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Capitals relive Stanley Cup memories in return to Las Vegas

Capitals relive Stanley Cup memories in return to Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS — It has only been six months, but it feels like a lifetime since the Capitals were last in the visiting locker room at T-Mobile Arena, where they celebrated one of the great days of their lives. 

Tom Wilson opened his equipment bag weeks later in Toronto and it still reeked of champagne and beer. The Stanley Cup championship party that raged for a week from one end of the country to the other began for real in a square room just off the ice that was the perfect size for an all-time rager.

“We were wondering if the floors would be new or if we owed them some money,” defenseman John Carlson said when he arrived back in the locker room Monday.   

The Capitals have returned to Las Vegas, where they beat the Golden Knights in five games to win the franchise’s first title on June 7, for another rematch tonight. They won the first meeting this year 5-2 at Capital One Arena on Oct. 10. 

There was little fanfare when the plane landed in Vegas late Sunday night. Just a few jokes and off to the hotel for sleep after a long day that began with a frustrating 6-5 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in Washington that afternoon. 

But this game serves as full closure. The Capitals have now hoisted a banner, handed out championship rings to former teammates Jay Beagle and Philipp Grubauer and done the same for former coach Barry Trotz, now at the helm of the New York Islanders, who gave an emotional speech in the locker room before the two teams played in Brooklyn last week. 

Returning to the actual site of their triumph is the final tangible connection to last season. The rest will be memories. Carlson said that he refuses to watch YouTube clips of the celebrations in the T-Mobile dressing room or the week that followed. He remembers all the special moments in his mind. He doesn’t need them replayed. None of them do, really. 

“It’s pretty sweet walking into the dressing room that we abused after we won,” forward Brett Connolly joked. “It’ll be a special place forever for all of us – a cool city to win it in.”

Indeed, Vegas didn’t even have a team before last season. To win a championship in the ultimate party city, but which didn’t have a pro team in any major sport until the Golden Knights arrived, gives Washington’s Cup celebration a unique spin. 

The locker room at T-Mobile is nicer than most across the NHL. The arena opened in 2016 and it’s a wide, square room with plenty of space for equipment bags. Players aren’t on top of each other like they are at Capital One Arena, which looks like a hall closet in comparison. 

In Vegas there is a television against one wall that had Washington’s healthy scratches riveted as Vegas led 2-1 in the third period of Game 5. Defensemen Madison Bowey and Jakub Jerabek, forwards Alex Chiasson, Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd and Shane Gersich and goalie Pheonix Copley had to watch Game 5 from the locker room because the Knights didn’t have a suite available for Caps players. 

Suddenly, Devante Smith-Pelly scored to tie the game at 9:52 of the third period and just 2:31 later Lars Eller gave Washington the lead and it was pandemonium. The final minutes were a blur, but the reserves remembered the plan that Rob Tillotson, Washington’s director of team services, had put into place: If the Caps took the lead in the final 10 minutes they were to get into full uniform as fast as possible so they could skate onto the ice with their teammates to celebrate. 

“It was just an absolutely wild experience,” Boyd said. “I don’t think I’ve ever put my gear on faster.”

Caps coach Todd Reirden walked into the building with goalie coach Scott Murray on Monday and both men could only smile. Recounting the celebration six months later Reirden said he remembered every detail down to his walk to the rink that day. 

“It’s something that was an amazing experience,” Reirden said. “A lot of guys today talked about retracing footsteps - and for me as a coach as well.”

Connolly was one of the last players still on the ice when Alex Ovechkin, with the Cup in his arms, barked at him to get into the locker room. He was with his dad, Pat, and his 80-year-old grandfather. The on-ice celebration lasted 90 minutes - so long that Connolly’s feet began to ache from standing in his skates so long. 

Finally, Ovechkin gave the Cup one last kiss on the bench, said “Thank you, Vegas!” and took the trophy down the tunnel and into the locker room to his waiting teammates and the party that was about to explode.    

“We had a great night with all our families and friends, everybody was there,” Connolly said. “It’s something that we’ll never forget in a city that will always be special to us.”


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Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Brought up to replace the injured Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek's first taste of NHL hockey will come inside the bubble in Toronto. Not exactly the best of circumstances. 

But Vanecek plays an important role on a Capitals team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Should Braden Holtby struggle or get hurt during the playoffs, Washington will need its young back-up goalie to keep their team afloat and let his talented skaters take it from there.

That's why NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May, during an appearance with The Sports Junkies Tuesday, looks forward to seeing Vanecek play a little bit in the round-robin portion of the NHL restart. Ideally, though, it stops there.

