The Caps take the Cup: Ovi finally triumphs

Things don’t always go as planned. Nobody expected the Washington Capitals to win the Stanley Cup this year. Plenty of other teams seemed primed to run the table: Tampa, Nashville, Boston, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh. And then came Vegas, which looked like a team of destiny all the way through game 1 of the Cup final, which they won 6-4. But then the Caps took over and won the next four games, taking the Cup in five games.

Throughout the playoffs, there were moments in each round where the Capitals seemed on the verge of getting bounced. Down 2-0 in the first round vs. Columbus before winning four straight. In the second round against hated rivals Pittsburgh—who seemingly had beaten them every year of the last decade (not really) to prevent Washington from advancing to the conference finals—the Caps dropped the first game and went back and forth with the Pens before taking the series in six. In the third round against the stacked Lightning, Washington won the first two games and then dropped three straight before shutting out TB in the final two.

But in the final, there was a different vibe. Make no mistake, every game was tight, even game 4’s 6-2 Washington win, in which Vegas had plenty of chances to score early before the Caps pulled away. Led by captain Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals were able to answer every challenge from the Golden Knights with big goals, big hits and big saves from Braden Holtby, who just two months ago sat on the bench while Phillip Grubauer started the first two games in the Columbus series.

Leading playoff scorer Evgeny Kuznetzov was a force throughout the playoffs and that continued during the final. Fourth-liner Devante Smith-Pelly scored big goals in each of the last three games of the final. Lars Eller contributed with big goals, including the Cup winner in game 5. T.J. Oshie was a big presence, chipping in offensively and delivering a gutsy performance camping out in front of the Vegas net. Kuznetzov and Holtby would have been deserving winners of the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, but there was nobody complaining about Ovechkin getting the honor.

Vegas kept pushing, but the Caps were able to counteract just about every move. Marc-Andre Fleury, after dominating the first three rounds, looked merely human in the final. The Knights’ Cinderella story finally came to an end, but what a ride it was.

Meanwhile, it has been four days since Washington won and they’re still partying like there’s no tomorrow. Seems as though Ovechkin has not let the Cup out of his sight the entire time and they haven’t even held the parade yet. The explosion of joy and relief among long-suffering Caps fans, who saw a 44-year drought ended, is reminiscent of other Cup victories by teams who went a long time without winning: the ’94 Rangers, the 2010 Blackhawks, the 2011 Bruins. It’s also kind of nice to see a different team win; from 2009-2017, only four teams had hoisted the Cup (Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh).

While Ovi et al. continue their victory tour through the bars of DC, thoughts turn to the upcoming draft and free agency. And other teams dream of ending their Cup droughts. Certainly Maple Leaf fans are eager for that team to end its 51-year cold snap, one in which the team hasn’t even made the Cup final. But there’s also the St. Louis Blues, the last of the ’67 expansion class to not win a championship, with 50 years of futility. And the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks, who both joined the NHL in 1970-71, have come close but now are up to 47 years without a Cup.

But if there’s one thing the Capitals’ victory and the Golden Knights’ incredible run tells us, it’s that anything is possible.

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Cold As Ice Stanley Cup Final Preview ’018: Wait, who’s playing again?

Here we are at the start of the 2018 Stanley Cup final. There are always twists and turns along the way, but this year’s journey to the Cup has been especially twisty. At the beginning of the season and at the start of the playoffs, did anyone really think the last two teams standing would be the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights? Nah.

So what to expect in this unexpected championship series between a team of misfits and a team of underachievers that everyone figured would flame out in round 2 once again? Beats the hell out of me. I thought Tampa and Winnipeg would be facing off in the final. Both teams looked absolutely stacked front-to-back, but it’s just the 10 zillionth example of why they actually play the games instead of awarding victories based on lineups.

I thought Vegas would lose in each of the first three rounds of the playoffs. But Gerard Gallant’s got his team playing inspired hockey, and Marc-Andre Fleury has so far had one of the greatest postseasons for a goaltender ever. From top scorers like William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and James Neal to fourth-liners like Ryan Reaves and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, the Knights are getting contributions from everyone.

