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

Friday, July 13, 2018

Washington Capitals: 2017-2018 By the Tens -- Goaltenders: Philipp Grubauer

Philipp Grubauer

“The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”
-- Emily Dickinson

Philipp Grubauer was the ninth goaltender picked in the 2010 entry draft, going in the fourth round and the 112th player taken overall.  When the horn sounded to end the 2017-2018 regular season, he was a veteran of 101 NHL games, a good chunk of the combined total of games played as the eight netminders taken ahead of him (122). 

In between, Grubauer developed a label that is a backhanded compliment of sorts, “best backup goaltender in the NHL.”  In 2017-2018, among 45 goalies playing at least 1,500 minutes, he finished sixth in the NHL in goals against average (2.35), ninth in save percentage (.923), and tied for 15th in shutouts (three, the only shutouts the Caps recorded in the regular season).

It was two different seasons for Grubauer.  The first one lasted five weeks.  In his first eight appearances, Grubauer was 0-5-1 (two no decisions), 3.86, .876.  In his last 27 appearances, starting with a 25-save effort in a 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was 15-5-2, 1.93, .937, with three shutouts.  Among 50 goalies appearing in at least 20 games over that span, none had a better goals against average than Grubauer or a better save percentage.

While his ten-game segments reflect a solid performance, what is striking (as any Caps fan following all season know) is the increasing reliance on Grubauer.  He got the majority of the work in the last 32 games of the season, representing his last three segments.  He played in 19 of the 32 games, starting 15 of them.  He did not buckle under the weight.  In those 15 starts, Grubauer was 11-4-0, 2.28, .927, and two shutouts.

Fearless’ Take… How good has “The Best Backup Goaltender in the NHL” been?  Over the last four seasons, among goalies appearing in at least 75 games, two have a goals against average of 2.25 or less and a save percentage of .920 or better.  Antti Raanta and Philipp Grubauer

Cheerless’ Take… it was not the game load that seemed to bother Grubauer as much as the shot volumes.  In 14 games in which he faced more than 30 shots, he was 7-5-2, 3.00, .913, with one shutout.

Odd Grubauer Fact… No goaltender in Capitals history having appeared in at least 15 career games (there have been 30) have a better save percentage than Philipp Grubauer (.923) or a better goals against average (2.29).

Game to Remember… April 1st at Pittsburgh

When the Caps visited Pittsburgh for their last meeting of the regular season, they were closing with a rush.  The Caps were winners of nine of their previous 11 games, outscoring opponents by a 40-29 margin, but they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes, so the task at hand was to avoid consecutive losses since the California trip in early March, when they dropped decisions to Anaheim and Los Angeles.  Philipp Grubauer was given the chore of seeing that did not happen.  He was up to the task with several saves that might have qualified as grand larceny. 

There was the save on Evgeni Malkin, who on a first period power play had a clear look from the slot on a feed from Sidney Crosby, but Grubauer got his blocker on it to preserve a 1-0 lead.  There was the save on Sidney Crosby, who on a 5-on-3 power play and the Caps nursing that 1-0 lead took a feed at the doorstep to Grubauer’s left from Phil Kessel, only to have Grubauer flash across and get his left pad on the puck to get it out of danger.  And there was the save in the third period with the Caps up, 3-0, when Jakub Jerabek tried a pass up the middle from the side of his own net and put it on the stick of Jake Guentzel, who fed Crosby for what looked like a shot at a wide-open net.  Grubauer leaned in and smothered Crosby’s shot with his glove without a rebound to keep the Penguins from thinking they were back in the game.  Grubauer finished the game with 36 saves on 37 shots faced in the 3-1 win in what was his 100th game in the NHL.

Game to Forget… October 14th at Philadelphia

Sometimes, you just take one for the team.  Philipp Grubauer appeared in one of the Caps’ first five games, allowing four goals on 40 shots in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.  The Caps going with a “two-on, one-off” pattern for number one goalie Braden Holtby, it was Grubauer’s turn when the Caps visited the Flyers.  For Grubauer and the Caps, it started bad, got worse, and then got worse still. 

The Flyers scored on two of 13 shots in the first period, wrapped around a goal by Jakub Vrana.  The second one was a killer.  On a power play, Nicklas Backstrom poked a loose puck back to John Carlson on the Caps’ side of the red line.  He tried to sweep the puck across the ice to reset the play, but Scott Laughton got his stick on it and sent it into the Caps’ end.  Grubauer came out of his crease to try and beat Laughton to the loose puck, but his dive was in vain, and Laughton collected the loose puck and tucked into the vacated net for a shorthanded goal to put the Flyers up, 2-1, at the first intermission.

