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How the Capitals are dealing with the fallout of an unexpected early exit

How the Capitals are dealing with the fallout of an unexpected early exit

WASHINGTON — The silence was the thing. 

There were murmured conversations in the Capitals’ locker room and equipment managers came and went without their usual racket. There were no slammed doors or angry voices. Just a sound void filled by disappointment. 

A year ago, the Capitals turned visiting room at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas into an impromptu club. The party lasted for days and captivated the city. There’s a reason that celebration meant so much. Winning a Stanley Cup is so, so hard. 

And when you think you have a legitimate chance to go “back-to-back” - as forward T.J. Oshie said with such glee last summer - and the playoff bracket opens up for you and another Cup seems within reach, it is a gut punch when you’re shown the door in the first round. The Capitals tried their best to make this a new year, a new journey. But it was always colored by what they did last June.  

“You’re always trying to re-set after every season,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “You knew that was the case, but you were trying to re-set and trying to play every game like normal. We would have liked a better outcome, but it happens.”

Brock McGinn deflected home a pass by former Capitals forward Justin Williams at 11:05 of the second overtime to win Game 7 of this bizarre, back-and-forth series. The Carolina Hurricanes advanced to the second round, where they will play former Washington coach Barry Trotz, who led them to that Cup before leaving after a contract dispute, and his new team, the New York Islanders.

The Capitals will instead head to their offseason homes and wonder how this series got away from them, how this game got away from them, after leads of 2-0 and 3-1. Instead of parades and days with the Cup and they are left with questions. 

General manager Brian MacLellan waited in the hallway outside the coaches’ office, pacing back and forth absent-mindedly. His cheeks puffed and he blew out a deep sigh. Defenseman Brooks Orpik finished his media interviews and hobbled out of the locker room, a giant bag of ice strapped to his right knee. The 38-year-old is an unrestricted free agent and doesn’t know if this was his final game. 

If last year’s Cup took the edge off the loss you couldn’t tell. There were no sobs as in 2010 when Washington, the Presidents’ Trophy winner that year, was shocked in seven games by the Montreal Canadiens. Alex Ovechkin patiently answered questions this time, but he did not sit in full uniform for 45 minutes after the game, alone in his anguish, the way he did after a second-round loss to the New York Rangers in 2012. 

“You saw across the league, Winnipeg, Vegas, Tampa, Pittsburgh. There are teams that everyone expects to at least get past the first round,” Orpik said. “And it’s a probably a good reminder and indication on how tough it is to not only win one round but do what we did last year. I don’t think anyone in here took that for granted. It just proves how tough it is.”

Oshie, an integral part of last year’s championship team, was out for the series with a broken collarbone. Instead of helping his teammates on the ice, he was wearing a sling and eating popcorn in the press box eight stories above the ice and watching from a suite. He put on a brave, forced smile, but not playing was clearly killing him. 

Carolina had key injuries, too, but Oshie epitomized so much of what was good about the 2017-18 Capitals. It’s why the championship banner hangs at one end of the arena. But there was nothing he could do tonight, but watch.  

And Oshie’s teammates weren’t quite good enough after a strong start had the Capital One Arena crowd roaring. The Hurricanes, though, were like hockey zombies. They couldn’t be killed. A short-handed goal by Sebastian Aho gave them life. A ripper by Staal, long a Caps killer dating to his days in Pittsburgh, tied the game 3-3 early in the third period and set the stage for the overtime dagger.  

“We didn't envision this happening so I don't know,” goalie Braden Holtby said as he searched for answers. “It's tough right now.”

Afterward, as he answered questions in the locker room, a pair of well-dressed twenty-somethings wandered into the room and sat down at an empty locker to watch Holtby address a large scrum of reporters. The two bros weren’t exactly supposed to be there. They wandered in through an open door and looked sadder than some of the players. When Holtby was finished, one of the men yelled “Shake it off, champ!” and they gave a golf clap. Security quickly escorted them out after team staffers confronted the men. It was a fitting coda to a weird series. 

A year ago, before the Capitals turned the visiting room in Vegas into a beer-soaked frat party, Ovechkin had hatched a plan: He made sure all of his teammates were in the room, chided the ones who were lingering on the ice and when all was ready he skated the Cup to the bench. There he lifted it up one last time for the cameras and reporters, yelled “Thank you, Vegas!” and disappeared down the tunnel to his waiting teammates. The party lasted for days. 

On Wednesday, Ovechkin, dressed in his game-day suit, walked down the long hallway at Capital One Arena with his wife, Nastya, at his side and his mother, Tatyana, a few paces behind. His head was bowed, their footsteps the only sound as they made their way toward the exit. Earlier, he, too, had tried to make sense of the loss. 

“This group of guys has been in different positions, hard times, good times, and we never said, ‘It was his mistake or it was somebody’s mistake.’ It was our mistake,” Ovechkin said after the game in the locker room. “We didn’t execute. We didn’t sometimes play the right way. But it’s over. It’s hard - especially after last year. But nothing you can do right now, right?”

Nastya playfully patted her husband on the butt a few times to try to lift his spirits and he smiled, briefly. The couple have a son, now. So much has changed since last June. Ovechkin turned toward the arena and security staff watching the scene and said “Thank you, guys!” while letting his hand linger in the air as he walked through the exit and into a longer offseason than expected. 

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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan began tackling the items on his very long to-do list with the signing of prospect forward Shane Gersich. The team announced Monday that Gersich was re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract that carries a cap hit of $700,000.

Gersich will remain a restricted free agent at the end of the deal but will still be one year away from becoming arbitration eligible.

Gersich, who will turn 23 in July, just finished his first full professional season with the Hershey Bears, recording eight goals and 16 assists in 66 games.