Meanwhile, the Caps have defied the odds, especially considering they entered the playoffs with Philipp Grubauer as their starter. Captain Alex Ovechkin has embraced the challenge and come up with big goals and big hits throughout the playoffs. Braden Holtby had reclaimed the starter’s role by game 3 of the first round against Columbus. The Caps have been hot and cold, as exemplified by racing out to a 2-0 series lead vs. Tampa on the road and then losing the next three games. All the old “here we go again” tropes were brought out by Caps haters and fans alike as it appeared the team was on its way to another disappointing playoff exit. But then a funny thing happened: Washington came out and demolished Tampa with back-to-back shutouts in games 6 and 7, and it was off to the franchise’s first Cup final since 1998.

Which brings me back again to this matchup. It should be an entertaining and long series, but “should be” and “will be” are two different things. Predictions at this point are kind of pointless, so all I’m expecting to see is a fun Cup final. Hopefully I won’t be wrong about that:

Prediction: Washington in 7, which of course means Vegas will actually win in 6.

Honeymoon in Vegas: The Knights’ Cinderella season continues

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. The NHL’s 31st team, the Vegas Golden Knights, was a feel-good story from Day 1. GM George McPhee put together a competitive team and most, if not all, experts figured they’d be average at best. The expansion draft held last summer ensured that Vegas would be able to pluck better players than previous rookie franchises, but I’ve got to believe that even McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant had no idea their team was THIS good.

With their 2-1 win on the road Sunday, the Knights closed out the stacked Winnipeg Jets in 5 games and clinched a historic trip to the Stanley Cup final. They’ll face the winner of the Washington-Tampa series, which is currently 3-2 in favor of the Lightning. It’s a big leap from the prediction owner Bill Foley made last summer, when he said the Knights would “be pretty good in three years and we’ll make a run in five or six.”

So how did they do it? Vegas built the team around Marc-Andre Fleury, who backstopped the Penguins to three Cups but was left unprotected by Pittsburgh (who opted to stick with the younger Matt Murray). They then acquired via draft or trade a collection of players other teams gave up on: William Karlsson (who scored 43 goals), Jonathan Marchessault, James Neal, Alex Tuch, Erik Haula, Reilly Smith, David Perron, Deryk Engelland, Luca Sbisa and Cody Eakin. On paper, doesn’t inspire the same kind of fear that the Penguins, Predators or, uh, the Jets do. But here we are in the third week of May and Vegas will be one of two teams to fight for the Cup.

The team is fast, tenacious and skilled, powered by the underdog spirit that has driven them all season long. During this playoff run, Fleury has been Vegas’ best player, but the team has received contributions from just about all corners. In the conference final clincher, fourth-line grinder/tough guy Ryan Reaves scored the game- (and series-) winner with a nifty deflection.

The Knights actually aren’t the first new expansion team to make the Cup final in its first year: St. Louis did it in 1967-68. The big difference, of course, was in that first post-Original Six season, the six new teams were put in the West division, which guaranteed that an expansion club would make the final. The Blues were swept in four by Montreal, as they were the following two years by the Habs and Bruins. Back then, the expansion teams were filled with past-their-prime veterans and unproven youngsters.

As the NHL continued to expand in the following decades, there were some godawful debuts: the Capitals in 1974-75 finished 8-67-5; the Kansas City Scouts were 15-54-11 the same year; the New York Islanders in 1972-73 went 12-60-6; Atlanta’s second franchise, the Thrashers, struggled to go 14-61-7 in 1999-2000; and Ottawa went 10-70-4 in 1991-92. All of which makes the Knights’ 51-24-7 regular season finish all the more impressive as they won the Pacific Division.

With Seattle seemingly the favorite to receive a new team a few years down the line, it’s expected that the expansion draft will follow the same process that helped Vegas ice an immediate success. Whether Seattle can match Vegas remains to be seen, but they’ll be given every opportunity to do so. Of course, it’ll be interesting how the other teams deal with the expansion draft and who they give up, watching how Vegas struck gold with rejects from the Island of Misfit Hockey Players.

In the meantime, there are still games to be played by the Knights this season. Can Vegas win the Cup? At this point, how can you bet against them?

