The Capitals could not get past the second round with players like Justin Williams and Kevin Shattenkirk. Now they are preparing to play in the Eastern Conference Finals with Chandler Stesphenson and Jakub Vrarna.
This year’s Capitals team is different in many ways, but perhaps the most striking difference from years past has been the number of rookies who have played a role in getting them this far.
Six rookies have made their NHL playoff debut this season for the Capitals which ties a franchise record set in 1990 for most in a single postseason. Stephenson, Vrana, Travis Boyd, Christian Djoos, Shane Gersich and Nathan Walker all are in their first run for a Stanley Cup.
"Something about the young guys, they've always got the smile on," Barry Trotz said following Wednesday's practice. "Sometimes they're funny, sometimes they're naive. Sometimes they need a little bit of tightening from their peers or their coach."
"They're just playing," Matt Niskanen said. "They're having fun and they're playing hard and doing good because of it."
Some players, such as Boyd and Gersich, have been given spot duty. They have been called upon for only a few games because the team was looking for a spark or because of injury. Others, however, have taken a much more significant role.
With Andre Burakovsky out injured, Stephenson saw himself promoted to the second line. Vrana has bounced up and down throughout the lineup and was the hero of Game 5 with a game-tying assist and game-winning goal.
Djoos, meanwhile, seems to have cemented himself on the third pair alongside Brooks Orpik.
“Some guys have a different demeanor," Trotz said. "A guy like Djoos on the backend, it doesn't matter. He just sort of plays and he doesn't worry about too much. That's why he's got so much poise."
Head coaches tend not to rely on rookies in the postseason because they are largely unknown commodities. You do not know how a player will play in their first taste of the playoffs or handle that pressure. As a result, coaches tend to look toward veteran players who they know what to expect from.
“I think there's two kinds of things that happen with young guys,” Trotz said. “They're naive and just play, and have a lot of fun and it doesn't bother them. It's just a lot of fun. There's other ones that get the starry-eyed, saucer-eyed and they sort of have to work through that.”
You don’t know if a rookie is going to excel in the moment or fall victim to it. For the Caps, their young core has more than lived up to the task. And it’s a good thing, too, because the team has absolutely needed them to be more than just placeholders in the lineup.
In Monday’s Game 6, Trotz put five rookies into the lineup. Walker assisted on a goal for Alex Chiasson and Vrana had a chance to put the Caps ahead late in regulation. Despite playing in Pittsburgh against the two-time defending champions, those five rookies left that game victorious as the Caps clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now as the Caps prepare for the Tampa Bay Lightning, there is no doubt the rookies will be called upon again to play major roles yet again.
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