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A fan favorite with the Capitals, Craig Berube has Blues in Stanley Cup Final

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A fan favorite with the Capitals, Craig Berube has Blues in Stanley Cup Final

BOSTON -- On Jan. 3, Craig Berube’s St. Louis Blues were the worst team in the entire NHL. 

The Blues had fired head coach Mike Yeo on Nov. 19 after a 7-9-3 start. For six weeks they showed signs of life, but not results under Berube, a no-nonsense fan favorite during his playing days with the Capitals in the 1990s who could fight with the best of them.

That early January night playing at home in St. Louis against Washington, though no one knew it, the Blues were finally gelling into the team that would reach the Stanley Cup Final, which begins tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC against the Boston Bruins.
 
St. Louis drubbed the Capitals. Washington could barely get the puck through the neutral zone against a focused, relentless team that didn’t even have rookie goalie sensation Jordan Binnington in net yet. His time was still to come. 

Berube’s Blues won 5-2 and the game wasn’t even that close. By the time they beat the Capitals again in St. Louis 11 days later, the Blues were at .500 (20-20-4) and quickly climbing the standings. They were playing exactly how Berube knew they could. 

“Oh, it's not easy ever. I mean, it had to be cultivated for sure,” Berube said. “But our team identity is our team. We play a team game and nobody's bigger than the team. That's really the bottom line. We demand a lot from our players and the team has to come first. That's our identity.”
 
Berube’s approach didn’t surprise his former teammates in Washington. He played seven years with the Capitals in the 1990s and early 2000s. He was a rugged forward who stood up for his teammates. That was his ticket to an NHL career that lasted 1,054 games. 

That message was drilled into him as a teenager when he left Edmonton a skinny, spindly kid to play in the smaller Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League in Williams Lake, British Columbia. 

He wasn’t a fighter or a tough guy. But he returned home that summer with those skills, according to NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May, a future NHL teammate and competitor in the Edmonton area in those years. 

Berube built on that reputation on junior teams in Kamloops and New Westminster and Medicine Hat in the Western Hockey League. He wasn’t drafted. But he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1986 and toggled between AHL Hershey and the NHL during his first three seasons. 

The man they called “Chief” because of his First Ancestry heritage made a quick name for himself as one of the NHL’s great fighters during that very different era of hockey and was a perfect fit for a Flyers organization that long prized that toughness.   

“Chief came up when the Flyers were still a version of the Broad Street Bullies and that went a long way,” May said. “That Philadelphia thing of being a tough teammate and sticking up for your teammates all the time and for all the right reasons. It’s not about you, it’s about your team. That’s in him. That’s part of his DNA as a coach and as a competitor.”

Berube was an intimidating presence on the ice with long hair and a mean mug. He was limited offensively but had a role to play. He bounced from Philadelphia to Toronto to Calgary before finally finding a stable home in Washington. 

“Chief was a tough guy who never – a little bit different maybe than a few other guys I played with – he never worried about showing his teammates how tough he was in practice or anything like that,” former Capitals teammate Ken Klee said. “It was just ‘Ok, it’s game time now. I have a job to do.’ He was just business about it. I’ve had some other guys who were a little more scary in practice, but they made sure that they kept up that [persona] even off the ice.”

That’s not to say Berube didn’t want to improve his game. He was constantly asking coaches for advice. Fighting was an important job, but he wouldn’t allow himself to be defined that way. If he was struggling, if he couldn’t figure something out on the ice he would ask for help. Multiple former teammates described Berube as “a learner” and “inquisitive.” That wasn’t common to the bruiser types of his era.
 
“[Berube] could communicate with your superstars, with your rookies, with everyone from players to coaches to general managers. ” May said. “He’s a positive guy. I know that all the coaches always liked him. Some coaches are not legitimate personalities - or they’re bad guys, But all the coaches from what I’ve seen always loved having Chief around.” 

Berube thrived talking hockey in the back of the team bus with a beer in his hand. It didn’t matter if it was at dinner on a road trip or on the golf course in the summer. Berube and teammates Keith Jones, Mark Tinordi, Dale Hunter and others were hockey junkies. They got together to watch games, drink beers and eat chicken wings like the fans they were.  And it was that core group that helped the 1997-98 Capitals, who reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

Berube's mask has never left him. There were few smiles during games. There are few smiles even now behind the bench. Don’t take that for lacking a sense of humor, though. His old teammates were adamant about that, too. 

