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A fan favorite with the Capitals, Craig Berube has Blues in Stanley Cup Final

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A fan favorite with the Capitals, Craig Berube has Blues in Stanley Cup Final

BOSTON -- On Jan. 3, Craig Berube’s St. Louis Blues were the worst team in the entire NHL. 

The Blues had fired head coach Mike Yeo on Nov. 19 after a 7-9-3 start. For six weeks they showed signs of life, but not results under Berube, a no-nonsense fan favorite during his playing days with the Capitals in the 1990s who could fight with the best of them.

That early January night playing at home in St. Louis against Washington, though no one knew it, the Blues were finally gelling into the team that would reach the Stanley Cup Final, which begins tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC against the Boston Bruins.
St. Louis drubbed the Capitals. Washington could barely get the puck through the neutral zone against a focused, relentless team that didn’t even have rookie goalie sensation Jordan Binnington in net yet. His time was still to come. 

Berube’s Blues won 5-2 and the game wasn’t even that close. By the time they beat the Capitals again in St. Louis 11 days later, the Blues were at .500 (20-20-4) and quickly climbing the standings. They were playing exactly how Berube knew they could. 

“Oh, it's not easy ever. I mean, it had to be cultivated for sure,” Berube said. “But our team identity is our team. We play a team game and nobody's bigger than the team. That's really the bottom line. We demand a lot from our players and the team has to come first. That's our identity.”
Berube’s approach didn’t surprise his former teammates in Washington. He played seven years with the Capitals in the 1990s and early 2000s. He was a rugged forward who stood up for his teammates. That was his ticket to an NHL career that lasted 1,054 games. 

That message was drilled into him as a teenager when he left Edmonton a skinny, spindly kid to play in the smaller Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League in Williams Lake, British Columbia. 

He wasn’t a fighter or a tough guy. But he returned home that summer with those skills, according to NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May, a future NHL teammate and competitor in the Edmonton area in those years. 

Berube built on that reputation on junior teams in Kamloops and New Westminster and Medicine Hat in the Western Hockey League. He wasn’t drafted. But he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1986 and toggled between AHL Hershey and the NHL during his first three seasons. 

The man they called “Chief” because of his First Ancestry heritage made a quick name for himself as one of the NHL’s great fighters during that very different era of hockey and was a perfect fit for a Flyers organization that long prized that toughness.   

“Chief came up when the Flyers were still a version of the Broad Street Bullies and that went a long way,” May said. “That Philadelphia thing of being a tough teammate and sticking up for your teammates all the time and for all the right reasons. It’s not about you, it’s about your team. That’s in him. That’s part of his DNA as a coach and as a competitor.”

Berube was an intimidating presence on the ice with long hair and a mean mug. He was limited offensively but had a role to play. He bounced from Philadelphia to Toronto to Calgary before finally finding a stable home in Washington. 

“Chief was a tough guy who never – a little bit different maybe than a few other guys I played with – he never worried about showing his teammates how tough he was in practice or anything like that,” former Capitals teammate Ken Klee said. “It was just ‘Ok, it’s game time now. I have a job to do.’ He was just business about it. I’ve had some other guys who were a little more scary in practice, but they made sure that they kept up that [persona] even off the ice.”

That’s not to say Berube didn’t want to improve his game. He was constantly asking coaches for advice. Fighting was an important job, but he wouldn’t allow himself to be defined that way. If he was struggling, if he couldn’t figure something out on the ice he would ask for help. Multiple former teammates described Berube as “a learner” and “inquisitive.” That wasn’t common to the bruiser types of his era.
“[Berube] could communicate with your superstars, with your rookies, with everyone from players to coaches to general managers. ” May said. “He’s a positive guy. I know that all the coaches always liked him. Some coaches are not legitimate personalities - or they’re bad guys, But all the coaches from what I’ve seen always loved having Chief around.” 

Berube thrived talking hockey in the back of the team bus with a beer in his hand. It didn’t matter if it was at dinner on a road trip or on the golf course in the summer. Berube and teammates Keith Jones, Mark Tinordi, Dale Hunter and others were hockey junkies. They got together to watch games, drink beers and eat chicken wings like the fans they were.  And it was that core group that helped the 1997-98 Capitals, who reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

Berube's mask has never left him. There were few smiles during games. There are few smiles even now behind the bench. Don’t take that for lacking a sense of humor, though. His old teammates were adamant about that, too. 

After Washington’s memorable run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, goalie Olie Kolzig went around the room collecting memorabilia from his teammates. He had a picture of Berube tangling with an opponent, arm cocked, ready to throw a punch. Kolzig just wanted it signed. Berube obliged – with a twist. 

