By: Savannah Reger
Last year, the Washington Capitals broke the “DC sports curse” by advancing past the second round the the NHL playoff, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6. However, they did more than just that, as they defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games, and then the Las Vegas Golden Nights in five to win the 2018 Stanley Cup.
Now, as April 10th is around the corner, the Caps are faced with one of the toughest jobs in sports: trying to defend their honor. The Penguins did it in 2016 and 2017, and the pressure is on for the Caps to do it in 2019.
The Capitals season started rocky. After defeating the Boston Bruins 7-0 in the banner raising game, the Caps were 20-20 up to Thanksgiving, only winning 50% of their games.
Part of their struggles came from the suspension of first line winger Tom Wilson, who was serving a 20 game suspension for an illegal hit to St. Louis Blues winger Oskar Sundqvist. However, when Wilson appealed his suspension, he was granted only 14 games, giving him back six games earlier.
Wilson returned for a game against the Minnesota Wild, in which he had a goal and a fight in his return to the NHL.
Since Thanksgiving, the Caps were one of the hottest teams in the NHL. The Caps were 11-3 over their past 14 games going into the holiday break and averaged 4.36 goals per game.
Captain Alexander Ovechkin is a main reason for their recent success in scoring. Ovechkin had 14 goals over the 14 game stand, including back-to-back hat tricks.
However, after the holiday break, the Capitals escalated downhill quickly, and entered their worst stretch of the season. After going 5-3 coming out of the break, the Capitals lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1 in overtime on January 12th, beginning the first of seven straight losses, the worst in the NHL.
There were many reason for this quick deadline by one of the league’s best teams. Their power play wasn’t clicking, and their penalty wasn’t killing off enough penalties for the amount of penalties the team was taking overall. The Caps took the most penalties in the NHL in the month of January.
Another reason though is a theory called the “Stanley Cup Hangover,” which happens to the team that wins the Stanley Cup, as they have less time for their bodies to recover, and they are celebrating their big accomplishment. During this seven game losing streak for the Caps, some were questioning if this theory was finally setting in. The Caps didn’t win a game leading up to the All Star Break, and the team as a whole could not put the pieces together. Ovechkin even chose to sit out the All Star Game to rest his body.
After the All Star Break however, the Caps seemed to get back into a groove, and beat the Calgary Flames 4-3 in their first game back, a solid win against the first place team in the Pacific Division.
The Caps went through February swiftly with an 11-4 record, and were chasing the New York Islanders for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, a team coached by their cup winning coach Barry Trotz.
New Capitals Head Coach Todd Reirden wasn’t concerned, and his team kept pushing as the Stanley Cup Playoffs came in a Month.
Another reason for the Caps slow January was the play of center Evgeny Kuznetsov and winger Brett Connolly. Both players were minimal on the scoresheet in the first half of the NHL season, and their lines needed to produce in order for the Caps to have a shot at winning their division.
After the All Star Break, the two players seemed to find their game. Connolly has scored 14 goals since the break, 22 overall on the season. Kuznetsov, an arguable nominee for the Conn Smythe Trophy a year ago, also picked up his game after the break, with 21 goals, but 50 plus assists on the year.
However, the defending Stanley Cup champs were relatively quiet at the NHL trade deadline. With trade rumors surrounding winger Andre Burakovsky, tensions were high. In the end, Capitals General Manager Brian Maclellan only made one impactful trade; he sent defender Madison Bowey to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for defender Nick Jensen.
The Caps signed Jensen to a four year, 10 million dollar contract later that day.
They also traded for winger Carl Hagelin, a player who has jumped around multiple teams in his NHL career, but is also known for his speed. The Capitals gave the Los Angeles Kings a 2019 third round pick and a 2020 conditional sixth round pick.
In March, it can be argued that the Caps were “gearing up” for the playoffs by the way they played their game. All four lines starting producing offensive, and goaltender Braden Holtby was looking like his old self again, not the one who was getting heat for the seven game losing streak in January.
However, on March 20th, just as the Caps thought they had all of their pieces in place, they welcomed the Tampa Bay Lightning to town, the best team in the NHL point wise. The game was gritty, as the two teams had met only four days prior, and the Caps eventually lost in overtime. This was not the concern for the team though, it was the injury to Defender Michal Kempny that was the worry.
Kempny was quietly an acquisition at the NHL Trade Deadline in the 2017-2018 season, and was a huge factor in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was physical, not afraid to take a drive from the top of the ice, and can be defined as a 200 foot player.
While in an after play scrum during the Tampa Bay game, Kempny got caught in-between players and fell to the ice. He eventually had to be helped off, and it was announced that he tore his hamstring, leaving him out four to six months and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Capitals would have to adjust, recalling defensive prospects from the Hershey Bears, their younger development team, and veteran players such as John Carlson would have to pick up extra minutes.
The Caps eventually clinched a playoff berth on March 28th against the Carolina Hurricanes, a possible first round match up, and clinched the Metropolitan Division on April 4th against a good Montreal Canadiens team.
Some more factors that went into the clinching of these playoff berths was the play of Ovechkin. On March 30th, Ovechkin scored his 50th and 51st goals of the season, and NHL league leading statistic. Nicklas Backstrom also achieved his 50th assist of the season against the New Jersey Devils on March 19th.
As the Capitals look forward to April, they are ready to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. With possible matchups against the Hurricanes, Canadians or Columbus Blue Jackets, they are ready, have all four lines moving, and desire to show why they are still the best in the league.