pads tightly enough to keep a loose puck from trickling behind him, and Lars Eller darted in to snap the puck into the net. All that was left was to skate off the last 7:37 to hear the call every Caps fan has wanted to hear...

What an eight weeks it was, especially when you think about all that the Caps had to overcome to have their names on the Stanley Cup…
  • Fighting through losses in overtime in Games 1 and 2 against Columbus and their difficult coach, becoming the first team in the era of 16 wins needed to win a Cup to lose their first two games in overtime and win the trophy.
  • Fighting past their most bitter rival – the Pittsburgh Penguins – on their ice in Game 6 despite not having a third of their top-six forwards in the lineup (Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson).
  • Fighting past a solid favorite in the conference final who they had not beaten in previous postseason meetings and against whom they had never won a playoff game on home ice.
  • Fighting past the darlings of hockey in the final, a team that beat the Caps twice in two meetings in the regular season and doing it against a goaltender who played a big role in crushing dreams of Caps fans in the past when he was a Penguin.
  • Fighting through an injury to Nicklas Backstrom when he blocked a shot in Game 5 of the Pittsburgh series (later revealed to be two fractures to his right index finger) that caused him to miss four games.
  • Fighting through a three-game suspension to winger Tom Wilson that caused him to miss the last three games of the Pittsburgh series.
  • They finished the postseason as the fifth team in NHL history to win ten games on the road.
  • They became the first team in almost 30 years to win a Stanley Cup having trailed at some point in every series (Pittsburgh did it in 1991).
  • They became only the third team in NHL history to clinch all four series on the road and the first since Pittsburgh in 2009.

And as much as what they overcame, it was how they did it. There was Lars Eller scoring the game-winning goal in Game 3 in the second overtime to get the Caps off the mat against Columbus after dropping those first two games in overtime. There was Eller again, going 2-3-5 in the first three games of the series against Tampa Bay with Backstrom out of the lineup. And there was Eller again scoring the Cup-clinching goal against Vegas, finishing with a team-high three game-winning goals for the postseason.
  • There were the nine different Capitals sharing the 16 game-winning goals.
  • There was Devante Smith-Pelly, equaling the seven goals he scored in 75 regular season games with seven in 24 postseason games, the last six of them in Caps wins, including the game-tying goal in the Cup-clinching game.
  • There was Brooks Orpik, keeping the puck in at the edge of the blue line in the Cup-clinching win to set up Smith-Pelly’s goal, but more than that going plus-17 in 24 postseason games to lead the league.
  • There was Evgeny Kuznetsov, casting off recent underwhelming postseason performances with a Conn Smythe-quality level of play in this postseason.
  • There were Nathan Walker, Shane Gersich, and Travis Boyd getting their first taste of a deep Stanley Cup run. Gersich skated in a Game 5 win that put the Caps on the brink of a series win against Pittsburgh; Walker and Boyd skated in the series-clinching win over the Penguins. No demons for them.

Any team that wins a Stanley Cup gets contributions from up and down the roster, stars and no-names alike. But few, if any teams in recent memory overcame more than the Caps did to win the Cup. Every series had its hook, something that the Caps dealt with unsuccessfully in the past that had to be overcome. They had to overcome injuries to key pieces at key moments of the postseason. They had to overcome their own history and the perennial narrative that they just didn’t play the right way or have what it takes to win.

You can attach a lot of adjectives to the Caps’ performance this spring: determined, tenacious, resolute, dogged, focused. It all comes down to one word to describe them.


Now… do it again.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

So, What Happened on This Date?... July 18

And what happened on this date in Washington Capitals history?  Well, it was an odd sort of day…

1996 – A Legend is Traded

OK, so perhaps you do not recognize the name, “Frank Bialowas.”  Not surprising, that.  An undrafted left wing out of Winnipeg, he was signed as a free agent by the Toronto Maple Leafs in March 1994. He played only three games at the end of the 1993-1994 season in Toronto, recording no points, but he did have 12 penalty minutes, ten of them coming on two fighting majors (hold that thought).  And he did not pick on lightweights.  He threw punches with Tony Twist of the Quebec Nordiques and with Tie Domi of the Winnipeg Jets.  Both were legendary tough guys, Domi having been hit with 273 major penalties in his career, Twist logging 1,121 penalty minutes in only 445 career NHL games.