A quick trip to hockey mecca

I grew up in the hockey mecca of Toronto, and even though we moved to the U.S. in 1981, I get back every few years to visit family and take in some games. Usually, I go in the summer, so I see Blue Jays games. But a few weeks ago, I flew up for a three-day, hockey-filled trip.

The main reason for the visit was to go to the Panthers-Leafs game at the Air Canada Centre with my cousin Dev, but I managed to pack a lot of puck-related activities into a short period of time. I flew into Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Sunday morning (2/19) and I immediately knew I was in a hockey-obsessed country because the baggage claim area had TVs playing hockey highlights.

The Winter Olympics were still in full swing at this point and after eating lunch at my uncle’s place in Mississauga (a city of 700,000 west of Toronto), Dev and I went to a bar for a few beers and watched the rebroadcast of that morning’s Canada-Finland men’s hockey game. Later that evening, we gathered around to watch the Leafs-Red Wings game on TV. Okay, it was me, Dev and his 6-year-old son; the 4-year-old was watching Peppa Pig on a computer and the ladies were watching the Olympics on the other TV. The game was pretty exciting, with Auston Matthews getting the winner with 31 seconds left in regulation.

The next day, I joined my cousin, his oldest son and my uncle at an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) game between the Mississauga Steelheads and the Flint Firebirds. The Canadian major junior leagues (the OHL, Quebec Major Junior and Western Hockey League) have been a major source of players for the professional leagues including the NHL. The Mississauga club had four players drafted by NHL teams, including RW Owen Tippett (drafted 10th overall by Florida last year) and C Michael McLeod (drafted by New Jersey in the first round in 2016). The Steelheads are having a .500 season while the Firebirds are stuck in last place in the OHL’s Western Division.

It was a Monday afternoon game on what’s known as Family Day in Canada, a holiday that was adopted in Ontario 10 years ago; the idea is to celebrate the importance of families (it just happens to coincide with Presidents Day in the U.S.). The game was pretty close for two periods, with Mississauga up 1-0 after 2 thanks to the efforts of Flint goalie Luke Cavallin. The Steelheads popped in three goals in the third to win the game 4-0. The stadium promo staff were busy throughout, popping up during breaks in the action to interview fans, leading contests and giving away pizza, so much pizza.

After the game, we took my 6-year-old nephew to his hockey practice. It was fun to watch him and his teammates go through their drills. There were a lot of wipeouts and mishaps as the kids, split up into three age groups, zipped around the ice. After going out to dinner, I came back and watched more Olympic hockey late into the night.

On Tuesday, Dev and I took the train into Toronto in the early afternoon. We went to the Hockey Hall of Fame, which I had last visited in the summer of 2013. It had been redesigned since then and had some cool newer displays, including a big one featuring the 100 Greatest NHL Players and another that had great goalie masks displayed.

We got some dinner and then headed over to the ACC. This was my first Leafs home game since 1998, when I flew up to catch one last game at the old Maple Leaf Gardens (where the Leafs played their final game a few months later). The mood was pretty excited in the rink; the Leafs were in the midst of a hot stretch and neck-and-neck with the Bruins and Lightning for the top spot in the East (they’ve since dropped back a bit). Our seats were up in the third level by one of the nets.

I had expected the Leafs to take it to the Panthers, but it was a pitched battle, with excellent goaltending from Florida’s Roberto Luongo and Leafs’ workhorse Frederik Andersen. James Van Riemsdyk popped in a goal in the first and that was it for scoring, but there was no shortage of chances.

The Leafs are on their way to their second straight playoff appearance, led by a trio of young superstars in Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Alas, Matthews would be injured a few days later thanks to the Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck, who caught him with a blind-side check that left Matthews with a shoulder injury. That was on Feb. 22 and he still hasn’t returned, although it’s expected he’ll be back later this week or early next week. Still, fans have good reason to be hopeful as the Leafs continue to grow into a contender. They’re not defensively ready yet, but they’ll get there. After decades of futility, the Leafs have finally given their obsessed fan base something to get excited about.

We went home after the game and I was set to leave the next morning, but my flight was delayed so I watched a little more Olympic hockey before heading out. Strangely enough, I left Toronto where it was 35 degrees and rainy and arrived in Boston to find it sunny and in the mid-70s. (We’ve reverted back into winter mode, though: as I write this, we’re in the midst of a blizzard and our third nor’easter in the last few weeks.)  The puck theme continued as I went to play hockey that night. It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle, right?

