The Morning After – Each of the Capitals’ three outdoor games in this decade have been extremely special events that always make me marvel at the planning, the timing and the execution of such a large-scale event that is subject to so many uncontrollable elements and whims, with the weather being the most obvious.
To me, these outdoor games that I’ve had the extreme pleasure of being involved with and covering over the years are somewhat reminiscent of a massive wedding reception. So much planning is involved on the parts of so many people, there are so many moving parts, so many parties to appease; and the anticipation and the build-up – as well as the anxiety – is palpable as the big day draws nearer.
As the event itself unfolds, you see people all around you deriving so much enjoyment from it all, and so many lasting lifetime memories are created. And finally, on the morning after, there are so many mixed feelings. You’re relieved that it all came together so splendidly – perhaps with a minor hitch here and there – and that all the planning and the hard work and the days of diligence leading up to the event paid off.
There is a sense of relief that it’s over, and a sense of anticipation for the next event of such magnitude on your own individual horizon, whenever that might be. There’s also a tinge of sadness that it’s over, and a rush to remember every little thing about the day and the event while it’s all still fresh in your mind.
As a lifetime Navy brat – my pop served proudly in the Navy for 24 years – Saturday night’s Stadium Series game between the Caps and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis stands out as easily my favorite of the three outdoor contests. As I mentioned, I’ve loved them all, and I’ve experienced similar feelings before, during and after all three. But I’m not sure it will be possible to top what I witnessed in Annapolis on Saturday night.
It starts with the venue and the lovely city of Annapolis, the Naval Academy and the Naval Academy Athletic Association. The setting was letter perfect – an intimate and hallowed venue replete with reminders of the history of this nation both inside and outside of the stadium. The NAAA did tremendous work in staffing and pulling off the event in terms of concessions, parking, security and the like.
My co-workers at Monumental Sports and Entertainment deserve many props and much acclaim for their tireless work in all of this over the last many months, too, and I’m proud to be able to work alongside them on a day-in, day-out basis.
Saturday was the NHL’s 25
th outdoor game in the last decade, and it’s quite clear that they’ve got the concept down pat and are able to roll with whatever punches Mother Nature – or anyone or anything else, for that matter – decides to deliver. Kudos to the League for yet another well-executed major event, and especially to the ice-making crew, who outdid themselves this time around.
“I honestly think this was the best ice I’ve ever played on,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. “It was really good. There weren’t any cracks in it or anything. I felt like if you wanted to, you could keep the puck flat.
“But the atmosphere was great. It’s not going to get away when you walk into this arena and hear the crowd it’s just an unreal feeling.”
Ah, the crowd. The fans came early and stayed late, tailgating in the parking areas and lapping up the atmosphere and the spectacle. They combined for a memorable moment for us all when the lights went out for 15 minutes in the middle of the third period, singing and swaying and turning their cell phone flashlights on. The fans are a crucial element of any event such as this, and you people outdid yourselves on Saturday night in Annapolis. You were marvelous.
I can’t imagine the pregame pageantry being exceeded. The presence of the Midshipmen, the U.S. service men and women, the fireworks, the bagpipes, the dual national anthems, the flyover, and the gold medal U.S. Olympic Curling Team throwing the ceremonial first rock – so to speak – and the honoring of the gold medal U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey Team between the second and third periods was also an incredibly proud moment.
“The coaching moment for me was just being in this event,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “I mean, right at the start the anthem and the planes going over and seeing some of our service people, obviously all the Midshipmen all around the rink, and you're looking at these young men [and women!] who serve us and give us the privilege to do what we get to do, the freedoms that we have.
“And today my coaching moment was actually not on the ice but underneath when I was running into some of those Midshipmen and asking where they were or where they're from, what they were – what areas of the Navy they were sort of focused in on. That was probably my greatest moment today is meeting some of the young people who are serving our country.”
Former U.S. Olympian and Caps defenseman John Carlson, resplendent in his blue and gold jacket and pants from Tom Barnett New York in honor of the Naval Academy, waxed eloquently on the experience afterwards.
“It was special,” says Carlson. “The women's team and also the curlers, the people that we followed closely during the Olympics, obviously. And it was cool to have them in the building.
“It was cool to see the fans' reaction to them. They've been – especially the women's team – doing a lot of stuff media-wise throughout the country but also in D.C. the past couple of days. So to see the rise they got out of a lot of fans and all that kind of stuff throughout the area was really cool. And it was a heck of a job by both of those teams to bring back gold.”
