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The Blues turnaround from last place to the playoffs began with a blowout win over the Caps

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The Blues turnaround from last place to the playoffs began with a blowout win over the Caps

When the St. Louis Blues woke up on Jan. 3, they were in dead last in the NHL. A 15-18-4 record gave them 34 points, less than teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the Ottawa Senators who would go on to finish the season as the two worst teams. Yes, St. Louis had played in only 37 games to that point, the fewest in the league, but finding a way to climb back into the playoff hunt seemed daunting and unlikely.

Now the Blues are the Western Conference champions and stand just four wins away from the Stanley Cup.

The Blues have been one of the best stories of the NHL season climbing from last place to the Stanley Cup Final. When looking back at St. Louis’ season, there are several moments one can point to as key moments in the turnaround. Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as head coach on Nov. 20 and goalie Jordan Binnington got his first start with the Blues on Jan. 7 and never gave back the crease.

But the turnaround really started on Jan. 3. On that morning, the Blues were in last place. That would be the last day they would find themselves there.

And it all started with a 5-2 win against the Washington Capitals.

On Jan. 3, St. Louis and Washington looked like two teams headed in opposite directions. While the Blues were in last place, the Caps were rolling with a 24-11-3 record, first in the Metropolitan Division. Washington came into St. Louis on a five-game road winning streak. As if that wasn’t enough, the Blues were also without sniper Vladimir Tarasenko.

And yet, what looked like an easy win for the Caps turned into anything but. Robert Thomas scored a deflection just four minutes into the game. Washington managed to take a 2-1 lead early in the second, but St. Louis rattled off four straight goals for the 5-2 win. With Washington down only 3-2 heading into the third period, the Blues but on a possession clinic outshooting Washington 14-2 in the final frame.

"We stayed aggressive," Alex Pietrangelo told reporters. "When we're playing in the O zone, the best way to play defense is to play in their end. We kept the puck, we moved the puck, we worked. Forwards were great tonight, protecting the center of the ice. It kind of took their playmakers out of the game."

The Caps’ first shot came 13 minutes into the third. By then, the Blues already had 12 shots and two goals.

Over the course of an 82-game season, teams will lose games against teams they shouldn’t. This felt different. Watching this game, you did not come away thinking the Caps played down to an inferior team. The Blues dominated that game and the Caps knew it.

“They were skating, competing harder, won races, more determined than we were,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “If we’re being honest about it, we didn’t have a very good game, and they played a pretty darn good game.”
More importantly, St. Louis realized it as well. They knew following the game that this was a win and a performance they could build on.

“I think we out-chanced them, so we're building here at even strength,” Pietrangelo said. “It's just a matter of keeping it at even strength and scoring goals. Tonight the goals weren't necessarily pretty but we created a lot of chances."
That night proved to be the first night of the turnaround. From Jan. 3 on, no team in the NHL earned more points than St. Louis’ 65, not even the Tampa Bay Lightning who won the Presidents’ Trophy with an incredible 128 points.

St. Louis was not expected to be bad this season. The team made a number of offseason moves to bolster the roster and many thought they could be real contenders, but they sure did not play like it through the first half of the season. It took a big win over the defending Stanley Cup champs to show them and everyone else just how good they really were. From that point on, they never looked back.



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Despite their playoff success, both Siegenthaler, Djoos still have something to prove

Despite their playoff success, both Siegenthaler, Djoos still have something to prove

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Jonas Siegenthaler has been here before. One year ago he looked like a lock to make the Capitals roster out of training camp. In fact, as the team prepared for the start of the season, he was told he had made the team. Then Tom Wilson was suspended and the Caps needed to clear cap space for his replacement. Thus, the waiver-exempt Siegenthaler was sent down to the Hershey Bears.

Siegenthaler eventually did get called up to Washington and played in 26 NHL games last season. He also played in four playoff games, eventually playing on the top pair next to John Carlson in place of the injured Michal Kempny.

Despite what he accomplished last season, however, clearly making the team for the start of the season means something to Siegenthaler.

“It's my goal,” he said. “I haven't had the chance to walk on the red carpet on opening night. I think that's pretty special and that's for sure one of my goals.”

