With Rag-Tag Group of Rookies, Capitals Put Together Epic Performance

Posted May 8, 2018

Chandler Stephenson (Caps Outsider)

After years and years of torment, we are finally here.

Here, being the halfway point of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Eight wins away from history.

The Washington Capitals haven’t been in this position since 1998. And, for many of their fans, this is an unprecedented moment in their fanhood. It is, unarguably, the best one.

This moment was also entirely unlikely, even as recently as puck drop on Monday night. The Capitals entered a contest where they had the chance to eliminate an opponent and advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the seventh time during Alex Ovechkin‘s playoff career. In the previous six games with the same stakes, his team was 0-for-6.

On this particular occasion, they would be without Tom Wilson (suspension), Nicklas Backstrom (hand injury), and Andre Burakovsky (upper body injury). These three players accounted for exactly one-half of the Capitals top six about three weeks ago as Washington embarked on a playoff run with much lower expectations than in years past. Before game six had even begun, there were many reasons to believe that this series would be coming back to D.C. for yet another game seven.

Instead, Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker would make their NHL playoff debuts. Those two marked the sixth and seventh Capitals rookies to make their playoff debuts this season alone. Both would end up playing important, if not improbable, roles in the organization’s biggest victory in recent memory.

Boyd, who averaged just eight minutes and fifty seconds of ice time over eight games played with the big club in his rookie season, played over 12 minutes against probably the toughest competition that he has faced yet in his hockey career. With the advantage of the late change on home ice, Pittsburgh had the opportunity to throw any of their four powerful forward lines at the inexperienced pivot and his linemates, Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly. The trio of players that almost nobody would have expected or wanted to see as their third line under this type of spotlight, if you had asked them coming into the season, held their ground all night.

Walker became the first Australian-born player to skate in an NHL playoff game. All night, he looked every bit the part of a player with an NHL future, and set up the game’s opening goal, assisting on Alex Chiasson‘s second career playoff tally.

Chandler Stephenson has evolved from an AHL regular who was running out of time into a player that has easily slotted into one of the several vacancies in the Caps’ top six. Last night, he got his first crack on the top line with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and did not look out of place. He won’t “wow” you with his point totals, but he is a very smart player whose excellent skating ability has become an asset on the penalty kill during his first playoff trip.

One player who is destined to light up the stat sheet sooner than later is Jakub Vrana. His first full season in the NHL was largely spent between the bottom six and the press box, but when he’s been given opportunities like the one he received during the latter half of game five against Pittsburgh, he has shined. And whether it’s Barry Trotz or somebody else coaching the Capitals into the future, they will have a star in the making on their hands – something that is evolving before our eyes this postseason.

Christian Djoos was just another undersized defensive prospect that a team took a flier on to some people. However, it has appeared all along that the Capitals knew that they had something potentially special in him. His one assist in ten postseason games won’t catch a casual observer’s attention, but he is a treat to watch with the puck and has narrowly missed completing some truly spectacular plays in his greatest career opportunity yet.

All five of those rookies played a part in what was probably one of the most complete efforts that I personally have watched the Washington Capitals put on display in a very long time. They almost completely stifled the Penguins in all three zones last night, defying the expectations of just about everyone in the process. Braden Holtby was one fluky deflection goal away from a potential shutout in this one.

It was simply a brilliant performance against the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions. Through all of the criticism that he has received, especially from yours truly, Trotz game-planned this one perfectly with the personnel that he had.

At the end of the day, the core – who have experienced disappointment after disappointment – led the way. The rookies, a few of whom may only play in another game or two during this already-special playoff run, followed closely and secured what no group before them had in the Ovechkin era.

The stigma has suddenly cleared from the sky above this team. They’re halfway there, and if we’ve learned anything from this particular group, they have a lot left the give.