Initially, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the uniform design of either the Caps or the Leafs when they were first unveiled. But I was wrong on both counts; they looked spectacular under the lights and the stars, both on television and in person.
About nine months ago, I called my pop and told him the Caps would be playing in an outdoor game in Annapolis and that he should make plans to be there. He never misses a game anyway; if he’s unable to watch on television, he’s listening to my pals John Walton and Kenny Sabourin call the game on the radio.
Neither of us knew then that his hip would deteriorate to the point of requiring replacement between then and now – he had the other one replaced a few years back – and that he’d be hobbling along quite noticeably and painfully, and needing a cane with which to move himself along. None of that stopped him from joining me on last month’s Caps’ Mentors’ trip, and it wasn’t going to stop him from attending Saturday’s game, either.
My pop arguably travels more these days than he did back when he was in the Navy, working on ships in faraway oceans and ports of call and living the life of a teenaged sailor who would eventually evolve into a grizzled, lifetime Navy man. He’s been nothing if not stoic all of his life, and I can’t recall a single time he stayed home from work for any reason. He wasn’t going to let a painful hip prevent him from seeing this game, and he wasn’t going to let on exactly how much pain he was in either, or to acknowledge that the cold weather makes it even worse. But he also felt and showed some visible emotion during the anthems, the flyover and the other pregame festivities. Who among us did not?
Now in his 80
th year, he drove to D.C. from his home in the suburbs north of Chicago, arriving on Thursday and departing bright and early on Sunday, the morning after. He fought me for every lunch and dinner check while he was here, and I’m happy for the time I was able to spend with him and that I was able to prevail on at least one of those check skirmishes.
My pop spent a big chunk of his life in the Navy, and he’ll always be a Navy man. He spent a bigger chunk of his life molding my brother and sister and I into functional adults and members of society, and over all of those years he and my late mom helped the three of us create a lifetime of shared memories. He had an absolute blast this weekend, despite the hindrances of the hip, and it made me proud that he was able to get out here and witness what we all witnessed on Saturday night, and that the game and the pomp and circumstance supplied him with a memorable weekend.
And I know I’m not the only one among you with similar feelings on this Sunday morning, coming down.
“It was a blast,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “It was really fun. The conditions were great; I didn’t think the wind was really a factor that much. The ice was awesome and the crowd was having fun. Even though the lights went out, they were still singing. Everyone on the bench was positive. That was a great experience for everybody. I think we’ll remember that one.”
Indeed, we will.
Crooked Number – Now, for some notes on the game itself, in which Washington prevailed by a 5-2 count. The Caps roared out to a strong start, using their power play to forge a 3-1 first-period lead over the Leafs. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Backstrom scored power-play markers in the first and Alex Ovechkin added an even-strength strike.
It was the first time in nearly three months – since Dec. 6 against Chicago – that the Caps were able to light as many as three lamps in the first period. Washington surrendered three or more goals in the first period on four occasions during that same time span.
Quick Response, Double Response – Not only did the Caps answer each of the Leafs’ two goals in Saturday’s game with one of their own less than a minute later, but Washington scored the game’s next two goals after each Toronto tally.
Zach Hyman scored for the Leafs at 5:20 of the first, tying the score at 1-1 on Toronto’s first shot on net of the night. The Caps answered back with Ovechkin’s goal just 59 seconds later, and then with Backstrom’s power-play goal with 3:40 left in the first.
Toronto’s Nazem Kadri cut the Caps’ lead to 3-2 at 7:38 of the second period, but John Carlson scored just 27 seconds later to restore Washington’s two-goal cushion, and Jakub Vrana closed out the scoring with a breakaway goal less than three minutes after Carlson’s goal.
“Obviously it was huge,” says Backstrom. “In the first period we capitalized on our chances on the power play there. It’s always important to have a good response when the other team scores. I feel like we probably fed off the crowd a little bit in the first period, and we were energized there.”
Milestone Markers – Ovechkin’s goal was his 40
th of the season, marking the ninth time in his 13-year NHL career he has reached that level; his goal also drew him to within two goals of the 600 plateau for his career.
Ovechkin becomes the sixth player in NHL history to record as many as nine 40-goal seasons, joining Wayne Gretzky (12), Marcel Dionne (10), Mario Lemieux (10), Mike Gartner (nine) and Mike Bossy (nine) on that short and impressive list.
