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Capitals relive Stanley Cup memories in return to Las Vegas

Capitals relive Stanley Cup memories in return to Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS — It has only been six months, but it feels like a lifetime since the Capitals were last in the visiting locker room at T-Mobile Arena, where they celebrated one of the great days of their lives. 

Tom Wilson opened his equipment bag weeks later in Toronto and it still reeked of champagne and beer. The Stanley Cup championship party that raged for a week from one end of the country to the other began for real in a square room just off the ice that was the perfect size for an all-time rager.

“We were wondering if the floors would be new or if we owed them some money,” defenseman John Carlson said when he arrived back in the locker room Monday.   

The Capitals have returned to Las Vegas, where they beat the Golden Knights in five games to win the franchise’s first title on June 7, for another rematch tonight. They won the first meeting this year 5-2 at Capital One Arena on Oct. 10. 

There was little fanfare when the plane landed in Vegas late Sunday night. Just a few jokes and off to the hotel for sleep after a long day that began with a frustrating 6-5 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in Washington that afternoon. 

But this game serves as full closure. The Capitals have now hoisted a banner, handed out championship rings to former teammates Jay Beagle and Philipp Grubauer and done the same for former coach Barry Trotz, now at the helm of the New York Islanders, who gave an emotional speech in the locker room before the two teams played in Brooklyn last week. 

Returning to the actual site of their triumph is the final tangible connection to last season. The rest will be memories. Carlson said that he refuses to watch YouTube clips of the celebrations in the T-Mobile dressing room or the week that followed. He remembers all the special moments in his mind. He doesn’t need them replayed. None of them do, really. 

“It’s pretty sweet walking into the dressing room that we abused after we won,” forward Brett Connolly joked. “It’ll be a special place forever for all of us – a cool city to win it in.”

Indeed, Vegas didn’t even have a team before last season. To win a championship in the ultimate party city, but which didn’t have a pro team in any major sport until the Golden Knights arrived, gives Washington’s Cup celebration a unique spin. 

The locker room at T-Mobile is nicer than most across the NHL. The arena opened in 2016 and it’s a wide, square room with plenty of space for equipment bags. Players aren’t on top of each other like they are at Capital One Arena, which looks like a hall closet in comparison. 

In Vegas there is a television against one wall that had Washington’s healthy scratches riveted as Vegas led 2-1 in the third period of Game 5. Defensemen Madison Bowey and Jakub Jerabek, forwards Alex Chiasson, Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd and Shane Gersich and goalie Pheonix Copley had to watch Game 5 from the locker room because the Knights didn’t have a suite available for Caps players. 

Suddenly, Devante Smith-Pelly scored to tie the game at 9:52 of the third period and just 2:31 later Lars Eller gave Washington the lead and it was pandemonium. The final minutes were a blur, but the reserves remembered the plan that Rob Tillotson, Washington’s director of team services, had put into place: If the Caps took the lead in the final 10 minutes they were to get into full uniform as fast as possible so they could skate onto the ice with their teammates to celebrate. 

“It was just an absolutely wild experience,” Boyd said. “I don’t think I’ve ever put my gear on faster.”

Caps coach Todd Reirden walked into the building with goalie coach Scott Murray on Monday and both men could only smile. Recounting the celebration six months later Reirden said he remembered every detail down to his walk to the rink that day. 

“It’s something that was an amazing experience,” Reirden said. “A lot of guys today talked about retracing footsteps - and for me as a coach as well.”

Connolly was one of the last players still on the ice when Alex Ovechkin, with the Cup in his arms, barked at him to get into the locker room. He was with his dad, Pat, and his 80-year-old grandfather. The on-ice celebration lasted 90 minutes - so long that Connolly’s feet began to ache from standing in his skates so long. 

Finally, Ovechkin gave the Cup one last kiss on the bench, said “Thank you, Vegas!” and took the trophy down the tunnel and into the locker room to his waiting teammates and the party that was about to explode.    

“We had a great night with all our families and friends, everybody was there,” Connolly said. “It’s something that we’ll never forget in a city that will always be special to us.”

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The NHL is officially expanding to Seattle, what it means for the league and for the Capitals

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USA TODAY SPORTS

The NHL is officially expanding to Seattle, what it means for the league and for the Capitals

The worst-kept secret in hockey is now official. The NHL will expand 32 teams as the league’s Board of Governors voted unanimously Tuesday to approve an expansion franchise to Seattle.

“Today is an exciting and historic day for our League as we expand to one of North America’s most innovative, beautiful and fastest-growing cities,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We are delighted to add David Bonderman, Tod Leiweke and the entire NHL Seattle group to the National Hockey League family. And we are thrilled that Seattle, a city with a proud hockey history that includes being the home for the first American team ever to win the Stanley Cup, is finally joining the NHL.”