Those would be the only three NHL games Bialowas would play.  He found his way to the Caps in September 1995 when he signed as a free agent.  He spent the entire season with the Portland Pirates in the AHL, going 4-3-7, but logging 211 penalty minutes in 65 games.  That would be the extent of his imprint on the franchise, and he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers on this date in 1996 for the always murky “future considerations” (perhaps a subscription to “The Ring” magazine).

Bialowas achieved his legendary status, of sorts, as a member of the Philadelphia Phantoms in the AHL.  In 156 games over three seasons, he went 12-16-28, but he had 555 penalty minutes.  We would be traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in January 1999 for Dennis Bonvie (another legendary minor league tough guy) and would make his final stop in pro hockey when he signed as a free agent with the Hershey Bears in September 1999 for what would be his last pro season.  Even though he was only 30 years old at the time, the years had slowed him down to a degree.  He logged “only” 65 penalty minutes in 40 games.  He wrapped up his AHL career having recorded 1,498 penalty minutes in 394 games over eight seasons with four teams, winning a Calder Cup in 1998 with the Phantoms. 

And just to complete the Capitals portion of this story, Bialowas was not even happy about being traded by the Caps to the Flyers and having to play for the Phantoms in their inaugural season.  Here is how he put it…
“I’ll be completely honest here.  When I heard about [the trade], I was less than enthusiastic. I thought, there’s no way this can work. With the Flyers playing across the parking lot, who’s even going to care about us?

“When I skated out for the first game, I saw about 2,500 fans in the stands and I’m thinking, this is gonna suck!  I decided to have fun with it. I remember the little squirrel running around in my head, thinking I’m just going to go out there, play my game, beat people up, and see what happens. And the fans, man, they fell in love with our team. They kept coming out, attendance kept going up. It was great.”

2003 – The Caps Sign Gruden…No, Not That Gruden…Not That One, Either

The 2002-2003 season was an odd one for the Caps.  They welcomed a new coach (Bruce Cassidy), and they returned to the postseason after missing the playoffs in 2001-2002.  They also dressed 12 defensemen in the regular season, a rather high number.  Of that group, only two – Calle Johansson and Sergei Gonchar – dressed for more than 70 games.  Five of those defensemen would not be on the roster the following season (Alex Henry, Calle Johansson, Josef Boumedienne, Ken Klee, and Sylvain Cote).

One who would be was a five-year veteran who had not played in an NHL game since the 1999-2000 season, losing one full season to a shoulder injury and playing a season in Germany along the way.  John Gruden, an eight-round pick (168th overall) of the Boston Bruins in the 1990 entry draft, was signed by the Caps on this date in 2003. 

It was not exactly part of a youth movement.  Gruden was six weeks past his 33rd birthday.  But something in his season in Germany (6-25-31 in 38 games with Eisbaren Berlin) caught the Caps’ attention.  Whatever that was, neither the Capitals nor their fans got a long look at it.  Gruden played in 11 games before leaving the lineup in early November with a groin injury.  Those would be the only games in which Gruden played for the Caps and in the NHL in what was his last season.

Gruden went into coaching where he suffered the odd experience of being fired twice as head coach by the same team in one season.  He is currently the head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs of the Ontario Hockey League.

2006 – Caps Sign a Heart and Soul Guy

Quintin Laing had been around.  He was drafted in the fourth round by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1997 entry draft, and that was the departure point for an extended trip through North American hockey.  He spent three more seasons with the Kelowna Rockets in the Western Hockey League before jumping to pro hockey, splitting time between the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL and the Jackson Bandits of the ECHL over two seasons.  He played four more seasons with Norfolk (signed as a free agent by the Chicago Blackhawks along the way, for whom he played three games in the 2003-2004 season) before his journey stopped with the Caps’ organization.

