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Capitals win breaks D.C. sports' historic semifinals drought after 20-year wait

Capitals win breaks D.C. sports' historic semifinals drought after 20-year wait

For 20 years, all Washington sports fans have wanted is a seat at the table. Not just the opportunity to compete for a world championship, a spot in the playoffs, as all of their teams have accomplished that much and lately quite often. But a real chance, being there at the end when so few teams are left that a title shot could actually come into focus.

For most cities, reaching the semifinals of a given sport would be just another step in a road they have traveled before. The expectation to get there has been established. For D.C., it's unfamiliar territory. There are full-grown adults from the region who have no idea what the experience of playing for the chance to play for a major sports championship is like.

With the Capitals' win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of their second-round playoff series on Monday night, Washington advanced to the Eastern Conference Final, and in doing so have already gone further than any other D.C. major sports team (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) since 1998. That makes this arguably the most important win, at least relative to the team's sport, for a D.C. team in two decades.

Not since the 1997-98 Capitals had a Washington team reached the final four in a major sport. It was the longest drought among North American cities with at least three major sports teams. Of cities with two or more major sports teams, only Cincinnati has waited longer than D.C.

Those 1997-98 Caps, in fact, were the only D.C. team to get that far since the 1992 Redskins, who won the Super Bowl. Among cities with three major sports teams, only Minneapolis-St. Paul has waited longer for a world championship. They last had one with the Twins, who captured the 1991 World Series just months before the Redskins won it all.

The 20-year wait itself has been difficult for many, but the true devil is in the details, how heartbreakingly close D.C. teams have been. The Nationals got closer than any of them in 2012 when they were one strike away from putting down the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.

The Cardinals set an MLB record that night by coming back from six runs down in a postseason do-or-die game. Closer Drew Storen surrendered the go-ahead runs and will forever live in the memory of D.C. sports fans - along with Pete Kozma - because of it. 

Instead of celebrating an NLCS berth, the Nats were left to answer questions about how they let it slip away. Plastic protective covering, set up for a champagne shower, draped the lockers around them. Stephen Strasburg, who was shut down that September because of his Tommy John surgery, was consoled by pitching coach Steve McCatty as tears streamed down his face.

The Nats have been one win away three times in total, including in 2017 when they lost to the Chicago Cubs in five games. Game 5 featured a meltdown by Max Scherzer, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, and Jayson Werth, the team's most experienced player, losing a flyball in the lights.

The Capitals can relate. They were 100 seconds away in Game 5 of the 2015 NHL Playoffs. They were up 3-1 in their series against the New York Rangers, less than two minutes from reaching the Eastern Conference Final. But the series and ultimately their season slipped away and into the catching glove of goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

The Capitals were also one win away in 2009, 2012 and last May with Game 7s against the Penguins, Rangers and Penguins again. The 2009 loss to Pittsburgh was a blowout. Seven times since 1998 have they reached the second round with a chance to clinch a spot in the Eastern Conference Final and they were 0-6 in those matchups before Monday night.

The 1999 Redskins were a field goal away from beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, a win that would have put them one victory from the Super Bowl. They set up for a 50-yard attempt with 1:17 left in the fourth quarter, only to see center Dan Turk botch the snap. Kicker Brett Conway, who earlier in the game nailed one from 48 yards out, never got a chance and the Redskins lost 14-13.

The 2014-15 Wizards were two games away from reaching the semis when Paul Pierce thought he beat the buzzer to force overtime against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6. Instead, the Wizards became the first team in NBA history to be eliminated from the playoffs on a call determined by replay. 

That series was also greatly affected by an injury to star point guard John Wall. The Wizards won Game 1 in Atlanta, but saw Wall land hard under the basket and break his left wrist. The Wizards would lose four of the next five games.

The Wizards have reached the second round of the playoffs four times during the 20-year drought. The closest they got to advancing was last May when they lost in seven games to the Boston Celtics. In Game 7 it was Kelly Olynyk who came out of nowhere to spoil their party, much like Jaroslav Halak did to the Capitals in 2010 and Kozma and Daniel Descalso did to the Nats in 2012.

D.C. teams were an amazing 0-13 in games with a chance to reach the semis from 1998 until the Caps broke through.