NHL 2017-18 Season Preview: Back for the Attack

It’s that time of year again. I love the summer, but those three-plus months without hockey are tough. But as we know, summer is fleeting and here we are back in the fall with the beginning of the NHL regular season upon us. I was so busy last week I didn’t even have time to do a season preview before the first pucks were dropped last Wednesday. So instead, here’s a quick rundown of what I’m looking forward to and expecting this NHL season.

Predictions are tricky. You may think you have a team pegged and then they go and do the opposite. Last year at this time, I wrongly predicted that Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, Columbus and Calgary would miss the playoffs, while I had the likes of Tampa, Detroit, Philly, the Islanders, Florida, Los Angeles and Dallas all reaching the postseason. I was just a bit off, but I wasn’t the only one.

There’s a lot of young talent in the league that is ready to step up and take the mantle from the likes of Crosby and Kane. Teams are going with skill and speed over size and grit and it’s making for some exciting hockey. The likes of McDavid, Matthews and Eichel are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

New rules. I was happy to see the league institute a new rule around the coach’s offside challenge of goals, which slowed things down considerably last season. Now there are some stakes: if a coach loses his challenge, his team is penalized for delay of game. That should make teams a little more hesitant about challenging goals; indeed, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault challenged a Maple Leafs goal on Saturday night and was penalized after the challenge was shot down. If the end result this season is fewer frivolous offside challenges, it will be worth it.

The NHL is also cracking down on hard slashes to the glove, an issue that came to a head last season with Sid Crosby’s unpunished slash that nearly severed part of Marc Methot’s finger. It remains to be seen how far refs will go in making these calls: will any stick contact to the glove be called, or will it be only hard hacks? Another rule change hopes to prevent cheating on faceoffs by doling out penalties to centers who try to angle for position in the faceoff circle by either moving their skates inside the markings or using head butts to gain position against their opponents.  There were a lot of warnings and eventual penalties called for this in the preseason, but hopefully, teams will figure it out as the season wears on.

More goals? Through the first handful of games, there have been a ton of goals scored. Alex Ovechkin had hat tricks in consecutive periods (in two different games), the Leafs and Hawks burst through the gate with 15 goals in their first two games and defenses in general were looking a little shell-shocked. No doubt teams will settle down, but let’s hope the offenses of the league can keep things interesting.

He’s back. It was great to see the ageless (okay, he’s 45) Jaromir Jagr sign with Calgary right before the season started. He’s only 57 games away from passing Gordie Howe for most games played in NHL history, but he’s not just a feel-good story. Jagr can still play, and he’ll give a talented, young Flames squad both veteran experience and top-notch playmaking ability. I hope he plays forever.

Vegas, baby. The Vegas Golden Knights made their debut last week and it was glorious, going 2-0 out of the gate. Nobody expects that to continue, but it’s nice to see the new club get off to a good start. It’ll be interesting to see whether the team can build a strong fan base out in the desert.

No Winter Olympics. Not for NHL players, anyway. This was announced by the league in the spring, but it’s worth noting again that the NHL will not be taking a two-week break in February to allow its players to participate for their native countries in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea. The league cited the disruption to regular season play, as well as the time zone difference and negligible benefits as reasoning for the decision to skip the Olympics for the time since 1994. It’s disappointing for fans (at least this fan, anyway) and it looks like 2022 isn’t happening because the International Olympic Committee has gone on record as saying participation in the 2018 Games is a pre-requisite for being part of the following tournament.

Predictions

I’m not seeing a Pittsburgh three-peat this season. Here’s my picks to click:

East: Tampa Bay over Toronto

West: Edmonton over Minnesota

Stanley Cup: Tampa Bay

Hart (MVP): Connor McDavid

Art Ross (leading scorer): Connor McDavid

Norris (best defenseman): Brent Burns

Vezina (best goalie): Braden Holtby

Calder (best rookie): Charlie McAvoy

Selke (best defensive forward): Patrice Bergeron

Adams (best coach): Mike Babcock