With the Caps so close to the salary cap ceiling, however, Siegenthaler comes into camp knowing he will have to once again earn his spot on the roster.

Christian Djoos is in a similar position.

Djoos’ resume is longer than Seigenthaler’s as he played in 22 playoff games in Washington’s run to the Stanley Cup. He was not able to build on that momentum the following year, however, as he suffered compartment syndrome in his thigh and the resulting surgery kept him out from mid-December to early-February.

“Last year was a weird year,” Djoos said. “Injured, played, scratched. It was just a weird year so I need to be better over the 82 games.”

Though he denied the injury still impacted him after his return, Djoos did not look like the same player and played in just 45 games.

Djoos now faces an uncertain future with the franchise because of the cap.

“We all know the situation,” Djoos said. “It's nothing I think about. I'm here right now. I'm happy to be here and excited to get the season going.”

With only three more preseason games and just over a week of training camp remaining, both players find themselves in a similar position with higher expectations and having to prove they deserve a spot on the roster over the young prospects nipping at their heels.

“We have a couple of young guys who have played well,” general manager Brian MacLellan said at media day. “[Martin] Fehervary played really well in the rookie camp. He looks like he’s going to be a good player. [Alex] Alexeyev played good the one game and then got hurt. Those are good young players, good prospects. Siegenthaler has progressed well. I think he’s going to be a good player in this league and he should come in at a higher level this year than he has last year. I thought he finished up well. Djoos, we’re looking for a rebound season. I think the injury set him back, so it’s important for him to have a good camp and a good start to the year.”

“That's how it is, I think,” Djoos said. “It's a great organization, great young players. ... That's good I think that we compete for every spot. That's a good thing.”

When asked what they wanted to improve on for this season, both Siegenthaler and Djoos said consistency.

While the salary cap is tight, there is a possibility that both players make the final roster. If that happens, both will get time on the third pairing which will mean cycling in and out again as they did last season. The lack of consistent playing time can often lead to a lack of consistent play. Both players know that is not going to cut it this season.

Siegenthaler also said he has worked on improving his skating and he entered camp feeling more confident about his chances after last year.

“If you have confidence, you just play your game,” he said. “It just comes automatically so you've got to have a healthy confidence.”

Siegenthaler is certainly confident but also determined. He came oh so close to starting the season on the NHL roster last year only to see it slip away at the last moment. This year, he is determined not to let that happen.

“I want to walk onto the red carpet,” he said. “I'll do everything to be on the carpet.”


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Capitals hire former Olympian Haley Skarupa as hockey ambassador

Capitals hire former Olympian Haley Skarupa as hockey ambassador

Monday morning, the Capitals announced that Rockville, Md. native and Olympic gold medalist Haley Skarupa will spearhead their youth hockey efforts as the team's hockey ambassador.

Skarupa most recently played for the Boston Pride in the NWHL, and is currently part of the PWHPA and #ForTheGame movement, where she recently played against the San Jose Sharks alumni in an exhibition game.

“I’m extremely excited to join the Capitals organization,” Skarupa said in a press release. “I grew up playing hockey in the area, so this opportunity to come back and develop the game around the region is incredibly special. The Capitals have done such an amazing job growing this sport for boys and girls and I’m excited to use my experience and background to continue making a difference in the community and beyond.” 

In her role as hockey ambassador, Skarupa will enhance the Caps' current youth hockey programming, establish women's and girls programming within the organization and will drive growth across the current youth hockey offerings. 

The Caps will celebrate IIHF Girls Hockey Weekend on Saturday, Oct. 5, with two free Washington Capitals Girls Hockey Clinics for girls ages 8-18 at MedStar Capitals IcePlex hosted by Skarupa.

“Her talent on the ice and her dedication to engaging participants in the sport make her a terrific role model for aspiring athletes,"  said Monumental Sports & Entertainment Founder, Chairman, Principal Partner and CEO, Ted Leonsis. "Over the past several years, we have seen a tremendous increase in youth hockey participation across the area and we believe her addition will continue to spur growth among young participants.”

According to USA Hockey, since Alex Ovechkin was drafted, participation by youth players has skyrocketed in the DC Metro Area by 221%, and now includes 22,144 players, coaches and officials.