by Addie Sears '20
I don’t think anyone from the DMV area, hockey fan or not, could ever forget the sacred night of June 7th, 2018, when after forty-three long and painful years, the Washington Capitals finally won their first ever Stanley Cup Championship. While the Caps have been title contenders for a long time, coming as far as being named cup favorites just two years ago, the team always seemed to come up just a little short. Time and time again, fans were left with a special sort of despair that could only come by way of the season ending losses that reeked of humiliation and avoidability. Just one time, could our guys prove themselves to not be completely submissive to a team who claimed a baby-faced, croc-wearing, degenerate named Sid as their leader? Well, based on the game 7 loss in 2017 (that could only be described as pathetic and devastating) causing Nick Backstrom and the rest of the roster to hit the golf course—where they would spend the duration of the lamentably long offseason—things weren’t looking too good.
By the time the 2018 playoffs rolled around, fans—while possessing their usual (and sometimes concealed) hope—ultimately weren’t expecting all that much. Despite our chief Metro division ranking, many were still scarred from the gravity of the fall from the year prior and were unable to let go of the feeling that this season, like most, would come to a fiery, heart-wrenching end. And it seemed like these premonitions would be shown true at the beginning of round one, when Columbus sacked us 2-0. It seemed like it was all over. The ship was sinking, and all of the time, money, and love poured into this team by supporters throughout the past year would mean absolutely nothing. Artemi Panarin was sure to live up to his namesake and get the first series bread, but not before stripping Alex Ovechkin, Barry Trotz, and Caps fans everywhere of every last shred of dignity they had.
However, this was not the case. Hope, by some holy miracle, was reignited within the hearts of desperate Caps fans by a Lars Eller, double OT goal. After that, we won every game in the rest of the series. In doing this, it became clear to many, including myself, that not only did the Washington Capitals love choking to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round too much to give up the opportunity to be humiliated for the third year in a row, but that this team could maybe, possibly, knock-on-wood, be different than any we’d seen before. . . and they were.
Despite tremendously adverse conditions, including double-swedish Backy-Burakovsky hand injuries, a ridiculous Tom Wilson suspension for a clean shoulder check, and Gary Bettman’s undying love and bias towards Cindy Crysby, the boys obliterated the flightless birds, and all of their dreams to three peat. Although our second round demons had been exorcised at the Russian hands of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Eastern Conference Finals were no easy feat. The third round was dragged out to a game seven, which packed on the pressure because based on our history, this was bound to blow up in our faces. But thanks to Andre Burakovsky finally deciding to prove to us why he deserves to take up three million in salary cap space (which is still up for debate), a stellar performance by Braden Holtby, and a whole lot of belief, Amalie Arena was submerged like it was the Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921. Vegas went down in what would’ve been four games if the refs had done their jobs and discounted the VGK game tying goal, for Reaves’ blatant cross-check on our beloved John Carlson. But it’s fine, we bulldozed Fleury and his band of rejected toys (sorry Nate Schmidt) to achieve our wildest dreams in spite of it all. In total, we went 16-8 in the 2018 playoffs, and finished off the year with a shiny cup hoisted above our heads.
Flash forward five months and we’re fifth in the Metropolitan division with a record of 5-4-3. We started off hot with a high scoring shutout at the home opener, but it’s been rocky, to say the least. Though this is not exactly where you’d expect the reigning Stanley Cup champs to be, the bar has been understandably set higher than it’s ever been set in the past. However, losses to teams that we should be beating (Oilers, Panthers, Habs, and depending on who you talk to; Leafs), raise concern. So with TJ Oshie’s exuberant chanting loud in the background of summer 2018 memories, and our current standings in mind; what will it take to go back to back?
