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Four NCAA Capitals prospects on normalcy, finishing their degrees, and the quiet minority of college players in the NHL

Four NCAA Capitals prospects on normalcy, finishing their degrees, and the quiet minority of college players in the NHL

For many NHL hopefuls, getting drafted into the league overrides everything else in their hectic lives.

A lucky few end up in the big leagues their first season, especially if a team is strapped for options on their roster or wants a fresh start. 

But for the Washington Capitals — who have kept a significant amount of their roster intact since 2015 — those next in line have more time to consider their options. 

At this year’s Capitals Development Camp, a third of the prospects on the Caps’ roster spent the 2017-18 season as NCAA student-athletes.

Although players who choose to finish their college career may not get as much media attention, it doesn’t mean they’re uncommon. 

”I think [about] a third of NHL players nowadays are college guys,” said Capitals prospect Steven Spinner.

Capitals RW Prospect Steven Spinner (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

The league’s quiet camaraderie among collegiate players is obvious in the Caps’ locker room. When approaching Benton Maass, Brian Pinho, Chase Priskie, and Steven Spinner to talk to them on Friday, I found them pressed shoulder to shoulder in four consecutive stalls, chatting about the morning’s defensive drills. All are equally driven to success both on and off the ice.

Pinho, who graduated from Providence College in May with a degree in finance, attended his sixth dev camp this year. He feels like finishing all four years of school was the right choice for both his academics and his NCAA career. 

“I worked so hard the first few years to get my degree. It was important to me to finish,” said the 23-year-old. “I really enjoyed what I was studying.”

Capitals C Prospect Brian Pinho (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

Classes weren’t the only motivator for Pinho, who had a strong team community behind him. After winning the NCAA title in his freshman year, he finished his senior year as captain of the Friars. 

“It was a natural fit. I was assistant my junior year, so I kind of just eased right into it,” Pinho said. “But I really enjoyed it. We had a young team, but everyone really dialed in to [our] process and our game plan and we had a good year.”

Maass, a rising sophomore at University of New Hampshire, still has plenty of time. While undecided about his major, he plans to finish his degree and further his role in his team’s community.

“Being from the United States, college hockey is the only thing I ever planned on doing,” Maass said. “I didn’t look into major junior or anything. I guess it was just always the best option, especially because I wanted to stay in school.”

Capitals D Prospect Benton Maass (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

Spinner, a 22-year-old right wing majoring in marketing and management, also spoke of the desire for normalcy. 

“I just decided that I’m going to go back next year to [University of Nebraska-Omaha], get my degree, finish out – just be a college guy. Be an American [young adult].”

For many players, playing Division I competitive hockey offers a middle ground between developing skills and a normal college experience. The student athlete lifestyle feels like a natural extension for those who grew up going to practice every day after high school classes.

“Time management’s the biggest thing in college hockey,” Spinner added. “That and discipline. If you don’t have a good week in practice, you should expect it [to affect] play. But I think [the NCAA] is a great league, and I enjoy every single day of it. I’m happy.” 

Priskie of Quinnipiac University, who finished his degree in finance and computer science in three years, stressed the chance to mature without major-league pressure. 

“I knew I wasn’t going to be ready to play pro hockey at 18, 19, 20, so I figured I can use the extra two-three years to develop physically. So I just thought it was a better route for myself. Some of the other guys that came out of Florida like Shayne Gostisbehere ranted and raved about how fun college was, such a great experience.”

Capitals D Prospect Chase Priskie (Scout Pruski / NBC Sports Washington)

When you’re dividing time between hockey and school, fun can be essential. 

“I took an acting class with a couple of my buddies on the team and some of their friends,” Pinho said. “At first we were all really shy, and then our class was pretty close knit, so it ended up being really fun, actually.”

So what’s next? Though everyone is obviously excited about their respective NHL hopes, Spinner and Maass will return to school in August while Pinho and Priskie have an eye on the AHL. Priskie also plans to work towards a masters’ in business analytics this year. 

At the end of the day, both are grateful for the safety net that a college degree offers. 

“When hockey ends, eventually, I have something else I can crash on,” Pinho said. “But obviously, right now, hockey is the most important thing.”


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Devante Smith-Pelly provided exactly what the Capitals needed on and off the ice in his return to Washington

Devante Smith-Pelly provided exactly what the Capitals needed on and off the ice in his return to Washington

WASHINGTON – On paper, the addition of Devante Smith-Pelly to the Capitals lineup should not have mattered. A team that was held to one goal in its past two games lost its second leading goal scorer from the regular season in T.J. Oshie to injury. To replace him, the team recalled Smith-Pelly from the AHL who had just four goals and four assists in 54 games this season.

But hockey is not played on paper.

Though he did not record a point in Saturday’s 6-0 Game 5 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, Smith-Pelly’s impact on his line, on his team and on the game was undeniable.

“Good to get Devo back,” Brett Connolly said. “I thought he was very good tonight. It gives our team a little different element when he's forechecking and people are aware when he's on the ice and he did a great job.”

The day started with an ovation from the crowd at MedStar Capitals Iceplex as Smith-Pelly took to the ice for the morning skate. After scoring seven goals in 24 playoff games last season and becoming one of the playoff heroes that helped lead Washington to its first Stanley Cup, Smith-Pelly has become a fan favorite for the Capitals faithful. That excitement carried over into the game.

Smith-Pelly delivered a hit to Carolina forward Nino Niederreiter on his very first shift which brought the crowd at Capital One Arena to its feet in a standing ovation. Chants of “DSP” echoed through the arena in recognition of his return to the team.

“It's a great feeling,” Smith-Pelly said. “I think all I was doing was down the lane, just cutting off the forecheck and they started chanting. It's a nice feeling and I'm glad to be back.”