“To Olie,” the note read. “This could be you.”

“That’s the way Chief is,” Kolzig said, laughing. “He wasn’t a best wishes, glad I had the opportunity to play with you kind of guy. I cherish that picture. I love it.” 

Much like Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, fired by the Capitals in 2003 in his second season with the club, Berube was an interim coach with Philadelphia, but let go after the next season when the Flyers missed the playoffs. For him, too, this Stanley Cup Final is a chance at redemption.

“I still look back on his time in Philadelphia and can't tell you how impressed I was on his presence behind the bench, his quick eye and understanding which players were going and which were not,” said Jones, an NBC Sports analyst and Flyers broadcaster for NBC Sports Philadelphia. “He was great in just the chess match that goes on with being a head coach. Rarely did I sit upstairs and watch a game and think that he missed something. That’s really carried over into his time in St. Louis.” 

Good goaltending helps - as Berube himself can attest. Binnington, the rookie goalie, went 5-1-1 in January with a .936 save percentage for the Blues. He was even better in February at 10-1 with a .945 save percentage. St. Louis was well on its way by then. His emergence is a huge storyline at this Stanley Cup Final. 

But it all began with Berube sticking with his team. It went 8-9-1 in his first 18 games as interim coach before the Blues beat the Capitals in that first meeting. They entered play that night 11 points out of a Western Conference playoff spot and were listening to trade offers, according to general manager Doug Armstrong, who had gone a scouting trip to Russia.  

On Jan. 7 St. Louis pulled out of last place in the league for good. By Jan. 12 it was out of last place in Central Division. By Feb. 11 the Blues were in a playoff spot after six wins in a row. 

“We were no longer sellers after that,” Armstrong said. 

By the start of the playoffs, St. Louis had ripped off a 30-10-4 stretch from the time they beat the Capitals. Berube was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award given annually to the NHL’s coach of the year.

The Blues tied for second in the Central with the Winnipeg Jets and then beat them in the first round in six games. It took seven games to get past the Dallas Stars in the second round, down 3-2 in the series and facing elimination. St. Louis survived. A few days later Armstrong took the “interim” label off Berube. He will be their coach next year. 

“As a player all you want is honestly from your coach and Chief is like that,” Kolzig said. “He’ll let you know where you stand good or bad and it’s up to you on how you deal with it. And I think players love that. I think that’s why they enjoy playing for him because he is no nonsense. He cares about his players. He’s hard on them. He’s fair. He’s just a guy that guys want to play for.”


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The Caps are back...ish, Ovechkin celebrates 700 with 701 and the bottom-six shines

The Caps are back...ish, Ovechkin celebrates 700 with 701 and the bottom-six shines

WASHINGTON -- The Winnipeg Jets certainly made things interesting. The Capitals jumped out to a dominant 3-0 lead, but the Jets managed to battle back and force a shootout. Washington got the win, but now we are all left wondering which half of the game tells us more about the state of the Caps.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the win

They're back...ish

The first half of this game was brilliant. The Caps were dominant in every facet. They were physical, the defense was playing well, the breakouts were crisp, the top-six was dangerous and the bottom-six was setting up offensive opportunities with prolonged shifts in the offensive zone. Braden Holtby was strong in net back-stopping the team to a 3-0 lead...and then suddenly it was 3-3 and the game was headed to overtime.

What the heck?

I was all ready for the story after this game to be that the Caps were officially back, but now it seems too early to declare that.

Look, overall the win over the Pittsburgh Penguins plus this game were the best two games this team has played in a long time. If they keep playing the way they have recently they will win more often than not and will be rounding into form by the playoffs. But they need to work on their full 60-minute efforts.

Let's get physical

This is a physical team and it clearly has been getting back to its identity the past week. It's no surprise the success is starting to come again as a result.

I asked Reirden after the game how much the physical play had to do with the team's turnaround and he had a very interesting answer.

“What we weren’t doing was we weren’t putting pucks in areas where we could go be physical. So, when you’re going to turn pucks over in the neutral zone and you’re not going to put them behind their defense, now you’re not giving your players a chance to go in and forecheck and pressure pucks and force turnovers, which I thought we were really good at early on in the game today in terms of all those pucks that were below the goal line, how we were able to pressure and force turnovers and get possession out of it for the majority of the first two periods. So, that’s our identity, that’s how we have to play and, to me, it’s all set up by the proper puck management.”

The bottom-six

So far so good for Ilya Kovalchuk. The third line looked very offensively dangerous in Kovalchuk's first game with lots of prolonged shifts in the offensive zone. Garnet Hathaway credited one such shift as directly leading to his goal.