When the league initially expanded to 31 teams, it was thought a 32nd franchise to Seattle was not far behind. The price tag for the new expansion team is $650 million, up from the $500 million Vegas paid for the Golden Knights.

The new Seattle team will begin play in the 2021-22 season in the Pacific Division. In addition, the league also officially announced that the Arizona Coyotes will move to the Central Division in order to keep the divisions balanced at eight teams per division.

This will mean another league-wide expansion draft is coming during the 2021 offseason. The NHL has already stated the same rules as the Vegas draft will apply.

The Capitals currently have no players with movement clauses in their contracts meaning they will not be forced into protecting any player from that expansion draft. Washington currently has seven players on its NHL roster who will be still under contract during the summer of 2021: Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, Lars Eller, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Michal Kempny. In addition, Travis Boyd, Madison Bowey and Jonas Siegenthaler will all be restricted free agents, meaning the Caps will retain their signing rights assuming those players receive qualifying offers.

There are some big names missing from that list as Alex Ovechkin’s current contract is set to expire at the end of the 2020-21 season and both Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby’s contacts will expire in 2020.

With an expansion draft looming, every signing any team makes from now until 2021 will be viewed through the prism of the expansion draft. Many veterans are likely to seek no-movement clauses while discussing new contracts which will protect them from the expansion draft. Are older veterans worth re-signing if it means having to protect them over younger in the expansion draft?

Seattle may not be coming to the league until 2021, but the impact of their addition is going to be felt right away when it comes to negotiating table.    

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Can the Caps reclaim first place in New York?

Can the Caps reclaim first place in New York?

The Caps take on the New York Rangers on Saturday (2 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Washington) with a chance to reclaim first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Here’s what you need to watch when these two rivals meet in New York.

Battle of the backups…maybe

Both the Caps and Rangers played on Friday and both used their top netminders so it would stand to reason that we could see both teams go with their backups for Saturday’s game.

Pheonix Copley has a record of 7-4-2 this season with a .899 save percentage and 3.07 GAA. He played admirably in place of Holtby while he was dealing with an upper-body injury and really cemented himself as the team’s backup. For the Rangers, their backup is the 22-year-old Alexander Georgiev who holds a record of 4-2-0 with a .911 save percentage and 2.94 GAA.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is still a chance one or both coaches could bring back their starters on Saturday.

Reirden was asked whether or not Copley would start on Saturday prior to Friday’s contest and was very non-committal, saying that was the plan but that he would reevaluate after the game. Rangers head coach David Quinn, meanwhile, elected to play Lundqvist both nights of a back-to-back the last time New York faced the Caps on the second leg on Oct. 17.

It should be Copley vs. Georgiev, it probably will be Copley vs. Georgiev, but it certainly is not out of the realm of possibility that one or both coaches elect to go with their starters, both of whom have been playing very well of late.

The Tom Wilson return tour continues

Wilson has been an absolute beast since his return from suspension. Most notably has been his offense as he has been producing at over a point per game pace. In just six games, Wilson already has three goals and eight points. That more points than other forward who have been available all season such as Andre Burakovsky, Devante Smith-Pelly, Chandler Stephenson, Nic Dowd and Dmitrij Jaskin.

The Caps get a noticeable boost in energy whenever Wilson is on the ice. Until he cools down, he is someone you have to keep an eye on because he makes an impact in every aspect of the game whether it be even strength, on the power play or the penalty kill and both offensively and defensively.

Home ice advantage

This year was supposed to be a wash for the Rangers who are in the midst of a rebuild, but New York is surpassing everyone’s expectations with how well they have played thus far, particularly at home.

The Rangers are in the midst of a seven-game win streak at Madison Square Garden and are 9-3-0 overall at home this season.

The Caps have been fairly average on the road at 5-4-1, but have won three of their last four and enter Saturday’s game on a four-game win streak overall.

A battle for first place

The Caps currently sit in second place of the Metropolitan Division with 27 points, just one behind the Columbus Blue Jackets. A win Saturday would obviously vault them over Columbus for first place. An overtime or shootout loss would pull the Caps into a tie, but the Blue Jackets would retain first place with one more regulation or overtime win over Washington (12-11).

Should New York beat the Caps in regulation, the Rangers would vault over Washington for second place, pushing the Caps down to third.

It’s only November so we should not look too much into the standings, but it is always a confidence boost for a team to say it’s in first place. When your opponent has a chance to vault you in the standings with a win, it also could add just a bit of juice to what would otherwise be a regular November matinee game.

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