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Key Caps questions: Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?

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Key Caps questions: Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?

Tarik: The term ‘Stanley Cup Hangover’ exists because, well, it’s a real thing. And the Caps, like all teams that battle into early June, are vulnerable to suffering from it next season.

Why? Think about it. No. 1, the core group just completed the longest season—106 games—of their lives (and, somewhere, the party is still going). No. 2, the top guys aren't exactly a bunch of spring chickens. No. 3, human nature.

A little more on that last one. Alex Ovechkin and Co. have spent the entirety of their professional hockey careers chasing Lord Stanley’s Cup. And now they have it. At long last. Hoisting the Cup was as much a moment to cherish as it was a gigantic relief for a team that had been labeled perennial underachievers. Shifting gears from that feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment back to hunger and determination is difficult.

Something else that worries me a bit? They don’t have experience dealing with a truncated offseason. Rest and recovery matter. And they aren’t going to get much of either this summer.

All that said, they don’t have to stumble through the 2018-19 season. If you're looking at things from the optimist's point of view, the Cup run did something for Ovechkin and his teammates that none of the previous failures could: It showed them EXACTLY what it takes to play deep into the spring.

Eleven out of 12 forwards from the championship squad are expected back. Five of six defensemen and the goalie are returning, as well. Sure, they’ve got a new head coach, but he’s been here for four years already, giving him a huge advantage over a bench boss who’s starting from scratch. So there’s continuity and chemistry already built in.

I look at it like this: The core guys who’ve been around a while—Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Holtby, etc.—have a rare opportunity before them. After coming up short for so many years, they’ve been gifted an extraordinary chance to make up for lost time over the next 12-24 months. In fact, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Oshie, Eller, Carlson, Niskanen, Orlov, Kempny and Holtby have two more years together, as a core, before the next round of tough decisions will need to be made.

But it’s going to be up to them. Are they going to be satisfied with one Cup? Or will they get greedy? I’m betting on the latter.

Regan: The Capitals could enter next season hungry, motivated, in the right mindset, completely prepared in every way to avoid a Cup hangover and it may still happen. Why? Because the Capitals (and Vegas for that matter) will enter next season with less time to rest, recover and prepare after a grueling playoff run than any other team in the NHL.

First things first, no, I do not think the Caps will struggle because they are are partying too hard this summer and won't be ready for the start of the season.

It took a long time Washington to finally reach the top of the mountain. It won't be lost on Alex Ovechkin, or any of the veterans, that the year he came into training camp early and in really good shape, that was the year he was able to lead his team to the promised land. Considering all the struggles, all the early playoff exits, all the years it took to finally win, I expect the veterans will look at how they prepared last season and take that lesson to heart going into camp. Those players will enter the fall in as good a shape as the time they have this offseason will allow them to be.

But this team is not just composed of veterans of the Ovechkin era who suffered through all of those postseason struggles.

What about the youngsters? Will Jakub Vrana have the same motivation as Ovechkin or a Nicklas Backstrom to show up to camp ready next season? What about Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey? If any of the team's young players aren't exactly in "game shape" by the fall, they won't be the first and they certainly won't be the last to struggle with early career playoff success.

There's also a new head coach to consider. In a lot of ways, I think coming into the season with a new coach in Todd Reirden will help. I don't expect too much adjustment under a coach the team knows very well, but I do expect more motivation at the start of the regular season than you usually see from a team coming off a championship.

There are a lot of reasons why the Caps could actually avoid a Cup hangover, but the fact is that time puts them at a disadvantage. Even if they overcome all the other factors, there's nothing they can do to suddenly give themselves more time to recover and to train. For that reason alone, I do expect a few early-season struggles from the defending champs.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?

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Ovechkin-less Caps win in Montreal in return from the All-Star break

Ovechkin-less Caps win in Montreal in return from the All-Star break

With Alex Ovechkin serving a one-game suspension, the Capitals still were able to pull out a 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Monday in the team's return from the all-star break.

The power play contributed a goal despite the loss of Ovechkin and Braden Holby played well late in the game to preserve the win.

Here is how Washington won.

The power play

Coming into Monday's game, the Caps had the 30th ranked power play since Dec. 1 striking at only 14.1-percent. With no Ovechkin, it seemed unlikely that the power play would be able to suddenly find success against Montreal. Yet, the power play looked much improved with crisp puck movement that kept the Canadiens guessing. The puck movement was much quicker and more deliberate than the power play had shown of late which has looked far too slow and indecisive.
Washington cashed in with a goal from Tom Wilson as Jakub Vrana fed him from behind the net and he beat the defense to the slot.

