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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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Max Scherzer to drop puck at Friday's Caps-Rangers game

Max Scherzer to drop puck at Friday's Caps-Rangers game

Just when you think the D.C. connection between the Nationals and Capitals couldn't get any stronger, it does.

While the Nationals await the winner of the Astros and Yankees as to who they will play in the World Series, the city's first in 86 years, pitcher Max Scherzer will participate in the ceremonial puck drop prior to the Capitals and Rangers clash. 

During the Capitals 2018 Stanley Cup run, the Nationals were their biggest supporters. Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman attended one of their Cup games against the Knights dressed up in Caps gear. They were awarded the fans of the game.

Now, the Capitals are returning the favor.

Earlier this postseason, the Capitals were heading to Nashville when the Nationals were set to play the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS. Each Caps player walked off the plane sporting a cursive 'Nationals' across their chest.

There's plenty of love between these two teams. The Nationals just hope their postseason ends the same way the Capitals' did a season ago.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What's more important, the goalie or the defense?

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What's more important, the goalie or the defense?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want to be answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Nathan S. writes: How important are goalies vs. defense? If the Islanders can make journeyman Robin Lehner an all-star caliber goalie or Blues can win a Cup riding a mostly unproven goalie, then do teams need to pay $10 million per goalie or whatever it costs for Carey Price, Sergei Bobrovsky, etc.? To that end, is a solution to the Caps’ defensive woes to adopt a more defense-first system like the Isles? I thought that was the plan with all the free agent changes.

This is a great question and the answer to the first part is going to be totally unsatisfying: It depends on who you ask.

The Islanders are a good example of the difference a good defense can make. Another is the Carolina Hurricanes who made it to the conference final with a Petr Mrazek, Curtis McElhinney tandem. That's not exactly Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur. On the other hand, one of the major reasons for the Blues’ turnaround last season was Binnington taking over in net over Jake Allen. Plus, while I would not label goalie as the most important position, there is no single position in hockey that can have a greater impact on a game or a series than a goalie.

Jaroslav Halak says hi.

He is hardly the only example. Marc-Andre Fleury carried an expansion team into the Stanley Cup Final in 2018. Braden Holtby helped the Caps beat the defending champion Boston Bruins in 2012 in a series they really had no business winning. In fact, for all those people who think Holtby has always been overrated, the fact is that for years he covered up the defensive deficiencies of the Caps. I’m not talking about right now, he’s struggling and only time will tell if he is able to play his way back into being himself, but in the past.

Ever wonder why a team with this much offensive firepower as the Caps have boasted over the years has only ever advanced past the second round once? It wasn’t because of Holtby who has one of the best playoff save percentages of all time and it wasn't because of an offense led by perhaps the best goal scorer of all-time.

So getting back to your question, it depends on the general manager. Some are willing to commit huge contracts to star goalies, others would prefer to build up the defense. It’s not as if the Florida Panthers were unaware of what the Islanders or Hurricanes did last year. Yet, they were still willing to drop $10 million per year to sign Bobrovsky.

For me personally, I would not commit that much money to a goalie. The NHL is moving more and more towards goalie tandems and it is no coincidence that the Cup run came in a year when Holtby had played fewer games than in any of the previous three seasons. I still think you need a bona fide No. 1 for the playoffs, but not at such a crippling price tag. Get an upper-tier No. 1, aim for him to play around 50 games and spend the rest of the money you saved on a backup and the defense.

The offseason focus for the Caps was definitely to improve defensively, but you can’t judge how they have done until Michal Kempny returns. Believe me, a defense-first plan does not include Tyler Lewington playing every night.

Nathan S. writes: What newly acquired players are Caps having buyers' remorse and might be candidates to get moved later this year? It appears Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen are both struggling and would be the top two candidates to be traded or waived. Panik is probably unmovable with larger contract but he appears to be a bad fit too.

OK, let’s pump the brakes here. The Caps have played eight games. Every player on the team, every single one of them, is going to have a bad stretch for at least that long at some point in the season. The longest scoring drought of Alex Ovechkin’s career is 10 games. Just last season Nicklas Backstrom had a 12-game stretch in which he scored no goals and only five assists. I wouldn't trade or waive either of those guys.

Let’s be clear. It is OK to be critical of a player for poor play. No one gets a free pass. These points count just as much in the standings as the points in March. Having said that, a player coming to a new team sometimes needs time to adjust and it would be foolish to simply declare any new acquisition a total bust when we are still in October.

Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway have been great. Carl Hagelin was great when he was picked up last season. Has he been as good this year? No, but he hasn't been bad. He is the team’s best forward penalty killer and the Caps currently rank 8th in the NHL at 84.6-percent. Last year, they finished 24th. Does that look like a bad signing? Not one bit.

Richard Panik has struggled, but consider the role he is being asked to play. He is supposed to be the offensive focal point of a third line that gets limited minutes while also being a strong two-way forward and penalty killer. That’s a lot to ask. If you did not expect a Hagelin, Lars Eller, Panik line to take a step back offensively from what the Caps had last year, I don’t know what to tell you. The problem there is your expectations, not the third line. Depth offense was always going to take a step back without Brett Connolly who could score 20 goals on limited third-line minutes and no power play time. That's a skill and it's one the Caps willingly gave up for defense. I think people need to adjust their expectations for what you think Hagelin, Eller and Panik are going to produce offensively this season.

