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On Stanley Cup anniversary, a behind-the-scenes look back at Caps’ memorable night in Vegas

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On Stanley Cup anniversary, a behind-the-scenes look back at Caps’ memorable night in Vegas

Even as they celebrated winning the Stanley Cup exactly one year ago last June 7, all smiles and hugs and jubilation on the ice at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the Capitals knew the moment was fleeting and precious. 

It took 44 years for the organization to finally win the Cup. For Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, it was earned after a decade of playoff heartbreak. For Barry Trotz it came only after 20 years as an NHL head coach. 

But even as the celebration raged, with thousands of Capitals fans in the building moving down to the lower-level seats to cheer as the players skated the Cup around the ice, all involved knew to hold on tight. The sights and sounds would soon enough be relegated to memory, stories told to those who were not there - or re-told over and over to those that were. Trotz said he already can’t wait for the reunions. 

T.J. Oshie began crying before he even left the bench as the final buzzer sounded. In the crowd, his father, Tim, his lifelong coach, hollered for his son. Early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease was ravaging his mind and stealing these moments from him. Not today, though. Oshie fought back tears during a few media interviews on the ice before eventually finding Tim and embracing him. 

“What a great human being, what a great man, what a great father,” Oshie said. “Some things slip his memory these days, but this one is going to be seared in there. I don’t think any disease is going to take this one away from him.”

Wander the ice and you saw dozens of unique stories playing out in the aftermath of the championship win amongst players and coaches, executives and staff. Over the summer most of them would get a day of their own with the Cup. Their kids would eat ice cream out of it, long-time friends would sing songs around it, towns big and small from British Columbia to Siberia would host it. 

But that night in Vegas was pure chaos. Thirty minutes after the game ended, reporters were allowed onto an ice sheet soon crowded with family and friends. 

Lars Eller’s father, Olaf, a hockey coach back home in Denmark, grabbed his son, who patiently listened for the millionth time as his dad told him how proud he was. Lars Eller was the first Danish player to win the Stanley Cup, which would eventually make its way to his hometown of Rodovre.   

Evgeny Kuznetsov found his dad, also named Evgeny, in the madness and promptly slapped the snazzy gray-and-white Stanley Cup championship hat on his head. It was a long way from Chelyabinsk, Russia, the industrial town where Kuznetsov grew up and where his older brother, Alexander, died in 2003 during a May Day holiday celebration that turned violent. Every one of them had a back story that made the moment special. 

Real life still intruded over and over again. Jay Beagle’s toddler son crashed to the ice and had a meltdown. He cut short an interview to soothe him. John Carlson’s kids, Rudy and Lucca, were better behaved as they took a big Carlson family photo with the Cup, multiple generations experiencing a lifelong dream.  

Tom Wilson teased teammate Braden Holtby’s son, Benjamin, and the six-year-old took the barbs in stride. He seemed to expect it. Holtby then laughed as he saw his mom, Tammi, overcome with emotion and told her to take a breath. 

The moments spun like a kaleidoscope. Ovechkin saw his old teammate, Olie Kolzig, the man who kept him in line as a young player during his first three years in the NHL, the last goalie to take Washington to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998. Ovechkin yelled to get Kolzig’s attention: “Olaf! Olaf!” Then the two men smiled and did a simultaneous fist pump. The ice was filled with such interactions. 

Kolzig grabbed Holtby and fellow goalies Philipp Grubauer and Pheonix Copley and goaltender coach Mitch Korn for a group picture. Carlson and Beagle, teammates for nine years, found the Cup again and held it up together for a picture. The trophy moved around a lot over the 75 minutes from when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman handed it to Ovechkin until he finally kissed the Cup one last time on the bench, thanked the city of Las Vegas, and took it back to the locker room and his waiting teammates. 

After the raucous locker room celebration, where beer was drunk and sprayed in equal measures, the team bus was off to dinner back at the hotel and then, as early risers back in Washington were just waking up, the Cup made its way through the MGM Grand Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Ovechkin walked it past Caps fans and late-night gamblers and right into a hotel nightclub.  

It all flashed by so quickly as life’s best moments do. Before they knew it, the Capitals were back in Washington for a wild weekend celebration that ranged from Arlington bars to Nationals Park to the Georgetown waterfront to Adams Morgan to DuPont Circle clubs. 

By Monday, Holtby and Ovechkin were in New York for an appearance on The Tonight Show. Tuesday was the long-awaited championship parade up Constitution Avenue, one of the great parties in D.C. history.

Yet within a week, Trotz had resigned and taken a new job with the New York Islanders and Lambert and Korn went with him. Within two weeks Brooks Orpik and Grubauer had been traded to Colorado at the NHL Draft and within three Beagle had signed as a free agent with Vancouver. Orpik would soon return, but the group was already breaking up. 

Throughout July and August, the Cup made its way from Washington to Moscow and everywhere in between. But soon the short summer was over and a new season - one that would not end with a title - had begun. 

Within days the Stanley Cup will belong to someone else. The Capitals’ year with it is almost over. The party has moved on. What’s left are the memories and the stories of a magical playoff run that ended exactly a year ago in Vegas and that so many never thought they’d see.