Petry’s second goal

Jeff Petry opened the scoring with a goal for Montreal in the first period. Wilson tied the game at 1, but Petry scored again early in the second period...for the Caps.

Brendan Leipsic tipped the puck behind the net and Lars Eller grabbed it and tried to stuff it. He couldn't. Travis Boyd then tipped the puck in front of the net where Petry was trying to cover the back door to help out netminder Cary Price. Instead of helping, however, he ended up kicking the puck into his own net giving him one goal for each team and giving the Caps the 2-1 lead.

Kuznetsov on his butt

All-star defenseman Shea Weber had the puck in Montreal's defensive zone and was pressured by Evgeny Kuznetsov. In terms of a forecheck matchup, you would have to give the edge to Weber in that situation and nine times out of 10, you'd be right. This time, however, Weber lost the puck behind him with Kuznetsov pressuring. Weber turned and knocked over Kuznetsov to try to get to the puck. On his butt, Kuznetsov still managed to get a stick to the puck, passed it to T.J. Oshie who dropped it off to Jakub Vrana. Vrana netted it for his 23rd goal of the season, but the play was all started by the great forecheck by Kuznetsov.

Holtby's third period

When Holtby is feeling it, he is hard to beat. Protecting the Caps' lead, Holtby was strong in the final frame with 14 saves on 15 shots. The save of the night came when Joel Armia tried to tip a puck past Holtby and succeeded. The puck hit the post and Armia raised his arms to celebrate. Holtby, however, plucked the puck out of the air with the glove before it could cross the line which was confirmed by review.

Holtby had plenty of struggles heading into the all-star break, but was strong in the team's return with 31 saves.

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Halaked: The series that almost defined an era

Halaked: The series that almost defined an era

The Capitals return from the bye week on Monday against the Montreal Canadiens (7 p.m., NBC Sports), a team that brings back memories that most Caps fans would love to forget. The first team in franchise history to win a Presidents’ Trophy as the top team in the NHL saw its season end abruptly in the first round of the playoffs in 2010 at the hands of the Canadiens. It was a series that perhaps fans never would have truly gotten over if not for the Stanley Cup win in 2018.

On Thanksgiving Day In 2007, Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach of the Caps and promptly sparked a turnaround that saw Washington win the Southeast Division and reach the postseason for the first time since 2003. That team lost in the first round of the playoffs in seven games to the Philadelphia Flyers. The following year, the Caps again won the division and won a playoff series for the first time since 1998. That year, they lost in the second round in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Despite the loss, however, there was optimism the following year as the team continued to improve. In the 2009-10 season, it looked like there was no stopping them. Washington breezed through the regular season in one of the most dominant campaigns in league history, amassing 121 points. It was almost assumed that the team’s dominance would translate into the postseason, at least through the first round.

The first test for Washington was a Montreal Canadiens team who had just managed to squeeze into the final playoff spot by a single point. It wasn’t even really clear who would be the starting goalie for the Canadiens going into the series as the netminding duties had been split that season between Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price.

The Canadiens chose Halak and the rest, unfortunately, is history.

Washington stumbled out of the gate, dropping Game 1 in overtime. After Jose Theodore gave up two goals on the first two shots he faced in Game 2, Semyon Varlamov replaced him and seemed to right the ship. The Caps won that game as well as Games 3 and 4 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. The series looked all but over.

But that’s when Halak put on his cape and dashed the hopes of Washington.

Over the next three games, Halak turned aside 131 out of 134 shots for a stunning .978 save percentage. Even typing that number still seems unbelievable all these years later.

It was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the league.

The next several years were full of playoff disappointments from a series sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a blowout Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers, a 3-1 blown series lead to the Rangers, and two straight second-round exits to Pittsburgh who, in each season, would go on to win the Cup.

But none of those seasons came to define Washington’s playoff futility quite like the loss to Montreal. Had the team never won the Cup, Halak would have stood as the asterisk to the whole of the Ovechkin era.

Thankfully, the Caps overcame their history in 2018 and all of those playoff disappointments made that Cup run all the more satisfying in the end. But that doesn’t mean Caps fans do not remember 2010 or get that much more enjoyment every time they see Washington beat the Canadiens.

It was the series that, until Ovechkin raised the Cup over his head on the ice in Vegas, had defined the era of playoff struggles.

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