After Washington’s memorable run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, goalie Olie Kolzig went around the room collecting memorabilia from his teammates. He had a picture of Berube tangling with an opponent, arm cocked, ready to throw a punch. Kolzig just wanted it signed. Berube obliged – with a twist. 

“To Olie,” the note read. “This could be you.”

“That’s the way Chief is,” Kolzig said, laughing. “He wasn’t a best wishes, glad I had the opportunity to play with you kind of guy. I cherish that picture. I love it.” 

Much like Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, fired by the Capitals in 2003 in his second season with the club, Berube was an interim coach with Philadelphia, but let go after the next season when the Flyers missed the playoffs. For him, too, this Stanley Cup Final is a chance at redemption.

“I still look back on his time in Philadelphia and can't tell you how impressed I was on his presence behind the bench, his quick eye and understanding which players were going and which were not,” said Jones, an NBC Sports analyst and Flyers broadcaster for NBC Sports Philadelphia. “He was great in just the chess match that goes on with being a head coach. Rarely did I sit upstairs and watch a game and think that he missed something. That’s really carried over into his time in St. Louis.” 

Good goaltending helps - as Berube himself can attest. Binnington, the rookie goalie, went 5-1-1 in January with a .936 save percentage for the Blues. He was even better in February at 10-1 with a .945 save percentage. St. Louis was well on its way by then. His emergence is a huge storyline at this Stanley Cup Final. 

But it all began with Berube sticking with his team. It went 8-9-1 in his first 18 games as interim coach before the Blues beat the Capitals in that first meeting. They entered play that night 11 points out of a Western Conference playoff spot and were listening to trade offers, according to general manager Doug Armstrong, who had gone a scouting trip to Russia.  

On Jan. 7 St. Louis pulled out of last place in the league for good. By Jan. 12 it was out of last place in Central Division. By Feb. 11 the Blues were in a playoff spot after six wins in a row. 

“We were no longer sellers after that,” Armstrong said. 

By the start of the playoffs, St. Louis had ripped off a 30-10-4 stretch from the time they beat the Capitals. Berube was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award given annually to the NHL’s coach of the year.

The Blues tied for second in the Central with the Winnipeg Jets and then beat them in the first round in six games. It took seven games to get past the Dallas Stars in the second round, down 3-2 in the series and facing elimination. St. Louis survived. A few days later Armstrong took the “interim” label off Berube. He will be their coach next year. 

“As a player all you want is honestly from your coach and Chief is like that,” Kolzig said. “He’ll let you know where you stand good or bad and it’s up to you on how you deal with it. And I think players love that. I think that’s why they enjoy playing for him because he is no nonsense. He cares about his players. He’s hard on them. He’s fair. He’s just a guy that guys want to play for.”

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Power play shows signs of life, but Capitals still sing the blues vs. St. Louis

Power play shows signs of life, but Capitals still sing the blues vs. St. Louis

WASHINGTON – Just 11 days after the Capitals suffered an ugly loss in St. Louis, they fell victim to the Blues yet again, this time in Washington. The Caps fell Monday to the Blues 4-1 as St. Louis took control thanks to a three-goal second period and never looked back.

This marks the first three-game win streak all season for the Blues. Washington, meanwhile, will need to recover quickly with as they have a Tuesday date in Nashville against the Predators.

Here are five reasons Washington lost on Monday.

Five minutes in the second period

The Caps actually held a 1-0 lead at the end of the first. Alex Ovechkin had scored from the office on the power play so Washington must have been feeling pretty good heading into the middle frame. The game quickly turned, however, as the Blues tallied three goals over the course of an early five-minute stretch that completely turned the game on its head.

At 3:18 into the period, Ivan Barbashev made it 1-1. Less than two minutes later, Vince Dunn gave St. Louis the lead. At the eight minute mark, David Perron delivered the knockout punch to make it 3-1.

From that point on the Blue were in complete control and had a number of high-danger opportunities. The score could easily have been a lot worse than 3-1 by the end of the second.

A rough shift for John Carlson

St. Louis’ first goal came on a shift Carlson would like to forget. With the puck on his stick, he carried the puck into the neutral zone up the right side. Facing no pressure, he attempted a cross-ice stretch pass that resulted in a neutral zone turnover. As the team recovered and dropped back to set up the defense, Carlson went behind the net to retrieve the puck and completely whiffed on it. The puck ended up on the stick of Ivan Barbashev who jammed it through a very loose reverse-VH that Pheonix Copley was playing against the post.