On this date in 2006, Laing signed as a free agent with Washington.  He started the 2006-2007 season with the Hershey, where he dressed for 75 games, establishing a pro-best 15 goals, adding 28 assists and posting a career best at any level plus-21.  The following season he split time between Hershey (20 games) and Washington (39 games), where he posted an amazing 52 blocked shots in those 39 games, second on the club among forwards (Brooks Laich had 56 blocked shots in 82 games). 

Laing spent almost the entire 2008-2009 season in Hershey, but he was called up late in the season and dressed for a late-March game against Tampa Bay.  He skated just ten minutes and finished the game with one blocked shot.  It was one he might have been better to avoid.  He suffered a lacerated spleen for which it was assumed he would be out for the season.  He was not.  He dressed for nine playoff games for the Hershey Bears, recording a pair of goals and a pair of assists.

Laing dressed for 36 games with the Caps in 2009-2010 (a season interrupted by another injury from a blocked shot, a fractured jaw against the New York Rangers), but it would be his last in the Caps’ organization.  He signed a professional tryout contract with the Abbotsford Heat in the AHL, where, except for a brief four-game stint in the ECFL, he played his last three seasons in pro hockey.  His tenure with the club might have been brief, but he had the respect of teammates who thought of him as a “heart and soul guy.” 

The other things that happened on this date?... Rome burned. The great fire of 64 AD lasted six days and destroyed about half the city… Intel was founded on this date in 1968… Detroit declared bankruptcy on this date in 2013… Nelson Mandela was born on this date in 1918… John Glenn was born on this date in 1921.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

So, What Happened on This Date?... July 16

So… what did happen on July 16th in Washington Capitals history?  It was a famous day, as it turns out. 

1990 – “Scott Stevens career with the Washington Capitals is over.”

That was the headline in a Washington Post story on July 13, 1990 announcing that the Washington Capitals would not match a four-year/$5.1 million offer sheet tendered to the restricted free agent defenseman.  By today’s standards, even with inflation (the total deal was for $9.86 million in 2018 dollars, an “AAV” of $2.465 million per year).  But in 1990, it was a big deal.  Consider that Wayne Gretzky, still perhaps the best player of the era, had just completed a season in which he earned $1,720,000 (source:

The Caps gave up an all-star caliber blueliner – he was on the first-team All-Rookie team in 1982-1983, appeared in two All-Star Games with the Caps, and was named to the All Star first team once (1987-1988) – for five first round picks.  The Caps later that same day made a trade of some note.  The club, with Stevens about to depart, obtained defenseman Mike Lalor and forward Peter Zezel from St. Louis for Geoff Courtnall.  Lalor played in 132 regular season and 10 postseason games for the Caps before being traded to the Winnipeg Jets for Paul McDiarmid in March 1992.  Zezel played 20 games for Washington before he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs with defenseman Bob Rouse for defenseman Al Iafrate in January 1991.

Stevens went on to complete a Hall of Fame career, spending one season with the Blues and then, in another uncommon personnel move, was transferred to the New Jersey Devils as compensation for the Blues signing forward Brendan Shanahan.  Stevens spent 13 seasons with the Devils, with whom he played in ten All-Star games, was named a first-team all-star once, won three Stanley Cups, was awarded a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but never won a Norris Trophy as outstanding defenseman.

Stevens had another legacy with the Caps.  The five first round picks the Caps were awarded in compensation were the first fruit of a productive tree, making Stevens, who was the fifth overall pick of the 1982 entry draft, the most productive draft pick in Capitals history.  Stevens was signed by the Blues on this date in 1990 to complete the deal and officially end Stevens' career in Washington.

1999 – The Caps Get a Backup Goalie

The 1998-1999 season was one in which injuries figured importantly.  No skater appeared in all 82 games (Ken Klee dressed for 78 games), only ten skaters dressed for more than 60 games, and the Caps employed 37 skaters in all.  Four goalies dressed for the Caps that season, and once the team had to give top netminder Olaf Kolzig a break, things went south.  The other three goalies – Rick Tabaracci, Mike Rosati, and Martin Brochu – combined for 26 appearances, going 5-14-3, 2.55, .906, with two shutouts (both by Tabaracci).  No goalie other than Kolzig won a game after March 20th that season, but the Caps won only two of their last 13 games.

