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POSTSEASON NOTEBOOK: Caps Win Cup!

June 11, 2018
Don’t Be Denied – Lars Eller’s goal midway through the second overtime of Game 3 of Washington’s first-round series in Columbus gave the Caps the first of the 16 wins they had to secure in order to hoist the Cup on Thursday in Vegas. Had Washington lost that game way back on April 17, none of this would be happening right now.

After that 3-2 Washington win got the Caps back into that series and prevented them from going into an 0-3 chasm in the series, this is how we concluded our recap of that contest here on Dump ‘n Chase: 

Eller’s first playoff goal as a Capital came two years and two days after his most recent playoff goal, and it was about as important a tally as he could have imagined. Was it the biggest one of his career to date?

“I’ll tell you when the season’s over,” he says. “But it’s up there.” 

Well, as you may know, the season is over now.  

With 7:37 remaining in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, Eller scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal of the Cup-clinching game. The Game 3 overtime goal against the Blue Jackets is probably still “up there” in the pantheon of important Eller goals, but it’s been easily usurped by his Cup-clincher.

“It means everything,” said Eller of his game-winner, in the midst of the celebratory aftermath of Game 5. “You couldn’t write the story better yourself, getting to score the game-winner with five minutes left or whatever, and in this building, here, tonight. 

“If you want to win on the road, I could not imagine a better place to do it than right here, and this team just deserves it so much.” 

Eller scored three game-winners in the 2018 playoffs to lead the team and tie for the league lead. In addition to his bookend winners for victories No. 1 and No. 16, Eller supplied the game-winning marker for the Caps’ 10 thvictory of the spring, Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final series against Tampa Bay.

Washington got two game-winning goals each from Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Alex Ovechkin, Devante Smith-Pelly and Jakub Vrana, and Nicklas Backstrom, Jay Beagle and Brooks Orpik scored game-winners as well.

That’s A Wrap – Sixteen wins. That’s what it takes to win the Stanley Cup, and the Caps needed 24 games with which to earn those 16 victories. Here’s a quick look at how they did that.

Washington went 8-4 on the front half, and 8-4 on the back. The Caps were just 6-5 at home, but were 10-3 on the road. 

The Caps developed a pattern of feeling their way through the early portion of series, and then putting the hammer down on the opposition once they’d figured them out. Washington was even at 2-2 after four games of each of the first three rounds; it finally managed to get a 3-1 series lead for the first time in the Cup Final against Vegas. The Caps were 9-7 in Games 1-4 of all four series, and they were 7-1 while outscoring foes by a combined 31-14 in Games 5-7 seven of all four series.

After concluding the regular season with 105 points, the Caps vanquished a 97-point team (Columbus), a 100-point team (Pittsburgh), a 113-point team (Tampa Bay) and a 109-point team (Vegas). The Caps beat the reigning Vezina Trophy goaltender (Sergei Bobrovsky) in the first round, a defending two-time Cup champ goalie (Matt Murray) in the second round, a 2018 Vezina finalist (Andrei Vasilevskiy) in the third round and a three-time Stanley Cup champion (Marc-Andre Fleury) in the Cup Final.  

Washington head coach Barry Trotz and his staff overcame a two-time Jack Adams Award-winning coach (John Tortorella) in the first round, a defending two-time Cup champ coach (Mike Sullivan) in the second round), a guy (Jon Cooper) who has guided his team to the conference final in three of the last four seasons, and a two-time Adams Award finalist (Gerard Gallant) who is the odds-on favorite to win the Award next week. 

Washington averaged 3.58 goals per game in the playoffs, tops among the field of 16. The Caps surrendered an average of 2.54 goals per game in the playoffs, the fourth best mark in the league. During the regular season, the Capitals averaged 3.12 goals for and 2.90 goals against per game. 

During the playoffs, Washington’s goaltending and defense overcame the NHL’s highest scoring regular season team (Tampa Bay), its third-highest scoring team (Pittsburgh) and its fifth-highest scoring team (Vegas).

In short, the Caps earned it. 