Many stars have emerged in the last 20 years, ones that gave D.C. fans hope for a breakthrough. Some have continued to blossom, while others have fallen in unusually cruel ways. 

Robert Griffin III was one of the best rookie quarterbacks in NFL history before tearing up his knee in a Redskins playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks in January 2013. He was never the same afterward.

Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was the NBA's leading scorer when he collided with Gerald Wallace, injured his knee and never recovered his explosive first step. He later made matters worse with off-the-court issues. 

The Capitals saw defenseman Mike Green emerge as a perennial Norris Trophy contender. Several injuries later and he could never quite regain that form.

That's all not to mention the tragic death of Redskins superstar safety Sean Taylor, who was killed during the prime of his career in 2007.

D.C. has held this distinction of the longest wait for a semifinal berth for many years. We at NBC Sports Washington (then CSN) first started documenting it in 2009.

Since then, the Capitals and Nationals have risen to prominence as premier teams in their respective leagues. The Redskins have had many lows, but some extreme highs. Griffin III's rookie season had many wondering if Washington had found their franchise quarterback and if division titles would be commonplace for the next decade or so. The Wizards, led by Wall and Bradley Beal, have gotten close.

Throughout the course of this wait, the Capitals often seemed like the most likely team that would break through. It took years of heartbreak, but with one win the Caps have reset the expectations not only for themselves but for others in this town.

D.C. sports fans have been through a lot over the last two decades. The Capitals have more they would like to accomplish, but by winning on Monday, they have already taken their fans to a place D.C. has not been in a long, long time.

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How the Caps' European players are adjusting to life thousands of miles from home

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How the Caps' European players are adjusting to life thousands of miles from home

When the Capitals take the ice each game, they represent Washington, D.C. Off the ice, however, the players are a collection of talent from all over the world. Washington is the team they play for, but neither Washington nor America is where many of them come from. Many players are a long way from home, playing hockey in what is, for them, a foreign country.

Hockey is what brought them to America and adjusting to a new country brings with it a number of challenges. Coming from Canada is one thing, but coming from Europe where life is very different is quite another.

The Capitals roster is full of several players from all over Europe. What is it like trying to adjust to life in America? What does this country look like from an outside perspective? In their own words, here are the stories of those players about what life is like in their new home.

What was adjusting to life in America like when you first came to this country?

Nicklas Backstrom: "It was different, that's for sure. I think first of all, the culture back home when you play, we had a lot of single guys over there. We practiced in the morning, had lunch together and then we went grab a coffee, sit down together, had dinner together. We pretty much were hanging out with each other for the whole day. I think culture over here a little bit more is you practice and then you go home, do your own stuff. It was a little bit of transition to start there, but once you get used to it you just adjust. I think that was the biggest eye-opener for me because that's the only thing I knew before I come over here and then all of a sudden you were just solo, by yourself. A little different, but once you adjust, you're fine.”

Radko Gudas: “The States and Europe, everything is different. Even the smallest thing is little bit different. It's definitely a lot of getting used to it. Moving from Washington State to Virginia to New York, every state has something different. Going from the West Coast to the East Coast, it was a lot of things to get used to.

“When I got drafted, I signed two weeks after that and I didn't have my [social security number]. I couldn't get any paychecks yet. I didn't have a bank account in the States, I didn't have nothing. My first, I would say month and a half, maybe two months I was pretty much living off my per diem or what my savings were from the leagues in Czech Republic. … I had to get a car, driver's license which was a pain in the ass, the insurance. I had a lot of help from all the staff and the Norfolk Admirals front office. Really happy that they helped me through a lot, but I’m sure I wasn't the only guy that they had to deal with through all this. It's obviously not an easy thing to do, but if you have the right people, I was fortunate enough to have the right people around me to help me through a lot. Made it all the way here and still don't have the IRS knocking on my door so I guess I did something right.”

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby: “Go to the grocery store, I don't know the brands. Don't know what's the best brand and stuff like that. So just small things.”

Martin Fehervary: “In Europe, in Sweden I came, I got everything set up. Here I had to find apartment so I did. Need to figure it out my car so lifestyle like this. But, I mean, it's fun.”

