Capitals

Rematch of emotional game as Cowboys face Cyclones

Rematch of emotional game as Cowboys face Cyclones

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) The memories of Oklahoma State's trip to Iowa State a season ago are etched in Richetti Jones' memory in an aura of sadness and spookiness.

It's not just the fact that the Cowboys' dream season and national championship bid got derailed with a loss, but the circumstances that surrounded that Friday night game. That morning, the team learned of the crash that killed women's basketball coach Kurt Budke, assistant Miranda Serna and two others on a recruiting trip to Arkansas.

The game still went on.

``That was the weirdest day ever,'' said Jones, a senior defensive end for the Cowboys last season. ``It was like it wasn't real life.''

What was terribly real seemed to Jones like it was right out of a tragic movie. Carrying a 10-0 record and needing two more wins to reach the national championship game, the Cowboys lost 37-31 in double overtime to a Cyclones team that had never beaten a team ranked in the top six in 58 previous chances.

``Not so much physical as emotional, it hurt,'' linebacker Alex Elkins said. ``I don't like to lose and after everything we'd been through that season, for us to come that close and lose, it hurts.''

The rematch of that game comes Saturday in Stillwater, and the memories are still fresh from a day of jubilation for Iowa State's football program and a diametrically opposite feeling for Oklahoma State.

Coach Mike Gundy remembers telling his team about the plane crash tragedy during a meeting in a banquet room and how quiet they remained while at the team hotel, during meetings, on a bus ride to the stadium and in the locker room before the game.

After watching TV news reports about the plane crash throughout the day, the Cowboys boarded three buses for what Jones remembers as about a 30-minute drive through pitch black fields to get to the stadium.

``It's eerie, it's creepy and all you can think about is death ... because of what happened - these people are actually gone. And then you stop at a stop sign and make a left and there's only one bus behind you,'' Jones said. ``We get to the stadium and we're warming up with only half the team.''

One of the team buses had broken down on the way to the game, adding another layer of complication for players who were already emotionally rattled. Jones won't argue that turnover problems did in Oklahoma State on that night, but there was something else to it, too.

``You can say that it didn't affect us, but it did. It did,'' Jones said. ``You can say whatever you want, but these people died. They're dead. They're not coming back.''

Considering all of the circumstances, there's absolutely no comparison between last year's game and the one on Saturday. This time, it's a somewhat routine midseason game with Oklahoma State (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) and Iowa State (4-2, 1-2) slugging it out for position in the middle of the conference standings.

Both Gundy and counterpart Paul Rhoads downplayed the revenge factor.

``Coach Gundy is a very smart coach and he doesn't need extra motivation for his team,'' Rhoads said. ``He knows the importance of this game because it's the next game, and I'm sure that's how he's preparing them, just like that's how we're preparing our football club.''

Gundy continued to withhold whether his starting quarterback would be freshman Wes Lunt, who won the job in the spring, or J.W. Walsh, who replaced him after an injury last month. Walsh got the call last week at Kansas even though Lunt was able to play, and the Cowboys had their NCAA record-tying run of 22 straight games scoring at least 30 points snapped in a 20-14 win.

Oklahoma State had only 24 points in regulation at Iowa State last season.

``We'll have our hands full to do anything close to that, like we did last year,'' Rhoads said.

The Cyclones cracked the top 25 in the first BCS standings of the season after losing 27-21 to then-No. 6 Kansas State last weekend in their bid to upset a second straight ranked opponent.

``They just don't make any mistakes,'' Gundy said. ``They play good football and they don't turn it over. They're sound. From this season and even back into last season, you can see that they've competed against good offenses and played much better than what people would have expected them to.

``We're to the point now that everybody realizes that it doesn't happen by accident that Iowa State is a good football team and worthy of the consideration that they're getting.''

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What's more important, the goalie or the defense?

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What's more important, the goalie or the defense?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want to be answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Nathan S. writes: How important are goalies vs. defense? If the Islanders can make journeyman Robin Lehner an all-star caliber goalie or Blues can win a Cup riding a mostly unproven goalie, then do teams need to pay $10 million per goalie or whatever it costs for Carey Price, Sergei Bobrovsky, etc.? To that end, is a solution to the Caps’ defensive woes to adopt a more defense-first system like the Isles? I thought that was the plan with all the free agent changes.

This is a great question and the answer to the first part is going to be totally unsatisfying: It depends on who you ask.

