The Caps’ Unlikely Road to Franchise-Defining Opportunity

Posted June 7, 2018

(Caps Outsider)

Late at night on May 10, 2017, many Capitals fans likely found themselves struggling to sleep while wondering what could have been. The Capitals had lost yet another Game 7, this time at home to their old nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Though playoff disappointment is nothing new to Capitals fans, this one stung more than usual. Despite consecutive President’s Trophies, the Ovechkin-led Capitals remained unable to move past the second round and remove any monkeys from their backs. The Stanley Cup window that Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan had himself proclaimed, was closed.

But now, just over a year later, the Capitals stand on the precipice of the ultimate goal.

A lot has happened to get the Capitals from that bitter defeat to the Penguins to sitting just one win away from the Stanley Cup. Here’s a timeline of everything in the last year that’s led to this moment.

Summer 2017: Many Departures

Every summer since MacLellan took the helm of the Capitals’ front office, the Capitals had added more talent than they lost. In 2018, a combination of salary cap issues, expiring contracts, and the expansion draft caused this trend to end.

On the blue line, the Capitals lost Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner to free agency. Shattenkirk was widely viewed as a rental when the Capitals acquired him at the 2017 trade deadline, while Alzner, a longtime defensive staple for the Capitals, received a pay raise from the Montreal Canadiens that the Capitals could not match.

The expansion draft took an even larger bight out of the Capitals’ defensive death. The Vegas Golden Knights, now the only team standing between the Caps and the Cup, took young defenseman Nate Schmidt as their selection from Washington. Many believed Schmidt was ready to move into the Capitals’ top-4 had he remained with the team.

Up front, the Capitals lost top-6 forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. While Williams, an unrestricted free agent, was an expected departure, the Capitals were forced to deal Johansson out of desperation. After signing forward T.J. Oshie to an eight year, $46 million dollar contract extention, the Capitals had to offload a contract to remain under the salary cap. Johansson was the odd man out. To make matters worse, the Capitals had protected Johansson at the expansion draft. The trade meant this protection had essentially gone to waste.

The only offseason acquisition the Capitals made was signing forward Devante Smith-Pelly to a one year, two-way contract. At the time, the deal looked like a fringe move just to fill out the roster. In hindshight, it proved to be much more significant.

October 2017: Ovechkin Flies out of the Gates

If the disappointing end to the previous season had any fans wondering why they bothered following the Capitals, Alex Ovechkin wasted no time reminding them. Ovechkin scored seven goals in the team’s first two games of the regular season. It was the first time in a century a player netted back-to-back hat tricks in a team’s first two games. Perhaps this was the first sign that the team was ready to move beyond the failures of the past.

February-March 2018: An Unexpected Goalie Controversy

The opening months of the regular season were somewhat uneventful for the Capitals. While the team did not dominate opponents like it had grown accustomed to doing in the regular season, it was still consistently in the playoff picture. Despite warranted concerns over the team’s underlying possession statistics, the Capitals hovered around the top of the Metropolitan division, although the gap was not as wide as it had been in the previous two seasons. The Capitals were beginning to take on the under-the-radar identity they embraced heading into the postseason.

But in early February, an unexpected and unwelcome story line developed. Braden Holtby, one of the steadiest and most consistent goaltenders in the NHL, started struggling. As Holtby was making fewer saves and allowing more goals, Philip Grubauer  improved from a rocky start to the season and eventually became the team’s top performing goaltender. Grubauer’s improvement was a welcome sight. Nevertheless, the man expected to be the Capitals’ franchise goaltender falling into a backup role was cause for concern.

February 19, 2018: Capitals Acquire Michal Kempny

As the Capitals approached the trade deadline, it was clear that the team’s blue line was the area that most needed to be addressed. With the losses of Shattenkirk, Alzner, and Schmidt, the Capitals defensive unit featured two rookies: Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos. The only players who showed enough consistency to play top-four minutes were Dmitri Orlov, Matt Niskanen, and John Carlson.

Although the Capitals were rumored to have made a run at Ottawa Senators star defenseman Erik Karlsson, the team did not make any blockbuster moves as it had at the previous deadline. Instead, Washington traded a third round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks to acquire Michal Kempny.