Tabaracci was a free agent after that season (he would be signed by the Atlanta Thrashers the following November), and neither Brochu nor Rosati appeared to be in the Caps’ plans as a backup for Kolzig (as it turned out, Rosati appeared in one game for the Caps, his only career NHL game, and Brochu only played in seven more NHL games with Vancouver and Pittsburgh over the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 seasons; he never won an NHL game in nine appearances).   

What the Caps needed was a proven, reliable backup, a professional who understood his role and could fill it consistently.  On this date in 1999 they settled on a 32-year old veteran of 11 seasons with four teams.  Craig Billington was acquired from the Colorado Avalanche for future considerations on this date in 1999.  He played four seasons with the Caps, appearing in 47 games, going 11-19-7, 2.95, .894, with two shutouts.  But he might be best known for a moment when he wasn’t in the game, when in a contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins, things got tense, and Billington made his contribution by mocking Penguin goalie Johan “Moose” Hedberg… 

2015 – The Caps Sign a Pair

July 2015 was a busy month for the Caps.  A very busy month.  There were seven transactions on July 1st, a day topped  by the signing of free agent Justin Williams, but including signings of Taylor Chorney, Stan Galiev, and Aaron Ness, among others.  The following day, the Caps traded Troy Brouwer, Pheonix Copley, and a draft pick to the St. Louis Blues for T.J. Oshie, and they signed Chris Bourque.  A few days later, they signed Evgeny Kuznetsov to a new contract.

One wondered if the Caps had any more activity left after that first week in July 2015.  They did, although the next round of it was of a comparatively minor variety.  Zach Sill had stops in Pittsburgh and Toronto before joining the Caps organization.  That leg of the journey, from the Penguins to the Maple Leafs in February 2015, was part of a trade that would also involve future Capital Daniel Winnik.  But when the season was over, Sill was a free agent.  He signed a one-year/two-way deal with the Caps for $575,000 ($287,500 in AHL salary) on this date in 2015.  He played ten games for the Caps in the 2015-2016 season (1-0-1, plus-2) and then signed a two-year/$1,225,000 contract with the Caps in June 2016.  He did not see action with the Caps in either the 2016-2017 or 2017-2018 seasons.  He is currently an unrestricted free agent.

The Caps also had the matter of Chris Brown on their to-do list.  Brown was a minor player in the Martin Erat saga, coming to the Caps with Rostislav Klesla and a draft pick for Erat and John Mitchell in March 2014. Over the remainder of the 2013-2014 season and the 2014-2015 season, Brown dressed for 11 games with the Caps, posting one goal and a plus-1.  It was enough for the Caps to agree to a two-year/$1,150,000 contract with Brown on this date in 2015.  He appeared in one game in the 2015-2016 season before he was traded to the New York Rangers for Ryan Bourque.  He did not play for the Rangers, and when he became a free agent, he signed with the Thomas Sabo Ice Tigers N├╝rnberg of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga.

In other July 16th news, it was on this date… in 1790 that the District of Columbia was established as the capital of the United States under the Residence Act of 1790… in 1862 that David Farragut was promoted to the rank of rear admiral, the first officer in the United States Navy to hold admiral rank… in 1935 that the first parking meter was installed (in Oklahoma City, OK)… in 1941 that Joe DiMaggio his safely in his 56th consecutive game, the last game of his record streak… in 1945 that a plutonium-based weapon was detonated at Alamogordo, NM, the first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon… in 1969 that Apollo 11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center, beginning what would be the first successful moon landing mission… in 1967 that Will Ferrell was born (cue the cowbell)…

Washington Capitals: 2017-2018 By the Tens -- Ten for the Tens

"Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead."
-- Dabbs Greer

In the post-championship haze of celebration, it is easy to forget the contributions of players who might have played support roles in the path to victory.   Ten players played in fewer than 25 regular season games this season for the Washington Capitals.  We already covered one in Michal Kempny, owing to his importance down the stretch and in the postseason.  Here are the ten in order of games played:

Even without Kempny’s contributions, the other nine combined for what would be a respectable season’s worth of games (71) and went a combined 3-9-12, plus-8, averaging more than 11 minutes of ice time per game.  As a group those contributions are not inconsequential, and each of the nine deserves some mention.