The Islanders are a good example of the difference a good defense can make. Another is the Carolina Hurricanes who made it to the conference final with a Petr Mrazek, Curtis McElhinney tandem. That's not exactly Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur. On the other hand, one of the major reasons for the Blues’ turnaround last season was Binnington taking over in net over Jake Allen. Plus, while I would not label goalie as the most important position, there is no single position in hockey that can have a greater impact on a game or a series than a goalie.

Jaroslav Halak says hi.

He is hardly the only example. Marc-Andre Fleury carried an expansion team into the Stanley Cup Final in 2018. Braden Holtby helped the Caps beat the defending champion Boston Bruins in 2012 in a series they really had no business winning. In fact, for all those people who think Holtby has always been overrated, the fact is that for years he covered up the defensive deficiencies of the Caps. I’m not talking about right now, he’s struggling and only time will tell if he is able to play his way back into being himself, but in the past.

Ever wonder why a team with this much offensive firepower as the Caps have boasted over the years has only ever advanced past the second round once? It wasn’t because of Holtby who has one of the best playoff save percentages of all time and it wasn't because of an offense led by perhaps the best goal scorer of all-time.

So getting back to your question, it depends on the general manager. Some are willing to commit huge contracts to star goalies, others would prefer to build up the defense. It’s not as if the Florida Panthers were unaware of what the Islanders or Hurricanes did last year. Yet, they were still willing to drop $10 million per year to sign Bobrovsky.

For me personally, I would not commit that much money to a goalie. The NHL is moving more and more towards goalie tandems and it is no coincidence that the Cup run came in a year when Holtby had played fewer games than in any of the previous three seasons. I still think you need a bona fide No. 1 for the playoffs, but not at such a crippling price tag. Get an upper-tier No. 1, aim for him to play around 50 games and spend the rest of the money you saved on a backup and the defense.

The offseason focus for the Caps was definitely to improve defensively, but you can’t judge how they have done until Michal Kempny returns. Believe me, a defense-first plan does not include Tyler Lewington playing every night.

Nathan S. writes: What newly acquired players are Caps having buyers' remorse and might be candidates to get moved later this year? It appears Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen are both struggling and would be the top two candidates to be traded or waived. Panik is probably unmovable with larger contract but he appears to be a bad fit too.

OK, let’s pump the brakes here. The Caps have played eight games. Every player on the team, every single one of them, is going to have a bad stretch for at least that long at some point in the season. The longest scoring drought of Alex Ovechkin’s career is 10 games. Just last season Nicklas Backstrom had a 12-game stretch in which he scored no goals and only five assists. I wouldn't trade or waive either of those guys.

Let’s be clear. It is OK to be critical of a player for poor play. No one gets a free pass. These points count just as much in the standings as the points in March. Having said that, a player coming to a new team sometimes needs time to adjust and it would be foolish to simply declare any new acquisition a total bust when we are still in October.

Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway have been great. Carl Hagelin was great when he was picked up last season. Has he been as good this year? No, but he hasn't been bad. He is the team’s best forward penalty killer and the Caps currently rank 8th in the NHL at 84.6-percent. Last year, they finished 24th. Does that look like a bad signing? Not one bit.

Richard Panik has struggled, but consider the role he is being asked to play. He is supposed to be the offensive focal point of a third line that gets limited minutes while also being a strong two-way forward and penalty killer. That’s a lot to ask. If you did not expect a Hagelin, Lars Eller, Panik line to take a step back offensively from what the Caps had last year, I don’t know what to tell you. The problem there is your expectations, not the third line. Depth offense was always going to take a step back without Brett Connolly who could score 20 goals on limited third-line minutes and no power play time. That's a skill and it's one the Caps willingly gave up for defense. I think people need to adjust their expectations for what you think Hagelin, Eller and Panik are going to produce offensively this season.

Panik has to be better than he has been thus far for sure, but I am not willing to close the book on him yet.

The problem with Gudas and Jensen is that you have two right-shot defensemen who look like solid third-pair players. That’s great, but it leaves the team with a hole in the second pair.

Trading for Jensen made sense at the time. If you want to quibble with the move, the issue is signing him to a four-year extension sight-unseen based on his success in a very different defensive system. I don’t think anyone would have anticipated him struggling quite as much as he has, but I think he could be a good third-pair guy.

Let’s see what the defense looks like when Kempny comes back before we start moving pieces around.

@tarzanegg on Twitter writes: Radko Gudas got bumped up to the 2nd defensive pair. Lack of faith in Nick Jensen?