All The Right Moves – Winning a Stanley Cup generally requires a secret mix that begins with a strong hockey team and a dedicated and creative coaching staff, but also includes various unknown and unknowable amounts of chemistry, swagger, health, heart, focus, timing, fortitude, perseverance, execution, luck, consistency, magic and any number of other elements.

Good decisions are important, too.  

What if Ted Leonsis and Dick Patrick elected to go outside of the organization in 2014 when they promoted then-assistant general manager Brian MacLellan to the GM’s post to replace George McPhee? What if they didn’t hire Barry Trotz to replace Adam Oates behind the bench? 

Of the four NHL GM’s whose team advanced to the conference finals in 2018, MacLellan was the only one who wasn’t a finalist for the league’s GM of The Year Award. Trotz won the 2016 Jack Adams Award as the coach “ … adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success,” but he wasn’t a finalist for the award this season.

What if MacLellan hadn’t signed Orpik and Matt Niskanen in his first summer as GM, or if he hadn’t dealt for Oshie in his second summer on the job? And what if – as the Tampa Bay Lightning braintrust recently did after the Caps ousted the Bolts in the Eastern Conference Final – MacLellan had opted to purge a member or two or three of Trotz’s sagely, veteran coaching staff after the team fell short in a previous spring? 

What if – in the wake of a third straight second-round playoff exit last spring – the Caps’ upper management decided to “blow the whole thing up,” trading away longtime members of the team’s core to start all over as some fans and media types were urging them to do?

Eleven months ago, few would have foreseen a Caps’ Cup championship in the cards less than a year off on the horizon. In addition to the expected losses of defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk and forwards Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik to free agency, the Caps also lost defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Golden Knights in the expansion draft and traded forward Marcus Johansson to New Jersey. 

Many in the media and blogosphere vilified Caps management for those and other moves then and throughout the season, but less than a year after all that clattering, the Caps are in possession of the Stanley Cup. Washington’s ownership and management deserves a lot of credit for its patience, its focus and its ability to shut out the surrounding noise and make what proved to be prudent and prescient decisions at crucial junctures, time after time.

Simply The Best – Ovechkin was deservedly named the recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s playoff MVP. That award also could have gone to Kuznetsov or to Braden Holtby. Niskanen, Oshie, Backstrom, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Tom Wilson were also consistently excellent or better throughout the 24-game run, accounting for all of Washington’s high-minute players.  

When a team’s best players are consistently its best players night after night as was the case for the Caps this spring, then it looks to occasional timely contributions from the rest of the roster. The likes of Beagle, Eller, Orpik, Smith-Pelly, Vrana, Brett Connolly, Michal Kempny, Chandler Stephenson, Andre Burakovsky, Christian Djoos and Alex Chiasson provided those contributions. The remainder of the roster stepped up when needed for a game or two with Philipp Grubauer, Jakub Jerabek, Travis Boyd, Shane Gersich and Nathan Walker rounding out that group.

The combination of Washington’s best players being at or near the tops of their respective games on most nights combined with varied, frequent and clutch contributions from the rest of the roster is what enabled the 2017-18 Caps to succeed where previous editions fell short.

The Talent Show – Caps assistant general manager Ross Mahoney and head amateur scout Steve Bowman’s fingerprints were all over Washington’s winning ride to the Cup championship. A dozen of the 20 Caps players dressed for the clinching Game 5 are Washington draft choices, as are five of the players who did not suit up for that contest.

Both Mahoney and Bowman have been plying their trade with the Caps for two decades now, so they and the team’s coterie of amateur scouts been responsible for the pipeline of talent that has enabled Washington to reach the playoffs for 10 of the last 11 springs, and to finally push through for the Cup championship in 2018.  

The Caps’ amateur scouts deserve a lot of credit for Washington’s run to the Cup, but so do the team’s pro scouts. Players such as Eller, Oshie, Kempny and Jerabek were acquired via the trade route, while others such as Niskanen, Orpik, Smith-Pelly, Chiasson and Connolly came to Washington as free agents.

All of Washington’s scouts deserve accolades for their part in helping the Caps assemble the team that proved to have the right stuff when it was all said and done. Ten days or so from now, the Caps amateur scouts will get right back to work again at the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas. 