To answer this, there are a few issues present within the team now which might be worth addressing if the Capitals are serious about a repeat. First and most notably, the exit of Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn. While it came as a surprise when our head coach made the decision to resign only weeks after winning the championship, it didn’t seem like it would be too problematic as his some of his coaching decisions often didn’t sit quite right with fans (ex. DSP on the top line), and his tendency to fall short year after year even while being provided with a level of talent entirely capable of getting the job done, is something that most would prefer to do without. Plus, new head coach Todd Reirden has been managing our defense since 2014, so it’s seem like the transition would be easy. Yet, for the sake of calming our anxieties, it might be of worth to remember that this is still an adjustment period, and that the team’s dynamic isn’t as strong as it will be later on in the season.
Additionally, it seems like the absence of former goaltending director, Mitch Korn, is having a notable impact on Braden Holtby. With a current save percentage of .888 and GAA (goals against average) of 3.62, the Holtbeast has allowed 12 goals in the past 3 games. Ouch. Hopefully, this can be attributed to the fact that our man is just not used to being without his regular coach, and will improve as the season progresses. In terms of other options, our trade of Philipp Grubauer to the Avs (done in an attempt to make cap space to sign Carlson long term) leaves us reliant on Pheonix Copley, who chalks up to a Sv% of .882 and a GAA of 3.55. It’s pretty safe to say that Washington definitely has some goaltending issues to sort out, but Holts has never been one for consistency and the short offseason may have had an effect on his typically calm demeanor, so only time will tell.
Next up is the highly controversial twenty game suspension of our beloved Tom Wilson. Top-line Tom was integral to our playoff success, as his plowing down opposing players by way of body checking made space for resident russian machines Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin to work their magic on net. Willy’s methods, while effective, have always been hotly debated, considering they almost always end in what is sure to become a pretty nasty case of CTE in whoever’s involved. Tom has been put under fire by the League for his physicality plenty of times, and has been suspended four times in his last 105 games. Given his history of relentlessly throwing his 6’4 220 lb body made solely of lean muscle, at unsuspecting players, included with his latest offense’s lack of purpose or reason, Wilson was dealt a hefty timeout from the Department of Player Safety. While it made sense at first, since losing the RW the Caps have experienced detrimental effects from leaving Kuzy unprotected, which hinders us from scoring as much as we usually would. While Tommy has appealed his suspension twice, and will find out the verdict from a neutral arbitrator within the coming days, we’ve had some trouble filling the void up top. So far, Reirden has tried moving up Brett Connolly, Chandler Stephenson, and Jakub Vrana, to name a few, but no one has really stuck. While each has seemed to find brief success, there still hasn’t been much consistency.
Considering Tom’s absence is one that can be expected to last a while, no matter if he ends up getting a few games knocked off his lengthy sentence, it would be preferable for the sake of wallets everywhere when deciding what games would be worth witnessing in person, as well as the sanity of fans in general, that a solution is found sooner rather than later. Reirden definitely hasn’t maxed out of ways to shake the lineup yet, so maybe an answer to this predicament can be found in utilizing forwards such as Andre Burakovsky, who hasn’t seemed to access his full potential at this point and might see a high stakes opportunity on the first line as a chance to wow the crowd with some trademark Swedish speed and silk, also to make us all forget about his underwhelming performance over the past few years despite taking up a nice chunk of our cap space. To that end, with this possibly being Burky’s last shot at saving himself from getting shopped in a midseason dealing with the likes of Edmonton, I think he just might show up when accompanied by two of the best Mafia members the League has ever witnessed. In short, Tom Wilson’s timeout won’t last forever, and things will (probably/hopefully) be fine once Willy is freed. Until then, there is lots of time and so much room to grow, and I don’t doubt that this season will bring forth progression in all aspects of our on ice play. Besides, we still have roughly five months before the 2019 playoffs even begin, so where we are now really can’t indicate how we’ll be then. Our chances of winning the cup last year were slim, but we managed to get it done against all odds. It wasn’t easy, and it could not have happened without our undying allegiance to the Great Eight, and the relentless endorsement of the notion that no matter what, the Washington Capitals would not be suck that year. On that note, I remind all of you Boys, girls, and babes; it’s okay to believe.