Eller: “It's different, but I think the biggest part is just being a grownup, being an adult, paying the bills, paying rent, finding out things on your own. For a lot of guys it's a big step of maybe living with a family or living at home and now all of a sudden you're on your own. You've got to cook, you've got to grocery shop, you've got to do this and that. I think that's the biggest step, just becoming an adult person, not necessarily it doesn't have to do with hockey. And also, I think if you speak the language it helps a lot, but for like a Russian player or eastern Europeans, that can be a lot tougher for sure. For me, I spoke the language, makes a big difference.”

How much English did you know and how difficult did that make the transition?

Evgeny Kuznetsov: “Zero.”

[Describing his first press conference] “I'm just guessing at that time pretty much every time. I see reaction, if these people happy that means I'm guessing the right way.”

Michal Kempny: “I didn't speak any English. I think the language is No. 1 [hardest part]. I tried to learn English as fast as I could. Different country, different people. I never been in the U.S. before so it was kind of everything new, but year after year I felt better and better.”

Jonas Siegenthaler: “If I didn't understand something it was just maybe one or two words and then I just ask. But overall, I spoke pretty good English from school. I started to learn English when I was seven years old. My birth year was the first year that had this English class from seven years old. I'm glad for that.”

Jakub Vrana: “It's kind of easy to learn when you just in here and you hear it every day. It's different than if you're back home and you're actually going to school and you have a one-hour, two-hour class and it’s like not it, you know? Because then you speak Czech all day. So here you don't have a chance so you're hungry, you're going to ask for food. You're going to understand, it's important.”

Backstrom: “We have English in school, but I was terrible at that, to be honest. I wasn't great. First one or two years, I was pretty quiet around there, I was just trying to learn. I was just trying to pick up the language and it helped me a lot that I had roommates [Matt Bradley, Mike Green] that spoke English. You could practice with them. Once you get a little more confident too, that helps as well.”

Richard Panik: “I had great grades in school in English, but as soon as I got here I didn't understand. I couldn't speak. It took me maybe like six months to get used to it and then it was just easier and easier.”

Carl Hagelin: “I thought I knew it better than I did. It was easy for me to read and stuff, but I think having conversations and speaking in front of people is pretty hard my first year. And then by my third semester [at the University of Michigan], I started picking up more and more. I was pretty quiet my first year, just kind of hung around and tried to learn as much as possible. Because even though you knew, we speak more the Oxford English, British English back home. And then you came over here and you used some words that they would use and some of the guys are just looking at you. And on our team, there was no other Europeans so I would say it's probably easier around an NHL team because you have the Canadians, the French Canadians and people are used to people with different dialects and language.”

Gudas: “I graduated in English as the best of my class so I thought I'm speaking fluently and perfect, but when I showed up in the States I found out I don't know [expletive]. All the slang and all the Canadians around, it was a different English than we learned in school. We learned the proper 'English' English. It took me at least two, three months to get it going to at least be able to have a fun conversation of just like what I need and what I want.”

What is something you find weird or different about America and Americans?

Siegenthaler: “I just found out that you can buy your groceries online, get it delivered. Yeah, back home if you tell somebody that you get your groceries delivered, it's kind of like, um, you're a lazy ass.”

Eller: “I won't say everybody is that way, but [Americans] tend to only know what's going on in America. Everything outside of America, they're not very well educated on that.”

Gudas: “I think the attachment to the phones. You don't see that in Czech. Everybody trying to live more outside than inside, you know? I think that's one thing that could change here.”

Panik: “The first thing I noticed, everybody is just too friendly. It just seems like, you don't even know the person and it seems like you know the person for 10 years. It's weird. Back home, we're conservative. I wouldn't say they're bad people, still good, but like here it's more I think when you meet somebody new it's more open.”

Hagelin: “I love the fact that people love going to sporting events. Like back home, if you go to [a] sporting event you go and you kind of sit and you dissect the game. You don't really talk to fans from the other team and you don't really wear jerseys. Like a girl in Sweden would never wear a jersey to a game, they'll get dressed up and go to a game. Here it doesn't matter who you are, you put a jersey on and you show your support. It's a different feel in here. Obviously it's cool in Europe, but the fan clubs are screaming and hollering throughout the whole game, but it's a different experience and I think that's cool.”