Taylor Chorney

Taylor Chorney came into his eighth season having played 73 games in two seasons with the Caps, going 2-9-11, plus-16 in the process.  Chorney, who spent much of his career on the fringes of getting playing time, often in the role of a seventh defenseman, appeared in 24 of the first 57 games of the season for the Caps, going 1-3-4, plus-8.  That plus-minus added to a strange, if impressive run for Chorney.  In the last three seasons, his plus-24 in aggregate was 12th-best on the team in that span, despite his playing far fewer games (97, including this season) than any other player on the list (Nate Schmidt was a plus-34 in 132 games).  Chorney was waived on February 21st with the intention of assigning him to the Hershey Bears in the AHL if he cleared, but he was claimed by the Columbus Blue Jackets.  He appeared in just one game for Columbus and signed with HC Lugano of the National League in Switzerland.

Jakub Jerabek

The Capitals were in the market for defensemen at the trading deadline, and while Michal Kempny’s acquisition at that time was more consequential, the Caps did pick up another defenseman.  Washington traded a fifth-round draft pick to the Montreal Canadiens for Jakub Jerabek on February 21st.  Jerebek, who played in 25 games for the Canadiens in what was his rookie season, played in 11 games for the Caps, matching his scoring line with Montreal precisely (1-3-4, minus-1).  All of his scoring with the Caps came in his last seven games he played in.  The Caps were successful with Jerabek on the ice, going 9-2-0 in his 11 games.  He started the first two games of the postseason for the Caps, both overtime losses to Columbus, but he was scratched for the duration, Christian Djoos replacing him in the lineup.  He ended the season an unrestricted free agent.

Travis Boyd

Travis Boyd’s long climb to the NHL bore fruit in 2017-2018.  Drafted in the sixth round of the 2011 entry draft by the Caps, Boyd spent four years with the University of Minnesota and three more with the Hershey Bears in the AHL before this season.  After starting this season with the Bears, Boyd made his NHL debut on December 4th against the San Jose Sharks.  After a second game with the Caps, he would be sent back to Hershey, but he came up for six more games as the season was winding down.  He made his first NHL playoff appearance in the series-clinching Game 6 against Pittsburgh in the second round, playing 12 minutes and change in the contest.  Boyd is in the Caps’ fold for two more seasons before his current contract expires at the end of the 2019-2020 season.

Aaron Ness

It might surprise Caps fans to know that it has been ten years since Aaron Ness was drafted, taken with the 40th overall pick (second round) by the New York Islanders in 2008.  From 2011-2012 through 2013-2014, Ness split time between the Islanders and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, playing in 29 games with the parent club.  He signed with the Caps as a free agent in July 2016 and has played in 18 regular season games with Washington over three seasons, including eight games this season.  Unfortunately, it cannot be said that his presence filled a gap adequately.  The Caps were just 3-4-1 in the eight games in which he appeared.  He did not dress for the Caps after a November 7th game against Buffalo.

Nathan Walker

Some players acquire a following based on their performance, others on their unique circumstances.  For Nathan Walker it might be more a case of the latter, an player born in Wales and raised in Australia in the National Hockey League.  And then there was Walker’s roundabout experience this season.  He started in the Caps organization and even made his NHL debut for the club, playing in seven games early in the season.  He was placed on waivers in late November, from which he was claimed by the Edmonton Oilers.  He did not dress for the Oilers before he was placed on waivers once more and claimed by the Caps.  He did not play for the Caps over the remainder of the regular season, spending it with the Hershey Bears.  However, he did manage to get into one postseason game for the Caps, recording an assist in the Caps’ Game 6, series-clinching win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.  Walker has one more season on his current contract with the Caps.

Tyler Graovac

Tyler Graovac was not the last player taken in the 2011 entry draft, but he could see that spot from where he was picked – 191st among 211 players taken – selected by the Minnesota Wild.  He eventually made it all the way, playing three seasons for the Wild in which he had seven goals and nine points in 57 games.  He was traded to the Capitals by the Wild for a fifth round pick in the 2018 entry draft (Minnesota selected Damien Giroux).  He appeared in just five games with Washington, recording no points and a minus-3, his last game being November 30th.  He spent most of the year in Hershey with the Bears, where he went 12-17-29, minus-5, in 53 games.