The Flyers poured it on in the second period, scoring three times on 11 shots, and they wrapped up an 8-2 win with another three goals on 13 shots in the third period.  Grubauer became just the fifth goalie to allow eight or more goals in a game for the Caps in what would be the eighth instance for such a goalie over the last 30 years (Olaf Kolzig suffered it three times, Brent Johnson twice).  Only Johnson and Mike Liut suffered doing so while facing fewer shots (30 by Liut in allowing nine goals in a 9-4 loss to the Calgary Flames on October 27, 1990; and 27 by Johnson in an 8-5 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on November 17, 2005).  For Grubauer, the eight goals allowed represented 11 percent of the total he allowed (73) in 35 games.

Postseason… Philipp Grubauer’s stretch run, coupled with Braden Holtby’s curious slump (at one point losing six straight decisions in February) left head coach Barry Trotz with what might have been the most important decision he would make as head coach of the Caps, who to start for the postseason.  It was a daring pick to choose Grubauer, even with the records of the two goaltenders over the last two months of the season. 

In this instance, Grubauer did not rise to the occasion.  He started Games 1 and 2, allowing eight goals (four in each game) on 49 shots to post a woeful .837 save percentage.  It was enough for Trotz to return to Holtby, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the end…

Even with the disappointing postseason for Philipp Grubauer on a personal level, he finished his body of work as arguably the second-best goaltender in the Rock the Red era of Capitals hockey (since the 2004-2005 lockout).  Some might argue he was better than Braden Holtby, on balance, but he had neither the volume of work nor the consistency of success in the postseason that Holtby has had (save for Holtby’s 2017 postseason).

Nevertheless, Grubauer, if not the best understudy goaltender of the last five years, is on a very short list.  He has earned his opportunity to assume the duties of a number one goaltender.  He could find himself in that position as a member of the Colorado Avalanche, to whom he was traded after the Stanley Cup win for the Caps.  It was a trade long anticipated – the door standing ajar, if you will.  Now, he gets to welcome the new experience.  Time will tell if ecstasy is a part of it.

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Washington Capitals: 2017-2018 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Brooks Orpik

Brooks Orpik

“When I'm playing, I'm never through. It's unfinished. I like to find a place to leave for someone else to finish it. That's where the high comes in.”
-- Miles Davis

When the 2016-2017 season  ended, Brooks Orpik was not the oldest defenseman in the league, but he was at the head table.  Only six defensemen older than Orpik dressed last season.  Only three defensemen older than Orpik would dress for the 2017-2018 regular season that wrapped up in April.  Still, he dressed for 81 games. It was the first time in a 15-year career that he appeared in at least 80 regular season games.  No defensemen in the NHL older than 32 at season’s end (there were 13 in all) played in more, and only New Jersey’s Andy Greene played in as many.

One would be hard-pressed to think of 2017-2018 being one of Orpik’s best seasons, though, even as difficult as it is to evaluate a defensive defenseman’s numbers.   For the second consecutive season and third in four seasons in Washington, Orpik did not record a goal.  Not all that surprising, given that he never had more than two in any of his 11 seasons in Pittsburgh before coming to Washington, but he had no goals for the Penguins only three times in those 11 seasons, and one of them was in his first year in which he appeared in just six games.

His ten assists falls squarely in the middle of his annual production over 15 seasons, but it ties for the lowest he recorded in a season in which he appeared in at least 70 games (he had ten in 2007-2008 in 78 games in Pittsburgh).  And, after three seasons in Washington with ever-increasing plus-minus numbers (plus-5, plus-11, and plus-32), he had his first “minus” season as a Capital (minus-9).  He went from having the best plus-minus among Caps defensemen last season to having the worst this season (in fact, those best and worst are the best and worst for any Caps defenseman in the four years Orpik has been a Capital, and the plus-32 was the best for a Capital defenseman over the last eight seasons).

Then there was possession.  Orpik had a shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 44.21.  Only six of 200 defensemen dressing for 40 or more games had a worse percentage (numbers from  His SAT-for at 5-on-5 in tied games was second-worst in the league (41.52 percent).  It is not a neighborhood in which a defensive defenseman might wish to reside, even if he is getting only 16:14 of even strength ice time per game, 121st among that group of 200 defensemen.

Fearless’ Take… When Brooks Orpik was on his physical game, the Caps were on theirs.  In 26 games in which Orpik recorded four or more credited hits, the Caps were 19-5-2.  In 21 games in which he recorded one or no credited hits, the Caps were 11-7-3.  Extending the “grittership” theme, the Caps were 20-10-2 in the 32 games in which Orpik had at least three blocked shots, 6-5-2 in the 13 games in which he did not have one.  Orpik seems to thrive in the context of “old school” numbers a lot more than in the “new school” numbers.