Backstrom: “Only thing maybe that I notice is they're really bad drivers in the rain.”

Kuznetsov: “Driving. The way they drive.”

What do you think of American food?

Panik: “Back home when you say American food, everybody imagine hamburgers, fries, but even here you can find great restaurant with the great food. Basically you can cook at home whatever you wanted. I think American food, it means hamburgers. I like it, but I don't eat it that often. It's different than Slovakian for sure.”

Jonsson-Fjallby: “I feel like good food is usually a lot more expensive than fast food and stuff. I mean, in Sweden, it's also cheaper with fast food, but it's not that big a difference so if you want a good dinner it's quite expensive here.”

Eller: “I eat a hot dog or pizza once in a while, but I don't eat a lot. I think it's changed here over the last decade. Now it's trending much more towards healthier food and greens and veggies. People are more aware now than they were a decade ago I think. So it is changing, but you can always find your McDonalds and your Domino's, right? Even though I rarely eat that anymore, I like the diversity. You can get everything. That's what I like about America. Every kind of food is available.”

Hagelin: “You can see there's a bit of a health kick coming now and if you want good food you can always find it. That's the great part especially. I've been fortunate to live in some big cities and some health-conscious people living in those cities, especially in California. Any place you go to, there's some good and healthy food.”

Vrana: “Fries and burgers, that's like typical, isn’t it? Steak? Fries? That's very American? Or ribs? Sometimes it's not bad, but I would not recommend it like eat it too much.”

Ilya Samsonov: “There's better meat here, steaks. Steak is very good.”

Siegenthaler: “It's more fried stuff. More burgers, fries. I found a Swiss restaurant here in D.C. They're pretty good. I think we're pretty good friends. When I miss home or when I miss the Swiss food, I just go get dinner at the Swiss restaurant. Makes me feel like home.”

What do you miss about home?

Kuznetsov: “Everything. People, food. This summer I wasn't home so a long time. Most important, we got the families back home. We've got the grandmothers, all those people who pretty much see us once in a while. They get so old. The older they get, the more you want to see them.”

Hagelin: “I think just having your family close by. Now with all the technology, it feels like they're close, with facetime and all that. I think just that feeling that everyone's close and you're just a 40-minute car ride away from all your closest people.”

Gudas: “You get a lot of visits here from the family, but the grandmas, grandpas don't come here as much anymore and now having kids, it would be nice to be around the great grandparents and be around them so I think that's the hardest thing for me, not being able to have my kids around my grandparents as much as I would like to. It's always hard in the summer to go and see them for a while because [the kids] need their rest too, but we try to get them involved as much as we can, forcing them to speak as much Czech as we can so they don't only speak English.”

Samsonov: “I don't know, maybe dumplings. A little bit talking with the Russian guys, my friends, my family. It's OK. I'm professional hockey player. That's my life.”

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Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

See Monday's breakdown of the team's offense here.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
2.90 goals against per game (10th in the NHL)
84.2-percent penalty kill (2nd)

Whatever question marks this team may have on the blue line, John Carlson is not one of them. With 60 points in 49 games, he is on pace for exactly 100 points this season, but do not fall into the trap of thinking his great season is only about the offense. He is easily the most consistent defensive defenseman on the team as well. He is just an all-around elite player who was long ago labeled an "offensive defenseman" and that perception still lingers though it has not been factual since the 2017-18 season when Matt Niskanen was out for a prolonged period and Carlson was leaned upon and excelled.

Carlson has obviously been the highlight of the blue line this season, which is to be expected. Jonas Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas have also been bright spots. The penalty kill has essentially been entrusted to Siegenthaler who gets more shorthanded ice time per game (3:06) than any player on the roster, including Carl Hagelin. Gudas is not far behind at 2:43. 

The benefit to this is that this is the team's third defensive pair, yet they are doing the heavy-lifting on the penalty kill allowing the other two pairs who play more minutes 5-on-5 to get some time to rest. The fact that the penalty kill remains among the league's best even with the third pair running the show is a luxury that not many teams can boast.