"[Vanecek] probably will get one of these games, [the Capitals] said that from the start," May said. "But I hope he doesn't play once they get to the playoff rounds. I think it would be wise to play him in [round robin] games, it's not the end of the world what the seeding is in this. He's a good size goaltender, I think he's about 6'2, and with the training that he's had, he's worked on the fundamentals of his game, he's gotten his conditioning up. He looks very similar to Holtby in net, He's gotten a lot of good reps in American Hockey [League] just like Holtby did around the same age."

And what's the reason why no Caps fan should want to see Vanecek in the postseason? It's simple really. Because this team's best chance at another title revolves around Holtby being a steady and stifling presence between the pipes throughout the playoffs. 


"I think the big thing with this is you really don't want to see [Vanecek] in the net after the round robin," he said. "If they're going to win this thing, it's gonna have to be Braden Holtby getting 16 wins. To me, the most important thing is that Holtby plays in the playoffs, the guy's dynamite, no leaky goals out of him."

This could be Holtby's last playoff run with the Capitals as he enters a contract year. The Caps already committed long term money to Nicklas Backstrom this season, they have an Alex Ovechkin extension to worry about and the flat salary cap certainly won't do them any favors either. Not to mention the presence of Samsonov after a stellar rookie season. 

So if this is it, if this is Holtby's last dance in Washington, he at least looks ready to play his best hockey when it matters most.  

"He looks focused and dialed in, and he wants to make sure if he's going out and won't be a Capital anymore he wants to go home with a victory in his last game."


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If the Capitals want to go far in the playoffs, they have to get physical

If the Capitals want to go far in the playoffs, they have to get physical

The first half of Monday's game was a struggle for the Capitals. While both Washington and the Tampa Bay Lightning were initially feeling out one another, the Lightning seemed to get their legs first and jumped out to a 2-0 lead. It looked like the game was headed in the wrong direction...and that's when things got physical. Up to that point, the Caps were playing without any intensity to their game at all. When T.J. Oshie dropped his gloves against Yanni Gourde, however, the goals soon followed. This game was a good reminder for Washington that if they want to go far in the playoffs, they will have to get physical.

"I think that’s what we pride ourselves on," Brenden Dillon said. "When we’re playing our best hockey, we’re playing physical."

There are a lot of ways to win in the playoffs. If there was only one formula for it, everyone would just do that. For this Washington team, however, the key is to be physical.

In 2018, the Capitals came up against a Tampa Bay team in the conference final that was better. Momentum from beating the rival Pittsburgh Penguins carried the Caps to a 2-0 series lead, but the Lightning took over to win the next three and push the Caps to the brink of elimination. Washington responded with one of the most physical games I have ever seen. Not recklessly physical, but purposeful. In my estimation, Game 6's 3-0 win over the Lightning was the greatest playoff game in franchise history. It was a complete victory, but the key was the way in which the Caps bullied Tampa Bay. They pushed them around. The Caps battered, bruised and beat them into submission, outscoring Tampa Bay 7-0 in the final two games of the series.

Washington has incredible skill, they have speed, but at their core, this team is at its best when it is playing physical hockey.

"That’s a big part of our identity as a team, no fun to play against and yet still have the ability to execute skill plays when we get in those situations," head coach Todd Reirden said. "But for us, the physicality that we can bring on a nightly basis, we feel that really allows us to have success and tilt the ice in our favor."


This isn't just about 2018, it was evident again on Monday.

When it comes to just pure talent, the Caps are a little behind Tampa Bay. When the game was being played with little intensity and skill was able to take over, the Lighting had the edge. From the first shift of the second period, Tom Wilson clearly came in trying to change the momentum and spent his first shift hitting everything that moved. It did not stick, however, until Oshile's fight.

Down 2-0, Oshie dropped the gloves with Gourde. Less than five minutes later, the game was tied at 2.

"We started to create some momentum in probably the second half of the second and then really took it to a different level after T.J.'s fight really inspired our group and then we just built on that," Reirden said.


He added, "I just felt like as we got going now we were finding our stride a little bit more and then eventually we were able to wear them down a little with our physical play. I thought the more we invested physically, then we were able to see some benefits of it."

For the Caps to win a Stanley Cup, several factors will be important. Alex Ovechkin will have to continue to be elite, the defense will have to improve from what we saw in the regular season, Braden Holtby will have to be at the top of his game, etc., etc. But the key to all of it, just like in 2018, will be the Caps playing a physical game and wearing down their opponents.

"When we’re playing our best hockey, we have the skill to go with it and the speed as well," Dillon said. "Come playoff time, we know we’re built for this style of game."

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