"I thought that line played really well tonight," Hathaway said. "I thought they were all contributing and making plays, too, so it was nice building off of their energy. I think you look at that, we get an offensive zone faceoff and then it turns into a goal."

In addition, the fourth line looked a bit rejuvenated with Richard Panik. He collected an assist on Hathaway's goal. If that's the type of performance the Caps can expect from the bottom-six going forward, they are in good shape.

Turning point

The Caps may have won the game, but the turning point was Nikolaj Ehlers' goal.

With Washington up 3-0 in the second period, Michal Kempny wheeled around the net in the face of the forecheck from Patrik Laine. He tried to pass the puck to Radko Gudas, but was off-target. The puck redirected off the skate of Gudas and right to Cody Eakin who was all alone in front of the net. Eakin fired a quick shot which Holtby stopped and he closed up his pads thinking he had the puck. Unbeknownst to him, however, the puck had squirted out. Ehlers spotted it and scored on the open net to breath life back into the Jets. From there Winnipeg would tie the game and force overtime.

Play of the game

The great set up by Evgeny Kuznetsov and the great finish by Alex Ovechkin. What better way to finish the celebration of 700 than by scoring No. 701?

Stat of the game

Yet another goalie goes down to the Great 8.

Quote of the game

Ovechkin scored the shootout winner with one of the best shootout goals of his career.

“Sometime even I don’t know what I’m going to do out there, so I’ll take it.”

Fan predictions

Check, check...oh no! You were doing so well!


Just the one and you didn't have to wait too long to get it either.

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Capitals survive 3-goal surge from Jets for shootout win

Capitals survive 3-goal surge from Jets for shootout win

WASHINGTON -- The Capitals saw a 3-0 lead evaporate, but still managed to earn the 4-3 shootout win on Tuesday, their second victory in as many games. On a night in which Alex Ovechkin was honored, he scored the first goal of the game and the shootout winner.

Here is how the Caps won.


Right after he was honored in a pregame ceremony for scoring his 700th goal, Ovechkin scored No. 701 less than two minutes into the game.

Evgeny Kuznetsov flashed some of his behind-the-net magic as he skated the puck behind the goal line, then abruptly spun and fed Ovechkin the puck. Ovechkin's first shot was blocked by Nathan Beaulieu, but he whacked the puck out of the air and behind goalie Laurent Brossoit for his 701st career goal.

This marked the second time in as many games Washington scored first, something that has been an issue of late.

Vrana's speed

Jakub Vrana scored a great goal on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins thanks to his speed and a great individual effort. He did it again on Tuesday launching himself on his own breakaway.

The Jets broke the puck into the offensive zone, but the rush was halted by the defense of Dmitry Orlov and the backcheck from T.J. Oshie. Jakub Vrana picked up the loose puck and zipped straight down the middle of the ice.

When Vrana grabbed the puck, there were two Jets between him and the net. By the team he reached the opposite blue line, there was only one Jet left who could catch him. Vrana managed one last burst of speed to turn the corner and get behind the defense, then score the breakaway goal to give Washington the 2-0 lead.

The bottom-six

The acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk was meant to improve the offense of both lines in the bottom-six. Obviously he adds offense to the third line, but moving Richard Panik to the fourth should also provide that line with more of an offensive upside. For one game at least, the return on Kovalchuk was very good.

The third line looked tremendous with Kovalchuk skating on the right. The line had a number of dominant offensive zone shifts and was able to work the cycle really well to hem the Jets in their own zone.

Kovalchuk fired three shots on goal.

The fourth line, meanwhile, scored just its second goal in the year in 2020. The line picked up a turnover in the offensive zone off a great forechecking shift and Garnet Hathaway scored on a rebound off a shot by Nic Dowd.

Hathaway's goal was his first since Dec. 23 and he was assisted by Dowd and new linemate Panik.

Braden Holtby

Holtby had another strong performance in net ensuring the Caps could build on their early lead. The Jets fired 17 shots on goal in the second period alone and he stopped 16 of them. He finished the game with 30 saves and made an additional three stops in the shootout.

Physical play

The Caps pushed Winnipeg around in this one. Badly.

While the official hit total was pretty close (25-17), what the Caps lacked in quantity they made up for in quality. They laid a number of vicious hits on the Jets and they just did not have the muscle to match.

Dmitry Orlov in particular was in an ornery mood as he delivered two huge hits. One he delivered to Patrik Laine drew the ire of Andrew Copp. Copp went to defend his teammate and Tom Wilson decided to defend his. Copp qiuckly backed down and did not respond to a few jabs from Wilson or even a big hit from Wilson later in the shift.

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