“Forty is nice, but 50 is better,” quips Ovechkin. “So I still have time to do that. But again I have to focus, I have to keep playing, easy chances and it will come.”
Kuznetsov’s goal was his 20
th of the season, marking the second 20-goal season of his career and matching his single-season career best, established in 2015-16.
Carlson’s goal was his 12
th of the season, matching his career best of a dozen goals set in 2014-15. His Saturday night goal was also the 74
th of No. 74’s NHL career, pulling him to within one of Sylvain Cote (75) for seventh place on Washington’s all-time list for goals by a defenseman.
Flying V – Days after delivering a strong performance in Washington’s 3-2 win over the Senators on Tuesday, rookie Washington winger Jakub Vrana got the monkey off his back with his breakaway goal in the Stadium Series game against the Leafs. The goal ended a 25-game drought for Vrana, whose previous goal came on Dec. 14 against the Bruins in Boston.
Slide Stopper – Caps goalie Braden Holtby earned his 29
th win of the season on Saturday against Toronto, halting a personal six-game winless streak (0-4-2), the longest of his career. Although he permitted a first-period goal for the 12
th straight start, Holtby and his mates never trailed in Saturday’s game, and he seemed to get more comfortable as the game wore on.
He made one of his best stops late in the second after a Washington turnover led to a high quality scoring chance from the slot for the ever-dangerous Patrick Marleau. Holtby snared the shot with his glove, and he easily quelled every Leafs threat the rest of the way.
Three For Three – The Caps have won each of their three outdoor games now, having prevailed over Pittsburgh in the 2011 Winter Classic and over Chicago in the 2015 Winter Classic.
A quartet of Capitals – Backstrom, Carlson, Ovechkin and Jay Beagle have played in all three games, and all three of them earned at least a point in Saturday win over Toronto, with Backstrom and Carlson both enjoying three-point nights (a goal and two assists each).
Kuznetsov also had a goal and two helpers in the game, joining his teammates in tying the league record – achieved 12 times previously – for most points in an outdoor game.
Beastly Beagle – While Washington’s stars provided most of the offensive power in Saturday’s win, the victory was a team effort in which everyone pitched in which the Caps won a lot of puck battles and races, won 57 percent of the game’s face-offs and combined to block two dozen Toronto shots in front of Holtby.
The performance of Beagle probably exemplified those many and varied contributions. Beagle drew the penalty that resulted in Washington’s first goal of the game on the power play, he helped set up Carlson’s second-period goal, and he was an absolute beast on the face-off dot, winning 13 of 14 draws (93 percent) on the night.
Dating back to the Caps’ previous game against Ottawa, Beagle has now won 30 of his last 34 face-offs (88.2 percent). Among all centers who have taken at least 650 draws this season, Beagle ranks fourth in the league at 57.6%.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears also claimed a victory on Saturday night, blanking the Utica Comets by a 3-0 count at Giant Center.
Pheonix Copley stopped all 24 shots he faced in the Hershey nets to record his second shutout of the season, raising his record to 12-14-5 in the process.
Aaron Ness gave Copley all the offensive support he would need at 7:36 of the second period, netting his third goal of the season with help from Tyler Graovac and Joe Whitney.
Chris Bourque notched his 13
th of the season at 14:52 of the middle frame, doubling the Bears’ lead with assists from Dustin Gazley and Colby Williams.
Zach Sill’s fifth of the season closed out the scoring at 14:07 of the third period, with Anthony Peluso and Jeremy Langlois earning assists.
The 24-27-4-4 Bears are back in action on Sunday afternoon at Giant Center when they host the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Down a level, the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays made it a Saturday night clean sweep for the Washington organization, earning a 2-1 overtime victory over the Toledo Walleye in Ohio.
Joe Devin’s first-period goal tied the game at 1-1 for South Carolina, and Kris Bindulis scored the game-winner at 4:32 of the extra session to make a winner out of Stingrays’ goaltender Parker Milner (25 saves), who improved to 19-4-3 on the season.
The 36-12-6-1 Stingrays are off until Tuesday when they pay a visit to the Swamp Rabbits in Greenville.
By The Numbers – Niskanen led all skaters on both sides with 24:05 in ice time and six hits … Michal Kempny and Dmitry Orlov led the Caps with four blocked shots each … Washington’s Brooks Orpik and Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk tied a record held by half a dozen others in participating in their fifth career outdoor game in the NHL.