“I learned a ton,” Gersich told NBC Sports Washington about his first AHL season. “I think our staff here is unbelievable. They've taught me so much, whether it's [showing] me video or doing skills or whatever. Can't say enough good things about them. And just my overall game, playing 200 feet and being aware of little details in the game. I think my game's grown a ton.”

Gersich’s original contract was for two seasons, but the first year was burned at the end of the 2017-18 season when he signed out of college at the end of the season and joined the Caps’ roster.

That transition from Stanley Cup champion to AHL the following season was a tough one for Gersich initially.

“Obviously, you were making your NHL debut and stuff like that, then it's kind of back to work and square one,” Gersich said. “For me, I know [I'm] definitely not the kid that's going to shy away from working or anything like that. So obviously, you've got to earn everything you get, and then that's how it is at every level.”

The speedy forward played in five games for Washington, three in the regular season and two in the playoffs during the Stanley Cup run. His speed was evident and has led many fans to wonder if the future is now for the young forward. His first year in Hershey showed, however, he still has a lot to learn before he reaches the NHL.

Gersich is still very much learning the game at the professional level. There was a little too much reaction in his game as opposed to action, which mitigated his speed. That is something he knows he needs to refine.

“I think just always being aware out there,” he said when talking about aspects of his game he wants to improve on. “Keeping my head on a swivel and making little plays. Just using my strengths too, I think. I've got to realize that I can use my speed out there a lot.”

The Caps will have a few roster spots open next season and not much money under the cap to fill those spots. Using young prospects is always an intriguing option. Gersich’s new contract, however, seems to indicate the Caps anticipate him spending the season in the AHL.

Gersich’s new contract carries an NHL salary of $700,000, which is actually lower than his first contract with a $925,000 salary. His minor-league salary, however, went up from $70,000 to $115,000. It may look like Gerisch is getting a pay cut based on the NHL numbers, but he actually is getting a raise because, barring a dazzling training camp, he will be spending most if not all of next season in Hershey. And if he does surprise, well now he has a lower NHL cap hit which is very important for a Washington team that will likely be very close to the salary cap.

While the implications of the contract seem clear, Gersich is excited for the opportunity to show he belongs in the NHL at training camp in the fall.

“Obviously, I want to play in the NHL,” he said. “It's been my goal my whole life, and that's the reason I left North Dakota. I think I'm ready for it, but you've got to wait and see until the time comes.”

The Caps also announced Monday the re-signing of forward Brian Pinho to a one-year, two-way contract. His contract carries a $700,000 NHL salary and a $100,000 AHL salary.

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In an offseason full of questions, Jonas Siegenthaler isn’t one of them

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In an offseason full of questions, Jonas Siegenthaler isn’t one of them

The Capitals will have a lot of roster spots open and not much money to fill them with this offseason. Adding a young, cheap defensive prospect to the NHL roster will certainly help and that appears to be the plan for Jonas Siegenthaler.

Siegenthaler’s first NHL season began with him in the AHL, but it finished with him playing on the top defensive pairing of the defending Stanley Cup champions in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The season did not get off to a great start for Siegenthaler as he became a cap casualty despite a strong training camp. Heading into the start of the NHL season, he looked poised to make the Caps roster.

“I came to camp here with the mindset to make the team and come to camp in good shape and everything,” Siegenthaler said at the team’s breakdown day.

The suspension to Tom Wilson and subsequent acquisition of Dmitrij Jaskin off waivers forced Washington to shuffle money to get under the salary cap. Siegenthaler, who was waiver exempt, was sent to the Hershey Bears as a result.

Siegenthaler would have to wait until Nov. 9 to finally make his NHL debut. He would go on to play 26 games his rookie season.

“I think a guy like Siegenthaler came up and played really well,” Lars Eller said.

““I tried to play my best game,” Siegenthaler said. “Of course it wasn’t always easy but I think like I did my best and tried to help the team.”

With a deep blue line, Siegenthaler was sent back to Hershey in February, but was recalled late in the season after Michal Kempny suffered a season-ending injury. The call-up, however, was just to have an extra body. As Todd Reirden experimented with the defensive pairs heading into the playoffs, it did not appear he viewed the rookie defenseman as a real option for the playoffs. Despite all the shuffling, Siegenthaler did not get into the lineup until the season finale after Washington had already wrapped up the division crown.

The Caps struggled in the first round against the Carolina Hurricanes, however, prompting changes to the lineup. The defense still struggled with the constant in-game adjustments and a change was clearly needed. Siegenthaler got into the lineup for Game 4. By Game 5, he was playing in Kempny’s spot on the top pair alongside John Carlson.

“He really just seemed very poised,” Eller said. “There wasn't any panic in his game. It's hard to be thrown into a series like that where the stakes are high and I thought he did that really well.”

Still just 22 years old and with a contract that remains waiver exempt for another year, Siegenthaler could enter the 2019-20 season in a position to again have to compete just to make the NHL roster. The possible retirement of Brooks Orpik and speculation over whether Matt Niskanen could be traded, however, leaves the team with spots open on the blue line.

The fact that Siegenthaler was able to go from the AHL to the top pair of the Caps during the playoffs reflects his growth as a player over the course of the year. To expect him to come into next season in a top-pair role would be unfair. Even a top-four role seems unlikely with Kempny likely returning and Nick Jensen taking Niskanen’s spot if he does in fact get traded.

But if the coaches trusted Siegenthaler as a rookie when it mattered most and with him still on an entry-level deal at a time when the team will need to pinch every penny, Siegenthaler will almost certainly be in Washington and not in Hershey for the 2019-20 campaign.

“Next season’s going to be huge,” he said. “I’ll do my best in the summer to keep myself in shape, in even better shape. My goal is to be here a long time and for rest of my career and yeah, just got to work for it.”

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