Panik has to be better than he has been thus far for sure, but I am not willing to close the book on him yet.

The problem with Gudas and Jensen is that you have two right-shot defensemen who look like solid third-pair players. That’s great, but it leaves the team with a hole in the second pair.

Trading for Jensen made sense at the time. If you want to quibble with the move, the issue is signing him to a four-year extension sight-unseen based on his success in a very different defensive system. I don’t think anyone would have anticipated him struggling quite as much as he has, but I think he could be a good third-pair guy.

Let’s see what the defense looks like when Kempny comes back before we start moving pieces around.

@tarzanegg on Twitter writes: Radko Gudas got bumped up to the 2nd defensive pair. Lack of faith in Nick Jensen?

Jensen has been OK, but not great. I think it says more about how much the team likes Gudas than it does about Jensen. I don’t like Jensen playing with Lewington because it means Jensen playing on the left which is something he struggles at. For now, the team has no choice. You certainly cannot put Lewington on his off-side. He is struggling enough as it is.

William B. writes: Why has Bobby Nardella yet to play in a single game for Hershey when he is apparently fully healthy? He looked great when I saw him play live with the Bears in person at the end of last season. He didn’t look out of place at all moving up to a high-level professional league and having minimal practice time to learn systems and gain chemistry with teammates. These college UFA signings are like found money for NHL clubs. They didn’t have to use a pick on them in the draft or give up anything in a trade to acquire the player. If the Caps want to be successful for the remainder of the Ovechkin era and beyond its crucial to do everything possible to develop these “free” prospects into NHL players. I just don’t understand why AHL vets/NHL long shots are getting ice time over Nardella.

I spoke with a team official on this to confirm there is no injury for Nardella. This is just a coach’s decision.

The problem is that Hershey has nine defensemen on the roster and six spots in the lineup. Further complicating things is the fact that the top four is set with Alex Alexeyev and Erik Burgdoerfer as the top pair and Martin Fehervary and Christian Djoos on the second. That means Lucas Johansen, Connor Hobbs, Colby Williams, Tobias Geisser and Nardella are all competing for playing time on that bottom pair.

Burgdoerfer is an AHL veteran and I like Alexeyev and Fehervary playing with players who have a little bit of experience so it is hard to quibble with that top four.

Is nine defensemen too many? I don’t know enough about the day-to-day operations of an AHL team to be able to answer that. It seems like it would be beneficial to send one or two of those nine to the ECHL to get more playing time, but that does not seem to be the plan for now.

I’m not as sold on Nardella as you are. He was fine last season and fine in camp. I can assure you though that If he really wowed the coach, he would be playing. Everything you said about the benefit of college free agents is true if they work out. Wanting Nardella to be an NHL caliber player and him actually being one, however, are two different things.

@BelleLegacy on Twitter writes: Would a trade for Josh Ho-Sang (to play in Hershey) be a good move for the Caps org as it is low on forward prospects? Besides reclamation projects, how else can the organization stock future high-end prospects while Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom keep the team in the playoffs?

I actually thought about this too. Why a team like Ottawa wouldn’t take a chance and claim a player like Josh Ho-Sang, I don’t know. What have they got to lose? They have tons of cap space and they stink. Why not add him to the lineup and see what he can do? If he’s bad, put him back on waivers. The Senators, however, have their own scouts so they must not be all that high on him.

When it comes to the Caps, first off it would have made no sense to claim him off waivers because he would have had to be put back on waivers to go to Hershey and New York could have easily just reclaimed him.

OK, but what about a trade? If the Caps think Ho-Sang is a future top-six player and they can buy low, great! They should. I just don’t know if that’s what anyone thinks of Ho-Sang at this point.

I have not seen this guy play so I don’t know just how well I can answer this question. From what I know of the situation there are a few red flags. First, it is not as if the Islanders are dealing with an abundance of offensive talent. The fact that he can’t make that team is a concern. It doesn’t mean he will never be an NHL player, it just means you have to ask why is he not there yet and how much more time does he need to develop?

Teams, coaches, general managers can get stubborn about a player sometimes so you have to come up with your own evaluation of him. Maybe he’s great, but he just rubs Lou Lamoriello the wrong way. I assume someone with the Caps’ organization has seen Ho-Sang play so they would have a better feel for how good he is, but for me from an outside perspective, it’s an issue that he can’t make a team that would seemingly benefit from another good offensive addition. His numbers in the AHL don’t blow me away either. They are good, but not great. He was tied for 25th in assists in the AHL last season and did not rank in the top 100 in terms of points per game.

The Caps have had plenty of reclamation projects in the past, but those happen because the player has been scouted and the team thinks they can get more out of him. They saw potential in Brett Connolly and Michal Kempny. They didn’t go into those deals thinking these guys stink but maybe they can do better here. If the Caps think Ho-Sang is a top-six player who won’t implode the locker room, sure, go for it. If he is a depth player it’s not worth it.

While the Caps don’t have much top-six talent in the pipeline, there are plenty of depth players. I am not going to go out of my way to send assets to a division rival to pick up another depth player, especially one in which there could be some off-ice concerns.

Plus, if you are the Islanders, would you want to trade him within the division? Unless you are 100-percent sure he is a bust, there is a high probability of embarrassment potential there and teams hate that.

Just imagine if George McPhee had made the Filip Forsberg trade with someone in the Caps’ division. That would have made it even worse.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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