“I think we drew a lot from Devo being here,” Nic Dowd said. “His first couple shifts, he got the crowd into it. Guys are just excited. It kind of brings a different buzz when you add a new element like that and our crowd was behind us.”

Through the first four games of the series, Washington’s bottom-six on offense had been largely invisible. Lars Eller had the only points among those forwards with a goal—an empty-netter in Game 1—and an assist. But it was not just the offensive production, those lines seemed to have little positive impact on the game at all including physically.

“We've been disappointed with our lack of physical play, even when we had success here in 1 and 2,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “We just felt that we really hadn't imposed our will and played the type of physical brand of hockey that we're capable of."

The addition of Smith-Pelly to the fourth line added a physical presence to that line that had been lacking throughout the series. The entire team came out with more of a physical edge to it and Smith-Pelly had a lot to do with that. He was credited with five hits in the game, the third most among the team’s forwards, despite getting only 10:43 of ice time.

“I felt great,” Smith-Pelly said. “It'd be hard not to have the adrenaline going coming back and playing my first game.”

You could be forgiven for not noticing the fourth line in any of the prior four games in the series, but you certainly noticed it on Saturday.

The physical tone set by the fourth line and the entire Caps team took its toll on Carolina as the Hurricanes seemed to wear down as the game went on. A 1-0 game at the halfway point turned into a 6-0 win by the end. Instead of dumping the puck into offensive zone and forcing his teammates to chase, Warren Foegele made an ill-advised pass to no one in the neutral zone and Alex Ovechkin took in the other direction leading to a Capitals goal. Later in the period, defenseman Dougie Hamilton stopped skating and yielded to Ovechkin as they were in a footrace for the puck along the boards behind the goal line in Carolina’s defensive zone.

“No matter who you are, when you have to keep going back over and over and over and you're getting hit, to break the puck out I mean it takes a toll I think,” Smith-Pelly said. “You saw that second and third period. Those guys are playing big minutes and we're making it hard on them.”

But Smith-Pelly’s impact was not just felt in the game, it was felt long before.

Losing a player like Oshie to injury is about so much more than just losing a talented player. Oshie was called a “heart-and-soul guy” in the wake of suffering a brutal looking upper-body injury in Game 4. Not only is he one of the leaders of the team, but his boundless energy is contagious. There was never a worry if he would be able to get up for a game and he always did his best to get his teammates up for it as well, whether that meant being a personality within the locker room, playing with 100-percent effort, laying a big hit or just pumping up the team with a goofy warm-up tradition.

Losing Oshie from the locker room may be harder to quantify than losing him on the ice, but it may actually be the more damaging loss.

Bringing in a player as well-liked as Smith-Pelly, however, was exactly what the team needed.

“I think when you go through the situation like we went through the last couple days in terms of losing one of our top players and leaders, you use that as an opportunity that someone's got to take advantage of,” Reirden said. “From what Devante's gone through this year, very well-liked player in our locker room. It was a nice, I'd say distraction from us losing a top, top player, top leader on our team. Everyone was excited about getting him back into the mix. We felt like not just having him around as a person, but the style of game that he was going to play was something we've been lacking in the series and that's the physicality and being able to have puck possession in the offensive zone.”

Smith-Pelly said after the game that he tried not to think about a possible return while he was in Hershey and instead tried to focus just on having an impact for the Bears. While he might not have wanted to think about it, however, it was clear he was ready for the call. Once it came, he certainly made the most of it on Saturday.

Said Reirden, “Definitely he gave us a boost both with how his game was on the ice, but also having him back in our locker room.”


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Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

WASHINGTON — It had been nine years since Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom last had a four-point game in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That was a different time, an era when Backstrom and his teammates too often faltered under the weight of enormous expectations.  That’s all gone now. There is a Stanley Cup banner hanging in the rafters at Capital One Arena to prove it. Now they can all just play. 

With teammate T.J. Oshie hurt and likely out for the season, Backstrom continued to raise his own game in Game 5 of a first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. He had two goals and two assists in a 6-0 thrashing as Washington took a 3-2 series lead and pushed the Hurricanes to the brink of elimination. Alex Ovechkin added a goal and two assists.  

Backstrom’s last four-point playoff games was April 17, 2010. He had a hat trick that night and scored the game-winning goal in overtime. 

“That was probably Montreal, right?” Backstrom said before confessing. “Yeah, Ovi told me. He remembers everything.”

Those were darker days. The Capitals blew a 3-1 series lead against Montreal that year and maybe the best team of the Ovechkin era went out in the first round despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy. No wonder Backstrom needed help remembering. 

There is no such issue this season. The 31-year-old Swede is carrying the Capitals, who are one game away from advancing. It was his second two-goal game of the series. He has five total, which matches his career high for one playoff series set in 2010 against the Canadiens. He and Ovechkin, who has seven points in the series (three goals, four assists) set a tone and their teammates followed. 

"In all areas, too,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “Obviously they got on the point sheet, but their play away from the puck, on the forecheck, supporting each other, they're real tough to play against when they play like that and I thought they've been doing a great job all playoffs, too.”

Backstrom’s five goals matched what he had all last postseason when the Caps won the Cup. He missed games because of a broken finger, but still played in 20 and had five goals and 18 assists. He matched his total output of eight points in 2009 against Pittsburgh and 2018 against Columbus. His career best is again that Montreal series when he had nine points. Not that he cares about that now. None of the Caps do. If the production leads to wins and advancing to the second round, that’s all that matters.  

“It’s good for the confidence I think. But it’s going to be a different game in Carolina,” Backstrom said. “We’ve just got to regroup here and move forward. That was just a 3-2 lead. Toughest one is the last one. We haven’t been happy with the way we’ve played in Carolina so far. Let’s change that.”