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Tom Wilson brings the Stanley Cup home for an emotional day in Toronto

Tom Wilson brings the Stanley Cup home for an emotional day in Toronto

TORONTO—Tom Wilson and the Stanley Cup made a number of stops on their tour of Toronto on Sunday, but there was never any doubting where the rugged Caps winger would take the trophy first.

The first stop, of course, was North Toronto Memorial Arena, the rink where it all started.

Wilson, who learned to play and love the game here as a 5-year-old, entered the charming old building to a standing ovation from the program’s current players, friends, family—including three generations of Wilsons—as well as a handful of former coaches and players.

For the Caps’ toughest player, it was just the beginning of an occasionally emotional day in his hometown.

Over the next three-plus hours, Wilson mingled, reconnected, posed for pictures with each of the youth teams, took a lap in the stands with the Cup and conducted an unintentionally hilarious Q & A with the youth players.

Before he started fielding questions, Wilson jokingly requested that the kids only ask softballs. The second kid who stepped to the mic musta missed the memo...much to the delight of everyone in the building.

“Why do you like fighting?” a boy asked Wilson, who had 13 fights last year, the second highest total in the NHL.

Wilson was ready with a quick answer.

“Just so everyone knows, I don’t think I got into one fight when I played for North Toronto,” he cracked. “Keep the gloves on. Play hockey. …You know what, I’ve just always been big on sticking up for my teammates. It’s part of the game still. It’s a five minute penalty and sometimes you gotta do it.”

Wilson also acknowledged that, as a youngster, he owned a black and gold Alex Ovechkin jersey and was a big fan of No. 8. While not exactly breaking news, it was something I hadn’t heard before.

Hundreds of kids attended, but just one was a special guest of Wilson’s: Brock from The Hospital for Sick Children, who overcame significant health issues thanks to the treatment he received at the world-renowned medical center. Sunday’s event benefitted the hospital’s SickKids Foundation.

Midway through the program, Toronto Mayor John Tory stopped by to congratulate Wilson. Tory also played his youth hockey at North Toronto Arena. After thanking Wilson for bringing the Cup home and partnering with the hospital for the event, Tory had some jokes.

“Did you actually play in this arena?” Tory asked Wilson, who nodded. “Well, I want you to know, so did I, which is why I’ve got the North Toronto jersey on. The only thing is, my career went terribly wrong somewhere and I ended up as the mayor of Toronto and you ended up on the Stanley Cup champions. So congratulations to you.”

Geoff Campbell, one of Wilson’s first coaches, said he’s never been surprised by the success Wilson has enjoyed as he’s moved up the ranks from AA to AA to junior to the NHL and now to world champion. That insatiable drive to be the best, according to Campbell, came built-in.

Wilson said the most humbling part of his day at NT Arena was seeing his poster on the wall, right next to the one honoring Hall of Famer Eric Lindros, who also grew up playing at the single-sheet facility.

Pete Wilson, Tom’s older brother, said he got choked up a couple of times watching Sunday’s event unfold just a few blocks from the family home.

“Seeing that banner up there, and seeing the community come out and support this event and support SickKids, it’s just so surreal,” he said. “I found myself getting choked up a couple of times because this was such a staple in our lives. I mean, we were here ALL the time. All three kids came through here. My dad coached here. My mom even coached here way back.”

As hectic as the day was at times, Tom Wilson did get a little alone time with the Cup, which he spent asking questions about its storied history.

After the celebration at North Toronto Arena, Wilson took the Cup down to the scenic Ontario Place marina, where he posed for the day’s most memorable photo.

Wilson’s unforgettable day didn’t end on the pier. But that photo did signal the end of what Wilson wanted to share with reporters.

Winning the championship marked the realization of a childhood dream, and now it was time for some private time with family and his closest friends, many of whom also donned white t-shirts emblazoned with, “We did it!”


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No Kuznetsov, no Oshie and no Holtby for the Caps in Colorado

No Kuznetsov, no Oshie and no Holtby for the Caps in Colorado

The Capitals are going to be a bit shorthanded when they take on the Colorado Avalanche on Friday in Denver (9 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Washington Plus). Friday’s game will be exactly one year to the date since the Caps last played in Colorado, a 6-2 loss just two days after a 6-3 loss in Nashville. Those two games were the low point of the entire 2017-18 season forcing the Caps to rally in their return home.

Here are three things to watch as the Caps hope for a better result this year in Denver:

Injury adjustments

Prior to Friday’s morning skate, the team announced that Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Braden Holtby will all be out due to upper-body injuries. Holtby suffered an injury the morning of Wednesday’s game in Winnipeg while both Kuznetsov and Oshie were injured off of questionable hits from the Jets during the game.

There is at least some good news as defenseman Michal Kempny, who missed Wednesday’s game due to illness, is back in.