Shane Gersich

Shane Gersich might have been only a fifth-round pick of the Caps in the 2014 entry draft, but after scoring 43 goals in 117 games over three seasons with the University of North Dakota in the NCAA, one might have had a greater sense of anticipation when Gersich was signed to a two-year contract last march.  He made his NHL debut on March 28th, against the New York Rangers, and appeared in three games down the stretch of the regular season, recording his first NHL point, an assist in the Caps’ season-ending 5-3 win over the New Jersey Devils.  He got into two postseason games, both in the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he did not record a point in getting less than six minutes of ice time in each game.

Liam O’Brien

It seems like forever ago that Liam O’Brien was a surprise in the Opening Night lineup against Montreal in October 2014.  He played in 13 games that season before being sent down to Hershey, and he has had a hard time making the return trip to Washington.  This season, he appeared in three games without recording a point, but he did make his presence felt in his last game with the Caps this year.  He dropped the gloves with Pittsburgh’s Ryan Reaves in a 4-1 win over the Penguins on November 10th.  He was assigned to Hershey the following day and played the rest of the season there.

Anthony Peluso

When you played in 140 NHL games, logging less than 850 minutes (5:56 a game), your role is not one of scoring goals.  Anthony Peluso was that player over four seasons for the Winnipeg Jets before he came to Washington as a free agent last July.  He did not add to his career total of four goals with the Caps.  Then again, he appeared in only two games, those on the Caps’ annual tour of western Canada.  He played less than five minutes in both and did not record a point in a win and a loss.  He ended the season as an unrestricted free agent.

In the end…

Some players among the chorus contribute more than others.  Michal Kempny became a lesser hero with the stability he provided on the Caps’ second defensive pair (with John Carlson) and his postseason performance.  At the other end, a player like Anthony Peluso gets two early season games and is not heard from again.  But we are still talking about some of the best practitioners of their craft on the planet.  And in that respect, that quote from the late character actor Dabbs Greer takes meaning.  Even character actors – bit players, if you will – play their role.  Even for a championship team.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Washington Capitals: 2017-2018 By the Tens -- Goaltenders: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby

“The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it.  Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.”
-- Epictetus

When Braden Holtby won ten of 14 decisions in his first NHL season, including eight of his last nine in which he had a goals against average of 1.01 and a .964 save percentage, in 2011-2012, Fans of the Washington Capitals might have been forgiven if they thought they were looking at their goaltender for the next decade. 

However, over the next three seasons his goals against average inched up each year, while his save percentage dropped.  In 48 games of the 2013-2014 season, Holtby was 23-15-4, a respectable win-loss record, but his goals against average rose to 2.85, and his save percentage was a quite average .915.

Then came the 2014-2015 season.  Finally given the responsibilities as a number one netminder after backing up or sharing duties with Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, and Tomas Vokoun, Holtby appeared in a league-high 73 games and 4,247 minutes, posting a 41-20-10 win-loss record while finishing with a 2.22 GAA and a .923 save percentage.  It would be the first of three straight 40-plus win seasons, becoming only the third goaltender in NHL history to win more than 40 games in three consecutive seasons (Martin Brodeur did it from 2005-2006 through 2007-2008, and Evgeni Nabokov did it from 2007-2008 through 2009-2010).  It was a run that included a 48-win season in 2015-2016, Tying Martin Brodeur’s NHL record, set in 2006-2007.

Holtby came into the 2017-2018 season seeking to become the first goaltender in NHL history to win more than 40 games for a fourth consecutive season.  When he started 13 of the Caps’ first 18 games, posting a 10-3-0, 2.35, .927 record, he seemed on his way to doing just that.  But then, the wheels got a bit wobbly.  Starting with a disastrous six-goals-on-25-shots effort in 40 minutes of a 6-3 loss in Nashville to the Predators on November 14th, Holtby split his next six decisions, posting a 3.21 GAA and a .900 save percentage. 