Most Capitals fans probably had not heard of Kempny until Washington announced they had traded for him. This is not surprising, as Kempny was regularly a healthy scratch in Chicago. But anyone who was not familiar with him then is now.

Kempny has become a staple next to John Calrson and stabilized the Capitals top-four. Many of the concerning trends in possession the Capitals had early in the season corrected themselves after the Capitals inserted Kempny into the lineup. A move that made almost no waves in the national media when it happened has proven to be one of the savviest of MacLellan’s tenure in the Capitals’ front office.

April 1, 2018: Grubauer Stuffs the Penguins

Holtby’s play improved late in the season, but Grubauer’s continued stellar play made the starting goaltender for the playoffs a major question mark for the Capitals. This debate was settled in the Capitals’ final regular season match up with the Penguins.

With a chance to clinch the Metro on the line, Barry Trotz gave Grubauer the nod in goal. This decision alone indicated that Trotz trusted Grubauer more than Holtby at the time, as it came in the most important game of the regular season. Grubauer’s play in the game left no doubt. Grubauer stopped 36 of 37 shots. His excellence in this monumental game likely secured him the starting job entering the playoffs.

April 12-15, 2018: Capitals Drop First Two to the Blue Jackets

“Here we go again” is a phrase Capitals fans are all too familiar with. After the first two games of the postseason, the phrase was ringing in their ears once more. The Capitals opened the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal with back-to-back overtime losses at home, blowing two goal leads in both games. Another disappointing end to the season felt inevitable.

But the Capitals turned the series around when they replaced Grubauer with Holtby in the third period of Game 2. After Ovechkin promised the series would return to Washington evened up, the Capitals fulfilled that promise and then some. With Holtby in goal, the Capitals won the next four games and eliminated the Blue Jackets in six.

April 26, 2018: Penguins Gut Capitals in Game 1

After the Capitals defeated the Columbus, another second round date with the dreaded Penguins was lined up.

The series started as good as the Capitals could have wanted it to. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in the first shift of Game 1. When Alex Ovechkin extended the lead to two early in the third period, hope was ringing through Capital One Arena.

Then the Penguins scored three goals in a four minute span to rally past the Capitals and steal Game 1. The comeback almost looked effortless. The way the Capitals lost despite doing everything right for the majority of the game, along with the team’s apparent inability to hold a two goal lead at home, made it look like this would not be the year the Capitals would finally defeat the Penguins and move past the second round .

May 7, 2018: Kuznestsov Slays the Penguins

The Capitals did not let the disappointing start to the series demoralize them. After the Capitals stormed back in the series with a controversial ‘no-goal’ call in Game 2, a late Ovechkin goal in Game 4, and a third period onslaught in Game 5, the team found itself in a position to finally eliminate the Penguins.

The Capitals Game 6 lineup was severely depleated, lacking Nick Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and Andre Burakovsky and featuring the likes of Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker who had spent most of the season in the minor leagues. But the Capitals were able to force a tight-checking, defensive game into overtime, where Evgeny Kuznetsov stole the show.

In what may go down as the most memorable goal in Capitals history, Kuznetsov slid the puck underneath Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray’s five hole and ended the second round misery of the Ovechkin era.

May 11-23: Capitals Survive Collapse against Tampa Bay

Now in the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in 20 years, the Capitals came flying out of the gates with blowout road wins against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the series’ first two games.

But Tampa responded much like the Capitals did against the Blue Jackets. Suddenly, after dropping three straight, the Capitals faced elimination for the first time in the playoffs in Game 6.

Washington proved it could handle that pressure as well. With two tremendous team efforts and back-to-back shutouts from Braden Holtby, the Capitals defeated the Lighting in seven games and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the only the second time in the team’s history.

Present: The Capitals Look to Secure Stanley Cup

When the Capitals defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, they officially reached uncharted territory. In the franchise’s only other Final appearance, a 1998 clash with the Detroit Red Wings, the Capitals did not muster a single win. But now, one win away from the Stanley Cup, the Capitals will only be satisfied if they accomplish one goal… And that goal is not just the most successful season in franchise history.