Cheerless’ Take… It is one thing not to be an offensive threat.  It is another to be something of a non-contributor.  Only 14 times in the history of the franchise did a player finish a season with more games of no shots on goal than Brooks Orpik (42) and the most since Jeff Schultz had 46 such games in the 2010-2011 season.  The Caps were 25-13-4 in those games.  That they were 24-12-3 in the 39 games in which he did record at least one shot on goal makes one think it didn’t matter much.  Maybe it was the “grittership,” after all.

Odd Orpik Fact… Brooks Orpik has more goals in 149 career postseason games (three) than he had over his last two regular seasons with the Caps (none in 160 games).

Game to Remember… February 9th vs. Columbus

Defensive defensemen aren’t going to get a lot of headlines, and they aren’t often going to be named a star of the game.  It was no different for Brooks Orpik when the Caps faced the Columbus Blue Jackets at Capital One Arena in early February.  It was the back half of a home-and-home set against the Blue Jackets, who the Caps defeated three days earlier by a 3-2 margin on a last-minute goal in regulation by Nicklas Backstrom.  The rematch promised to feature a grumpy Columbus squad looking to even the score.

It was the sort of game made for a player like Orpik.  Neither it, nor Orpik disappointed.  The teams alternated goals over the first 21 minutes of the contest, but the Caps scored a pair of goals less than two minutes apart in the second period to take a 4-2 lead into the third period.  Braden Holtby stopped all 15 shots he faced in the third period, and the Caps held on to that 4-2 margin for the win.  As for Orpik, he did not record a shot attempt, but he had four credited hits and five blocked shots to go along with a plus-1 in 18:45 in ice time.  It was one of four games in the 2017-2018 season in which Orpik recorded at least four credited hits and four blocked shots.  He was the only Capital to record any such games this season.

Game to Forget… February 4th vs. Vegas

There might not have been another team in the NHL in the regular season that posed as stiff a challenge to the type of player Brooks Orpik is than the Vegas Golden Knights.  A fast, deep team intent on playing “quick hockey” against an older, traditional, stay-at-home, and (frankly) slower defenseman.  The differences between player and opponent were evident in an early-February game at Capital One Arena. 

The Caps managed to get a lead – three times, in fact – but could not shake the visitors loose.  Vegas tied the game three times, one last time mid-way through the third period on a Jonathan Marchessault goal for which Orpik was on the ice, and then they took their first, only, and last lead five minutes later on a goal by Alex Tuch in a 4-3 Vegas win.

Orpik skated 16:05 for the game, and other than his minus-1 and penalty (after which Vegas scored on the ensuing power play, their only man advantage of the game), he had a blank score sheet.  It was one of only four games all season that Orpik recorded neither a hit nor a blocked shot and the only one of those that the Caps lost.


Brooks Orpik came into the postseason with far more experience than his teammates,  125 games worth (by way of comparison, Alex Ovechkin had 97 games of experience going into the playoffs).  Perhaps as important, he was the only Capital having played in a Stanley Cup final (twice), let alone one who played on a team that won one (in 2009 with the Penguins).

Orpik did not post flashy numbers in the 2018 playoffs for the Caps.  For instance, his 16:49 in average ice time was the third-lowest in his 12 trips to the postseason. But the time was well spent, in an odd sort of way.  Here was Orpik, who endured a lot of negative commentary over the season for his on-ice performance, playing at least 16:06 in 13 of the Caps’ 24 post season games.  And the Caps did not lose one of them in regulation time.  After an overtime loss in Game 1 of the opening round to Columbus (he skated 19:39 in that one), the Caps won 12 in a row when he skated 16:06 or more, including Game 5 of the final against Vegas, in which he skated 18:00. 

It was in that game in which Orpik might have made his signature play of importance as a Capital, and oddly enough it was in the offensive end of the ice.  With Vegas approaching the mid-point of the third period with a 3-2 lead, Erik Haula tried to clear the puck up the boards out of his own end.   Orpik, stationed at the blue line, held the puck onside by the narrowest of margins, and then he sent it in the direction of the Vegas net.  Devante Smith-Pelly settled it off his skate, and as he was being tripped by Colin Miller in the slot, he curled a shot around the left pad of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to tie the game 9:52 into the period.  Less than three minutes later, Lars Eller put the Caps ahead, and the Caps had their series-ending, Cup-clinching margin of victory.

In the end…

Brook Orpik is in the autumn of his career.  It is uncertain as of this writing where he will be spending what might be the last seasons of his career after being traded to the Colorado Avalanche with goaltender Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche, who promptly bought out Orpik from the last year of his current contract.  He finished the season with the seventh-highest number of regular season games played by an active defenseman (982), and only Zdeno Chara among active defensemen had more postseason games played (159) than Orpik (149).

It is possible that he will return to the Caps, perhaps in a third-pair mentoring role, much as was his role in 2017-2018.  In that sense, his work might not yet be finished as a Capital.  He might, as Miles Davis put it, “find a place to leave for someone else to finish it.”  Or at least take up the challenge.

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America