With all the injuries and the players coming and going, here’s a look at what the lines looked like at morning skate, per Isabelle Khurshudyan:

Alex Ovechkin – Lars Eller – Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana – Nicklas Backstrom – Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson – Travis Boyd – Brett Connolly
Dmitrij Jaskin – Nic Dowd – Devante Smith-Pelly

Michal Kempny – Matt Niskanen
Dmitry Orlov – John Carlson
Christian Djoos – Madison Bowey

Obviously a very different look offensively than what we have seen to this point.

Injuries are never good, but the silver lining is seeing who steps up when they are presented with an opportunity. Burakovsky is someone who desperately needs to break out and he is playing on a second line with a lot of skill. Boyd moving up to the third line is a player to watch as well.

Ilya Samsonov will be the backup goalie

With Holtby out, Pheonix Copley will make his third consecutive start. But the Caps won’t be using an emergency backup this time as the team has recalled star prospect Samsonov from the Hershey Bears and he was on the ice Friday morning in Denver. In a corresponding move, Jonas Siegenthaler was reassigned to Hershey, but that may be just a paper move and he will most likely stay with the team for the remainder of the road trip.

In eight appearances in Hershey this season, Samsonov has registered a 3.73 GAA and .875 save percentage. Those are not great numbers by any means, but both he and the team have improved drastically since the start of the season.

It is, of course, unlikely that Samsonov will play, but there is at least a chance of Samsonov getting into his first NHL game.

Philipp Grubauer will start for the Avalanche

Ironically enough, Colorado will have two goalies with more Capitals experience than the Caps will on Friday with Grubauer and Semyon Varlamov.

On Friday, it will be Grubauer who gets the nod against his former team and the team in which he helped win a Stanley Cup last season.

“Looking down, yeah it’s going to be weird seeing guys on the other end, but then once the puck drops it’s all about business,” Grubauer told reporters on Friday.

Grubauer has had a rough start with his new team, posting a 3.55 GAA and .893 save percentage, but despite that he also has managed a 3-1-1 record. That's a stark contrast to his start last year in which he posted incredible numbers but struggled to get into the win column early in the season.


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Almost a quarter into the season, Todd Reirden still does not have his full roster 


Almost a quarter into the season, Todd Reirden still does not have his full roster 

In his first year as an NHL head coach, Todd Reirden is well aware that all eyes are on him. Stepping in to coach the defending Stanley Cup champions is a favorable position in many ways, but it does mean Reirden will be under more scrutiny than most coaches in their first year.

For a first-year coach already facing pressure to succeed, it does not help that the season has already thrown a number of curve balls in terms of the roster.

“Coaching the defending champions is a unique challenge in itself,” Reirden told NBC Sports Washington in a recent interview, “But I think for the most part that I haven't had much time to spend on that because I've been busy working on different lineups every night.”

With very few departures in the offseason, Washington was able to bring back the vast majority of its Stanley Cup winning team for the 2018-19 season, something that was considered a major strength of the team heading into the new season.

So far, however, we have seen much more roster attrition from the Caps than consistency.

Now 18 games into the season, Reirden has not had his full roster available to him at any point.

Tom Wilson missed the first 16 games of the season due to suspension, Brooks Orpik is currently on long-term injured reserve, Michal Kempny missed the start of the season because of a concussion and missed Wednesday’s game due to an illness, Travis Boyd has played in only five games due to a lower-body injury he suffered in training camp and Braden Holtby was a surprise scratch on Wednesday with an upper-body injury that required the team dress an emergency backup goalie in Winnipeg. Even John Carlson sat out a game with a lower-body injury.

Things may get worse before they get better given Evgeny Kuznetsov left Wedensday’s game early with an upper-body injury, T.J. Oshie appeared dazed after getting slammed to the ice by Josh Morrissey and Holtby is still considered day-to-day.

The rest of the league, however, does not care about the Caps’ suspensions and injuries. Washington does not get extra points in the standings because they have missed so many players and there are no asterisks next to Reirden’s head coaching record.

In the early part of the season, Reirden’s focus has had to shift from bringing the defending champs back to their championship form to simply surviving the team’s current roster attrition while facing questions as to why the team has been so inconsistent all the while.

Reirden has enjoyed the challenge.

“I think it's allowed us to really focus on what gives us the best chance to win, putting guys in different situations, manipulating lineups against other teams and what they have as the strengths in their lineup and how we can combat that,” he said. “So it's been a challenge from that standpoint in terms of moving our lines around and different components. That's made it a little bit more challenging, but that's the part I really enjoy is making those adjustments in house and figuring out how to set up things for success.”

Reirden has certainly not been shy about changing his line combinations or the defensive pairings early in the season as he searched to find the right fit for each spot, each situation. The return of Wilson certainly seems to have made things more clear on the offensive lines, at least in terms of the top-nine.

But while the early suspension and the team’s early injury woes have led to some early struggles and while this certainly is not the start that Reirden would have hoped for in his first season, he is taking a big picture view of it all and stressing the positives.

There’s not much more that this season could throw at the Caps that Reirden and the team has not already had to adjust to.

“It's probably been part of the reason we've had some inconsistency is because of the different changes we've had with different lines and different D-pairs,” Reirden said. “But in the long run, it'll actually help prepare us for adversity that comes to us down the road.”