Dmitry Orlov has been up and down, but he fits the mold of a second-pair offensive defenseman. I view him as more of an asset than a liability and his possession numbers (54.91 Corsi-For percentage) back that up.

Having said that, there are a few major concerns on the blue line. The first is that this team does not have two top-four right defensemen. Carlson is the only one. Nick Jensen has been playing on the second pair, but it is clear that he just cannot handle such a significant role. He has been with the Caps for nearly a full calendar year at this point and his struggles can no longer be dismissed as him simply adjusting to a new team and system. The change in system was a dramatic shift for him as it requires a lot more crossing over onto the left side, something he does not seem to be comfortable with at all. He's not a bad player and I would feel comfortable with him as a third-pair defenseman. In fact, Jensen averages 2:12 per game shorthanded, more than Carlson (1:38) or Michal Kempny (1:25), so he has held a major role on Washington's stellar penalty kill. The problem can be boiled down to this: The Caps have two third-pair caliber right defensemen and only one top four. 

The second issue is that Kempny has not played at the level of a top-pair defenseman essentially all season. In comparison to the issues on the right, this is a minor flaw. Kempny's issues are not nearly as blatant and he is rarely caught out of position. The issue mainly has been how weak on the puck he has been.

One team issue has been how Washington performs against an aggressive forecheck. I will label that a defensive issue because the issue comes from the defensive zone. Everyone on the team has to be smarter with puck management and distribution, but especially the blueliners who are often tasked with starting the breakouts. They have to be able to distribute the puck quickly and smartly in the face of that pressure. This was a major factor in the team's loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round the last playoffs and has seemingly been an issue in the regular season as well.

The only other defensive issue has to do with the penalty kill. Yes, the PK has been stellar, but it has been called upon far too often. Washington has taken 186 minor penalties this season, more than any other team in the NHL. Sure, sometimes the referees like to put away the whistles in the postseason, but the Caps are a physical team that plays a heavy game. That could open them up to more penalties. Most importantly, the team has to be smarter with their sticks and limit unnecessary slashes and hooks.

The verdict: No, the defense is not good enough to win the Cup...yet.

A hole on the top-four is a significant enough weakness that I do not believe the team can afford to ignore it heading into the playoffs.

But don't despair. While I do not believe the current makeup of the defense is good enough, it is not beyond repair. Only one addition is needed to completely shore up the blue line. This team needs an adequate player to plug onto the right side of the second pair. They don't need a superstar, just a serviceable top-four righty. That addition would imrpove the defense to the point of making the team a real contender.

Top four defensemen do not grow on trees, however, especially right ones, and the team's cap constraints will certainly hurt their ability to improve in this area.

This leaves me with two possible solutions the team could explore.

First, and probably the most likely, look for the next Kempny. Find a cheap defenseman on another team's roster who the scouts think has high-upside and is undervalued by his current team, trade a mid-round draft pick and plug him in. The fact that Washington was able to recall Christian Djoos after the Christmas break means Washington has at least banked enough cap space to fit in his cap hit ($1.2 million). Brian MacLellan seems deadset on keeping the roster with only one healthy scratch to bank as much cap space as possible so I think they should have probably at least about $2 million to work with by the time the Feb. 24 trade deadline rolls around. Plus, there is always salary retention, though that would cost more in a trade.

The second option is to bring up Martin Fehervary. He is a left shot, but has been playing on the right with the Hershey Bears. The team certainly loves him which was made evident by him starting the season in the NHL. Even if he may not have reached his full potential yet, he is certainly seen within the organization as a top-four caliber player so bring him up and try him out. For this option, I would like to see him called up sooner rather than later in order to get as much time as possible to adjust to the NHL, but even if this option is on the table, I would not anticipate seeing it until after the trade deadline when the team no longer needs to continue banking that space.

One last note, for anyone wondering if Djoos could be a possibility, I do not see that happening. In his two games with the team this season, he was not put on the ice for a single defensive zone start whether on the fly or off a faceoff. Not one. It is a small sample size, but that shows me there is a lack of trust in him from the coaches when it comes to playing in the defensive zone. That does not sound like a realistic candidate to slot into the top four anytime soon. 

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