Jensen has been OK, but not great. I think it says more about how much the team likes Gudas than it does about Jensen. I don’t like Jensen playing with Lewington because it means Jensen playing on the left which is something he struggles at. For now, the team has no choice. You certainly cannot put Lewington on his off-side. He is struggling enough as it is.

William B. writes: Why has Bobby Nardella yet to play in a single game for Hershey when he is apparently fully healthy? He looked great when I saw him play live with the Bears in person at the end of last season. He didn’t look out of place at all moving up to a high-level professional league and having minimal practice time to learn systems and gain chemistry with teammates. These college UFA signings are like found money for NHL clubs. They didn’t have to use a pick on them in the draft or give up anything in a trade to acquire the player. If the Caps want to be successful for the remainder of the Ovechkin era and beyond its crucial to do everything possible to develop these “free” prospects into NHL players. I just don’t understand why AHL vets/NHL long shots are getting ice time over Nardella.

I spoke with a team official on this to confirm there is no injury for Nardella. This is just a coach’s decision.

The problem is that Hershey has nine defensemen on the roster and six spots in the lineup. Further complicating things is the fact that the top four is set with Alex Alexeyev and Erik Burgdoerfer as the top pair and Martin Fehervary and Christian Djoos on the second. That means Lucas Johansen, Connor Hobbs, Colby Williams, Tobias Geisser and Nardella are all competing for playing time on that bottom pair.

Burgdoerfer is an AHL veteran and I like Alexeyev and Fehervary playing with players who have a little bit of experience so it is hard to quibble with that top four.

Is nine defensemen too many? I don’t know enough about the day-to-day operations of an AHL team to be able to answer that. It seems like it would be beneficial to send one or two of those nine to the ECHL to get more playing time, but that does not seem to be the plan for now.

I’m not as sold on Nardella as you are. He was fine last season and fine in camp. I can assure you though that If he really wowed the coach, he would be playing. Everything you said about the benefit of college free agents is true if they work out. Wanting Nardella to be an NHL caliber player and him actually being one, however, are two different things.

@BelleLegacy on Twitter writes: Would a trade for Josh Ho-Sang (to play in Hershey) be a good move for the Caps org as it is low on forward prospects? Besides reclamation projects, how else can the organization stock future high-end prospects while Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom keep the team in the playoffs?

I actually thought about this too. Why a team like Ottawa wouldn’t take a chance and claim a player like Josh Ho-Sang, I don’t know. What have they got to lose? They have tons of cap space and they stink. Why not add him to the lineup and see what he can do? If he’s bad, put him back on waivers. The Senators, however, have their own scouts so they must not be all that high on him.

When it comes to the Caps, first off it would have made no sense to claim him off waivers because he would have had to be put back on waivers to go to Hershey and New York could have easily just reclaimed him.

OK, but what about a trade? If the Caps think Ho-Sang is a future top-six player and they can buy low, great! They should. I just don’t know if that’s what anyone thinks of Ho-Sang at this point.

I have not seen this guy play so I don’t know just how well I can answer this question. From what I know of the situation there are a few red flags. First, it is not as if the Islanders are dealing with an abundance of offensive talent. The fact that he can’t make that team is a concern. It doesn’t mean he will never be an NHL player, it just means you have to ask why is he not there yet and how much more time does he need to develop?

Teams, coaches, general managers can get stubborn about a player sometimes so you have to come up with your own evaluation of him. Maybe he’s great, but he just rubs Lou Lamoriello the wrong way. I assume someone with the Caps’ organization has seen Ho-Sang play so they would have a better feel for how good he is, but for me from an outside perspective, it’s an issue that he can’t make a team that would seemingly benefit from another good offensive addition. His numbers in the AHL don’t blow me away either. They are good, but not great. He was tied for 25th in assists in the AHL last season and did not rank in the top 100 in terms of points per game.

The Caps have had plenty of reclamation projects in the past, but those happen because the player has been scouted and the team thinks they can get more out of him. They saw potential in Brett Connolly and Michal Kempny. They didn’t go into those deals thinking these guys stink but maybe they can do better here. If the Caps think Ho-Sang is a top-six player who won’t implode the locker room, sure, go for it. If he is a depth player it’s not worth it.

While the Caps don’t have much top-six talent in the pipeline, there are plenty of depth players. I am not going to go out of my way to send assets to a division rival to pick up another depth player, especially one in which there could be some off-ice concerns.

Plus, if you are the Islanders, would you want to trade him within the division? Unless you are 100-percent sure he is a bust, there is a high probability of embarrassment potential there and teams hate that.