A crazy bounce

The Blues took a 2-1 lead thanks to a Vince Dunn goal, but he was not the last player to touch that puck. In fact, he has not one of the last two players to touch the puck.

Dmitry Orlov managed to get his stick in front of Dunn just as he shot the puck for the block. The puck was headed far wide of the net, but then took a second deflection off the gut of Nicklas Backstrom knocked on net and through Copley.

Heading in the wrong direction

The Caps got caught puck watching on the third goal. Both Orlov and Matt Niskanen collapsed on the left corner to pressure Ryan O’Reilly who chipped the puck back. Everyone in red evidently thought the puck was headed out of the zone. Not only were four of Washington’s players caught on the left side of the ice, all five of the team’s players was skating forward. When Dunn got the puck, he fired a quick cross-ice backhander that connected with David Perron.

While everyone was headed out of the zone, Perron was headed in the opposite direction and easily got behind the defense thanks to the pass from Dunn. After a quick deke, he roofed a backhander past Copley for the knockout punch.

A delay of game

A two-goal deficit heading into the third period against St. Louis, a team Ovechkin has feasted on over the years, hardly seems insurmountable. It proved to be, however, when Ovechkin was called midway through the third for delay of game as he sent the puck out of the ice. Less than one minute later, Vladimir Tarasenko took advantage as he netted the power play goal. That goal erased any possible doubt as to the game's outcome.

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Capitals stunned by last place Blues, allowing four unanswered goals

Capitals stunned by last place Blues, allowing four unanswered goals

A game against the last place St. Louis Blues who were missing sniper Vladimir Tarasenko on Thursday seemed like easy pickings for the Washington Capitals. But that’s why they play the game.

What looked like an easy win for the Caps turned into anything but as the Blues scored four unanswered goals in a 5-2 romp. The only silver lining for Washington was Alex Ovechkin’s first period tally that snapped a six-game goal drought for the Caps' captain.

Here are four reasons Washington lost.

A wicked deflection

St. Louis struck first just four minutes into the game. An innocent looking shot from Robert Bortuzzo from the blue line ended up in the back of the net behind a baffled Braden Holtby. Replay showed Holtby had his glove up and the puck was headed right for it, but forward Robert Thomas just managed to get a piece of it with his stick right in front of Holtby to deflect it in.

A backbreaking goal

Killing a penalty is hard to do. Even if you play perfectly for 1:50, you could still end up giving up a goal and walking away with nothing to show for your efforts. That can be deflating for a team and it seemed to be for Washington on Thursday.

The Caps’ penalty killers looked strong for much of the night including in the second period as Washington clung to a one-goal lead. Tom Wilson had a shorthanded breakaway and another opportunity soon after, but was not able to score. A few seconds later Colton Parayko scored to tie the game.

There were just 14 seconds left on the power play.

That goal seemed to take the wind out of Washington’s sails. Oskar Sundqvist scored just over four minutes later to take the lead late in the third and a game that looked like the Caps had control of was suddenly getting away from them.

After Parayko tied the game at 2, the Blues outscored Washington 3-0.

The third period

Heading into the final frame, the score was only 3-2. The Caps were certainly not out of it by any stretch. But rather than play themselves back into contention, Washington was put on their heels to start the final frame.

Despite trailing by a goal, the Caps were badly outplayed by the Blues. Washington did not get a shot on goal in the third period until about 13 minutes in. By that time, St. Louis had already managed to fire 12 shots on Holtby including two goals.

The power play

There’s no way around it, the Caps’ power play was just plain awful.

The biggest issue the power play has faced of late has been zone entry. It looked like the Blues did their homework and they stacked the blue line as a result to make it difficult for Washington to enter the offensive zone. The tactic certainly proved to be effective as the Caps clearly struggled to get past that blue line to set up their power play.

Frustration from the coaches was evident early. On the team’s very first power play of the game, Washington was whistled for offsides twice in the first 37 seconds. That was all Todd Reirden needed to see and he immediately subbed out the top power play unit, a unit that typically plays about 1:30 of a two-minute power play.

That was in the first few minutes of the game. Things did not get much better over the course of the game.

St. Louis entered Thursday’s game having given up 10 power play goals in their past eight games for a kill rate of just 60-percent. And yet, the Caps’ power play was not able to score on any of their three power play opportunities.

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