With the calendar turning over to December, Holtby appeared to right himself.  In 13 appearances from December 2nd through January 7th, he was 11-2-0, but the win-loss record outperformed his performance numbers, a 2.78 goals against average and a .913 save percentage.  The problem with his underlying numbers caught up with Holtby with a vengeance starting in mid-January.  In 14 appearances from January 11th through February 26th, he went 4-6-4, 3.84, .887, and was relieved by Philipp Grubauer three times.  It was arguably the worst stretch of his career.

Any dreams of a 40-plus win season had long been dashed, but Holtby did recover to go 6-2-0, 2.83, .904. It was not a return to numbers one had become accustomed to with Holtby.  Not only was the regular season an overall disappointment (of 45 goalies with at least 1,500 minutes played, he was 36th in GAA (2.99, his worst in eight NHL seasons) and save percentage (.907, also a career-worst)), his role as number one goaltender heading into the postseason was in jeopardy.

Fearless’ Take… Even with “only” 34 wins this season, Holtby became just the eighth goaltender in NHL history to post 225 wins in his first eight seasons.  His 225 wins is one fewer than Marc-Andre Fleury recorded with the Pittsburgh Penguins in his first eight seasons and two fewer than Jacques Plante recorded with the Montreal Canadiens in his first eight years, although in those days seasons were only 70 games in length.  As for this season, Holtby thrived on work.  In 16 games in which he faced at least 35 shots, he was 13-2-1, 2.68. .929.

Cheerless’ Take… At the other end of that shots spectrum, Holtby was just 3-7-1, 4.46, .871 in games in which he faced 25 or fewer shots, including games in which he was pulled.  And he had quite a difference between his home and road numbers overall.  He was very good at Capital One Arena (22-7-2, 2.41, .927 in 31 games), but his road record was pretty poor (12-9-2, 3.90, .889).

Odd Holtby Fact… Braden Holtby was pulled early (not for an extra attacker in a late-game situation) seven times in 54 games.  Every one of the seven instances was a road game.

Game to Remember…  November 10th vs. Pittsburgh

Braden Holtby came into the 2017-2018 season with an unenviable record against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  In 17 career regular season games against the Pens, Holtby was 7-7-2 (one no-decision), 2.77, .914, with two shutouts.  When the Penguins came to Washington in November, they already had a win on their side in the season series, a 3-2 win in Washington on October 11th, Holtby taking the loss.

The rematch proved to be different.  In the earlier meeting, Pittsburgh took a first-period lead, added to it mid-way through the second, and then they added an insurance goal early in the third period, earning the win with never having trailed.  In this game, it was the Caps who would open the scoring on a late first period power play goal by John Carlson.  The Caps kept the hounds off Holtby, holding the Pens to seven shots on goal, all of which Holtby turned aside, including a stop on a Conor Sheary breakaway late in the period.  Holtby kept the Caps in front early in the second period with a save on a point-blank shot from the low slot by Greg McKegg before Phil Kessel tied the game in the ninth minute of the period.  The Caps rebounded when T.J. Oshie restored the Caps’ lead late in the middle frame.

Holtby preserved the lead when he made a couple of sparkling saves on Phil Kessel and Patrick Hornqvist on a Penguin power play early in the period.  The Caps took advantage of Holtby’s fine play, scoring mid-way through the third period on a goal by Chandler Stephenson, and then adding a Jakub Vrana empty net goal for the final 4-1 margin.  Holtby stopped 27 of 28 shots in helping the Caps avoid slipping to a .500 record in the early going.  More important, and perhaps more satisfying, the win was Holtby’s 200th in the NHL, earned against perhaps his most difficult foe.