Conn Job – In winning the Conn Smythe Trophy for the first time, Ovechkin put his name on an extremely short list of four players in NHL history who have won as many as three Hart Trophies and at least one Conn Smythe.

The list: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Ovechkin. That’s some company to be keeping.

Ovechkin joined Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin (2009) as the second Russian to win the Smythe.

Cement Blocks – Four Washington defensemen – Carlson, Kempny, Niskanen and Orpik – combined to account for 49 of the Caps’ total of 99 blocked shots in the Stanley Cup Final series against Vegas. That quartet of Caps blocked nearly as many shots as the entire Golden Knights roster (53).

Road Killers – Washington set a franchise record and tied the NHL record with 10 road victories in a single playoff year, becoming the fifth team to win 10 road games in a playoff year and the fourth to win 10 road games and a Stanley Cup in the same spring.

The Capitals also joined the 2008 Red Wings and the 2009 Penguins as just the third team in league history to earn all four of its series-clinching victories on the road.

Happy Trails – The Caps are just the second team to win the Stanley Cup despite trailing at some point in each of their four playoff series. Washington was down 0-2 to Columbus in the first round, it was down 0-1 to Pittsburgh in the second round, it trailed Tampa Bay 2-3 in the third round and it was down 0-1 to Vegas in the Cup Final before reeling off four straight victories to win the championship. 

The Capitals are the seventh team to win the Cup despite losing their first two games of the playoffs.

Comeback Caps – A total of 85 games were played in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and teams trailing after 40 minutes of play won only seven of those games. 

Washington was the only team in the league to author more than one comeback when trailing after two periods of play, and the Caps were responsible for three of the seven. They won Games 3 and 5 of the second-round series against Pittsburgh despite trailing after 40 minutes of play, and they won the Cup-clinching Game 5 of the final series against Vegas in the same fashion. 

Firsts – Ovechkin is the first Russian captain to hoist the Cup. Eller is the first Danish player to do so, and Walker is the first Australian player to lift it in victory. 

Beagle is the first player in North American hockey history to win the Kelly Cup (ECHL), the Calder Cup (AHL) and the Stanley Cup (NHL).

The Caps’ Stanley Cup championship is the first pro hockey title for the District in 60 years. Way back in 1957-58, the Washington Presidents of the Eastern Hockey League won the league championship under the guidance of player-coach Steve Brklacich, beating the Charlotte Clippers in the final. The Eastern League was a six-team circuit that season, with the other teams operating out of New Haven, Johnstown, Philadelphia and Clinton (N.Y.). 

By The Numbers – Ovechkin set a franchise mark with 15 goals in the 2018 playoffs, breaking John Druce’s previous mark of 14, which stood since 1990. Ovechkin also added to his all-time franchise records of 61 goals, 117 points and 121 games played … Backstrom added to his club record of 67 career playoff assists … With 55 career playoff points, Carlson is now the Caps’ all-time leader among defensemen in playoff scoring, one point ahead of Calle Johansson (54). Carlson also heads the team’s all-time ledger in career playoff goals (18) from a defenseman, and he established a record for most points (20) in a playoff season by a Washington defenseman … Kuznetsov led all players in scoring in the final series with eight points (one goal, seven assists) and he led all players in playoff scoring with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) … Holtby’s 16 wins and 2.16 GAA led all playoff netminders, and he added to his franchise record for playoff victories (45) … Smith-Pelly scored in each of Washington’s last three playoff games, the first three-game goal scoring run of his NHL career … Washington is the first team in 16 years to win the Cup by winning four straight games in the final series. The Detroit Red Wings did so in 2002, claiming the Cup with four straight victories after dropping the series opener to the Carolina Hurricanes. Washington’s four-game winning streak also handed the Vegas Golden Knights the very first four-game losing streak of that team’s existence … Washington’s 29.3% power-play success rate in the postseason is the fourth highest of all playoff teams with 60 or more extra-man opportunities since the league officially began tracking power play percentage in 1977-78. The Caps’ 29.3% success rate is the highest of any playoff team (again, 60 or more opportunities) since the 1994 Toronto Maple Leafs came in at 29.7%.

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