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Washington Capitals.

It’s time for the Metropolitan preview you have all been waiting for, your hometown heroes, the Caps.

Washington learned firsthand how difficult it is to defend a Stanley Cup as they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes in what appeared on paper to be a favorable matchup. Now they head into the season with a different looking team, but not because of any knee-jerk reactions to an early playoff exit.

The entire offseason for the Caps has been dictated by the salary cap. With no money under the cap, general manager Brian MacLellan had to say goodbye to key pieces like Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, and Andre Burakovsky. The retirement of Brooks Orpik was also a key loss for the blue line.

Despite all the changes you have to give credit to MacLellan for managing to shed salary and still improve the team.

When you look at the numbers, Washington really struggled defensively last season. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps. Washington held the third-worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

As one would expect, this is leading to the team giving up more goals. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

To combat this MacLellan traded for Radko Gudas who was one of the Philadelphia Flyers’ best defensemen last season and who may prove to be an upgrade over Niskanen at this point in their respective careers. MacLellan also filled the hole on the third line left by Connolly with Richard Panik and added a pair of strong defensive fourth-line players in Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. The result should be better team defense and a stronger penalty kill.

The concern in losing players like Connolly and Burakovsky and focusing on the defense is that this team is not as offensively deep as it was. The entire top-six returns, but will Washington rely too much on its top scorers to carry the load? And can players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie who are all over 30 still carry that load? it is imperative that players like Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana continue their production from last season and Evgeny Kuznetsov returns to the Conn Smythe-worthy form we saw in the 2018 postseason that we only saw glimpses of last year.

As improved as the team looks overall defensively, a lot will be riding on Nick Jensen. He struggled after getting acquired at the trade deadline, but with Niskanen gone, he will be expected to take on a top-four role most likely alongside Dmitry Orlov. The loss of Orpik also means a regular spot for either Jonas Siegenthaler or Christian Djoos on the third pair with Gudas.

While money was an issue for the offseason, it will continue to hang over the team's head heading into training camp. The Caps remain over the salary cap and will have some tough moves to make. Chandler Stephenson will almost certainly start the season in Hershey, but that will not be enough. Will Djoos go to the AHL? Will we see Vitek Vanecek replace Pheonix Copley as Braden Holtby’s backup to save money? How will Holtby play on the final year of his contract? Will we see prospect Ilya Samsonov come into the NHL this year as next year’s potential replacement of Holtby?

Managing the salary cap is going to be a story all season long and this roster is still going to be shuffled in a fairly significant way even before the end of training camp just to get under the ceiling. That is something to keep an eye on in training camp.

And of course, there is coaching. Todd Reirden enters his second season as head coach. He navigated a rocky 2018-19 season very well leading the team to a division title, but the playoffs were a different story. Among the reasons for the team’s early exit were some curious decisions made by the coaching staff such as electing to play John Carlson on the left in response to the injury to Michal Kempny.

There are a lot of questions surrounding this team that could ultimately cost them their seat atop the division.

Having said all of that, even with how good the Metro will be this year and how much several teams have improved, Washington still maintains the best roster in the division from top to bottom and still should be considered the frontrunners for a fifth title. There are just a lot more potential pitfalls that could derail the season than we have seen in recent years.

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Islanders - Can Barry Trotz work his magic again?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Islanders - Can Barry Trotz work his magic again?

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The New York Islanders.

The surprise team of 2018-19 is back to prove that was no fluke. It was the Islanders who finished second to the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division last season, not the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was Barry Trotz who won the Jack Adams Award. It was New York who shook off the loss of star center Jonathan Tavares and somehow made the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs before a getting swept by the Carolina Hurricanes. 

The Metro appears tougher on paper this time around and the Capitals and Penguins still are formidable opponents. The Islanders also swapped out their best goalie (Robin Lehner) for more of a talented question mark (Semyon Varlamov). And they lost in the Artemi Panarin free-agent sweepstakes to the rival New York Rangers. 

None of that bodes well, but the Islanders do have plenty to build on. They have a balanced top six with Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson centering solid lines. Anders Lee led the team with 28 goals and he was re-signed. Josh Bailey had 56 points, which was second only to Barzal (62). 

And don’t forget about maybe the best fourth line in the NHL (Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck), which combined for 34 goals last season. Cizikas alone had 20.  

Without an 80-point game-breaker - though Barzal has the talent to get there - New York has to be steady in its own end and get close to the fantastic goaltending it received last year from Lehner and Tomas Greiss. 

This time it will be Varlamov and Greiss. In front of them is a fine top pair in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. But the blueline overall features almost no household names. 

The Islanders, thanks in large part to Trotz and some of the same assistant coaches who helped the Capitals win the Stanley Cup in 2018, shocked the NHL last year. It shouldn’t be a surprise this time if they remain in playoff contention most of the season. 

But the Metro has gotten better and New York at best remained in place. The Islanders won’t sneak up on anyone this time around. Just making it back into the postseason tournament would be a win.  

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