Game to Forget… February 26th at Columbus

Braden Holtby’s shortest outing of the season came against an unlikely opponent.  Before facing the Columbus Blue Jackets in late February, Holtby had compiled a solid 14-3-2, 2.47, .918 record with one shutout.  On this night, though, the Blue Jackets would buzz Holtby relentlessly.  Columbus scored on their third shot of the game, a goal by Artemi Panarin 5:31 into the first period.  They scored on their fifth shot (Sonny Milano), their ninth shot (Mark Letestu), and their 13th shot (Sean Jones).  When the period was over, Holtby had surrendered four goals on 14 shots, and his night was over in what would be a 5-1 loss, just 19:28 of work to show for it.  It was the tenth time in Holtby’s career he played 20 or fewer minutes in a game and the first time it happened on the road in more than three years (November 29, 2014 at Toronto, in which he skated 20 minutes and allowed three goals on nine shots in a 6-2 loss).

Postseason… Braden Holtby’s late-season slump and Philipp Grubauer’s superb play gave head coach Barry Trotz little choice, based on their respective numbers, but to start Grubauer in Game 1 of the opening round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.  The plan did not go as one might have hoped.  Grubauer allowed four goals in each of the first two games, stopping only 41 of 49 shots in two overtime losses.  Grubauer escaped being tagged with the loss in Game 2 when Trotz then turned to Holtby for the third period of a 4-3 game, Columbus in the lead.  The Caps tied the game, but Holtby surrendered a goal to Matt Calvert in overtime to give Columbus a 2-0 lead in the series.

Holtby got the start in Game 3, and he was brilliant, stopping 33 of 35 shots in a 3-2 double-overtime win.  He stopped 23 of 24 shots in Game 4 to draw the Caps even and give them a footing to close out the Blue Jackets in six games. 

That meant facing Pittsburgh in the second round, again, for the third straight season.  And if Holtby had problems with the Penguins in the regular season, they were multiplied in the postseason.  Going into this series he had a career playoff record of 5-8, 2.57, .908, in 13 games against Pittsburgh.  The first four games of the series seemed to play to the usual script.  The Caps played the Pens even, splitting those first four games, even as Holtby put up decent, if not spectacular numbers (2-2, 2.27, .913).  However, in Games 5 and 6, Holtby dug deep, stopping 36 of 39 shots in a 6-3 Game 5 win, and then turning away 21 of 22 shots in the Caps’ 2-1 series clinching overtime win in Game 6.

Holtby was solid in the conference final against Tampa Bay, posting a 2.04 goals against average and a .919 save percentage in the Caps’ seven-game win.  It was his effort in Games 6 and 7, with the Caps trying to overtake the Lightning and their 3-2 series lead, which was critical.  He shutout the Lighting in both games, stopping all 53 shots he faced to secure the win, becoming the first goaltender in more than 80 years to pitch consecutive shutouts in elimination games in the postseason after not having had a shutout in the regular season (Earl Robertson did for the Detroit Red Wings in 1937).

That left only the Vegas Golden Knights in the final, where he would face Marc-Andre Fleury, who got the better of Holtby in earlier postseason meetings.  Holtby was lit up for five goals on 33 shots in the series opener, a 6-4 Vegas win.  But he was superb thereafter, winning the next four games with a 2.00 goals against average and a .934 save percentage.  One of those stops came in Game 2 with the Caps nursing a 3-2 lead with the clock ticking toward two minutes left to play in the third period in an effort to tie the series at a game apiece.  It will be forever remember in Capitals Nation simply as, “The Save”…

In the end…

In four seasons preceding this one, Braden Holtby established himself as an elite goaltender in the NHL, a goalie one might include annually in the conversation about a Vezina Trophy winner, an award he won in 2015-2016 and for which he was a finalist in 2016-2017.  This season was far more difficult, one that included ups and downs of a sort not seen much from Holtby in his previous seven seasons.

The experience seemed to temper him, though.  He took his demotion to open the postseason like a professional, and like a true pro was ready to assume the duties of number one goalie once more when called upon.  His playoff body of work in 2018 was not of the spectacular sort such as that in 2015, when he led the league in goals against average (1.71) and save percentage (.944) in 13 games.  However, in the 23 games in which he played and the 22 in which he started, he was solid, giving the Caps a chance to win on most nights and being the player to lean on in the late stages of the conference final against Tampa Bay.

Holtby skillfully navigated the difficulties that led to the season’s hills and valleys, and perhaps it was necessary, the final trial – for him, not to mention the Capitals – to finally win a Stanley Cup.

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America