Just imagine if George McPhee had made the Filip Forsberg trade with someone in the Caps’ division. That would have made it even worse.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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Davey Martinez earned his chance to say ‘I told you’ so

Davey Martinez earned his chance to say ‘I told you’ so

Davey Martinez’s desk was mostly clear, save for the wine bottle near the front right corner which provided a chance to smooth edges during the struggle. 

Martinez would often have a glass postgame. Some peace existed in the elixir amid the season’s chaos. In Philadelphia in early May, after the Nationals again lost, the wine waited next to his curious optimism. “When we get healthy, we’re going to take off,” he told a reporter in a private moment.

The idea seemed a stretch. Washington was 14-19 following a 7-1 loss to the energized Phillies. It dropped five games out of first place, starting a stretch where most sentences referenced the team’s proximity to woeful Miami in order to damn their situation. 

Tuesday, Martinez stood on a rapidly-erected stage to celebrate the National League championship. He relayed a quote: “Bumpy roads lead to beautiful places, and this is a beautiful place.” About 15 minutes later, he waited for a radio interview to begin on the infield grass. In a chat with the same reporter from the quiet time in Philadelphia, the first words out of his mouth brought another quote: “I told you.”

Forgive him for gloating. Martinez won this round, surviving the calls for him to be fired and the licking flames of 19-31. He made it through the bullpen, the injuries, the narrow path to the postseason, trailing late in the Wild-Card Game, the bullpen again in the postseason and all the way to the World Series. This season is no longer about whether he will be retained. It’s instead about how he won, bringing the team to a stage it could not reach prior, which was the point to begin with. 

The Lerner family sat in the front row when Martinez was introduced as the team’s new manager. His first press conference took place in the clubhouse, not the traditional press conference room, a place which would be alcohol-soaked in 2019 after a trio of celebrations, the most recent happening almost two years after his initial welcome.

“I think moving forward, this team doesn’t lack much, it really doesn’t,” Martinez said at the time. “I think we just got to get over the fact that we’re not just here to win a playoff game. We’re here to win the World Series.”

The proverbial “hump” provided his first attempt at manufacturing looseness among a constricted team, and an opening for ridicule. Martinez famously -- or infamously -- brought camels to spring training. The team’s 2018 flop put even-toed ungulates into most eye-roll based commentary regarding the new manager.

This season’s clubhouse fun is organic. Derived from Gerardo Parra, and a general loosening among the team’s more rigid holdovers, nothing was created in a lab. Parra chose “Baby Shark” as his walkup song because an algorithm kept pushing it back into his phone. It took off. Dugout dancing, general freedom to bag on anyone else in the clubhouse, celebration quirks, they all came about without a distinct structure, which is perhaps the key part of Martinez’s managing this season. 

Two primary things happened under Martinez: he stayed out of the way in the clubhouse, and he remained relentlessly positive, even when it seemed his preferred blinders almost appeared out of touch. The players noticed.

“I have had a lot of managers, obviously, and they all come into spring training and say they're going to stay this way no matter what, we're going to be here for you, it's going to be us, we don't care what anyone says,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “And then as soon as stuff goes bad, every manager has pretty much kind of thrown that out the window and sort of gone into self-preservation mode, where Davey, honestly, has stayed the same way. He's positive every day, his energy, he always trusts his players and has his players' backs. And I don't think it's been any different this year, even when we started as poorly as we did, he stayed the same.”

His personal health issue provided an unexpected twist late in the season. It also took his postgame glass of wine away. Doctor's orders.

Martinez rapidly pushed to get back despite the concern born from his minor heart procedure. He publicly apologized to his mother for scaring her. He privately conceded he was scared, too, because the origin of the issue wasn’t clear. Missing time with the team seemed to eat at him as much as being in the hospital after feeling chest pains midway through September.

“It’s been a little wild,” Martinez said of the season as a whole.

The year's outcome assures Martinez will become the first Nationals manager to survive two full seasons then start a third since Manny Acta in 2009. No manager has held his position for three consecutive full seasons since baseball returned to the District in 2005.

“It never crossed my mind to dismiss Davey, no matter all the pressure that was put on us,” managing principal owner Mark Lerner said Tuesday. “I think he’s become a very, very good manager, and I think in the years to come he will become a great manager. I have total confidence in him and delighted that all these good things are happening. Nobody deserves it more than him.”

It’s easier to say those words this week. It’s also easier for Martinez to smile and gently say, “I told you so,” in certain circles. He was right. The proof exists.

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