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AAA Keys to the Game: Caps vs. Blue Jackets

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AAA Keys to the Game: Caps vs. Blue Jackets

The Capitals (28-7-2, 58 points) had their nine-game win streak snapped in Carolina on New Year's Eve and visit John Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets (14-22-3, 31 points) tonight at Nationwide Arena (6:30 p.m. pregame, CSN). Here are our AAA Keys to the Game:

Chasing history: Alex Ovechkin is four goals shy of becoming the 43rd player in NHL history to record 500 goals. He’s also four games shy of playing in his 800th NHL game. If he stays healthy, Game No. 800 will come in New York a week from today.

Chasing Marty: Braden Holtby (24-4-1, 1.86 GAA, .934 SP) is expected to make his 31st start of the season. He is on pace for an incredible 53 wins this season, which would shatter the NHL record of 48 victories set by Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur in 2006-07. Holtby is 16-0-1 in his last 18 games with two shutouts, a 1.76 GAA and .942 SP. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Holtby is the first goaltender to record a point in at least 17 straight decisions since 2010-11 (Roberto Luongo: 16-0-5). In 10 career games against Columbus Holtby is 6-2-1 with a 2.88 GAA and .900 SP.

In the other net: With No. 1 goalie Sergei Bobrovsky coming off a groin injury that forced him to  miss nine games, the Blue Jackets are expected to go with backup Curtis McElhinney, who is 2-6-2 with a 3.27 GAA and .891 SP in 14 appearances this season. In three career starts against the Caps McElhinney is 1-2-0 with a 4.73 GAA and .846 SP.

Line shuffle: With center Jay Beagle sidelined the next 6 weeks following hand surgery, Marcus Johansson has moved into his spot on the third line between wingers Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson. That leaves a fourth line of Zach Sill between wingers Brooks Laich and Michael Latta.

And on the back end: John Carlson will miss his fourth straight game with a lower body injury. That leaves Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen on the top unit, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov on the second unit and Taylor Chorney and Aaron Ness on the third unit.

Where they stand: The Caps lead the Metro Division by 11 points over the New York Islanders but are coming off a 4-2 loss in Carolina on New Year’s eve. The Blue Jackets are dead last in the NHL but are coming off a 6-3 win over the NHL-leading Dallas Stars on Tuesday night.

December to remember: The Capitals went 11-2-1 in December, marking their most wins in a single month since April 2013 (11). The Caps ranked third in the NHL in goals-against per game (1.93) during the month, fourth in penalty kill percentage (89.4), fifth in goals per game (2.93) and seventh in power-play percentage (22.5).

Torts effect: When the Blue Jackets hired head coach John Tortorella on Oct. 21 they were 0-7-0. They have gone 14-15-3 since then. Tortorella was critical of his veteran players last weekend when he said he was concerned his young players might develop bad habits by watching the play of his veterans.

Auld Lang Syne: In the calendar year of 2015 the Capitals ranked first in the NHL in wins (55) and point percentage (.699). Alex Ovechkin led the NHL in goals (57), power-play goals (25) and shots (400), ranked second in points (85), tied for third in game-winning goals (10) and fourth in points per game (1.05). Braden Holtby led the NHL in wins (49), ranked third in shutouts (8), fourth in save percentage (.929) and tied for fourth in goals-against average (2.04). Nicklas Backstrom ranked third in the NHL in assists (56).

Refuse to lose (twice): The Caps are a perfect 8-0-0 following losses this season, outscoring opponents 28-12 in those games. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the last NHL team to go an entire season without back-to-back losses were the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.

Who’s hot: Ovechkin has four goals in his last three games. Brandon Saad has nine points (four goals, five assists) in his past six games.

Here are tonight’s projected lineups:

CAPITALS

Forward lines

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie

Andre Burakovsky - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Justin Williams

Jason Chimera - Marcus Johansson - Tom Wilson

Brooks Laich - Zach Sill - Michael Latta

Defense pairs

Matt Niskanen - Karl Alzner

Dmitry Orlov - Nate Schmidt

Aaron Ness - Taylor Chorney

Goaltenders

Braden Holtby (starter) - Philipp Grubauer

Injured: Brooks Orpik (lower body), John Carlson (lower body), Jay Beagle (left hand)

Scratched: Stanislav GalievRyan Stanton

BLUE JACKETS

Forward lines

Boone Jenner - Brandon Dubinsky - Cam Atkinson

Scott Hartnell - Alexander Wennberg - Brandon Saad

Gregory Campbell - Ryan Johansen - Nick Foligno

Rene Bourque - William Karlsson - David Clarkson

Defense pairs

Ryan Murray - Jack Johnson

Fedor Tyutin - Dalton Prout

Justin Falk – David Savard

Goaltenders

Curtis McElhinney - Anton Forsberg

Injured: Cody Goloubef (broken jaw), Markus Hannikainen (shoulder), Matt Calvert (knee), Sergei Bobrovsky (groin)

Scratched: Andrew BodnarchukJared BollKevin Connauton

MORE CAPITALS: Caps announce Beagle hand surgery, recovery timeline

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MacLellan on facing McPhee in Stanley Cup Final: 'It's a little awkward'

MacLellan on facing McPhee in Stanley Cup Final: 'It's a little awkward'

LAS VEGAS—One of the more intriguing storylines of this year’s Stanley Cup Final centers on a couple of men who make their living behind the scenes: Brian MacLellan of the Caps and his counterpart with the Golden Knights, George McPhee.

They’ve known each other for 40-plus years, dating back to their time as bantam teammates in Canada. And, starting Monday, they’ll be on opposing sides, with hockey’s Holy Grail at stake.  

Caps fans, of course, are familiar with McPhee’s work. He served as GM in Washington from 1997-2014 and drafted 13 players who are currently on the Caps’ roster. McPhee was also the Caps’ rookie GM the last time the franchise appeared in the Final 20 years ago.

But here’s what Caps fans might not know about the connection that MacLellan and McPhee share:

  • They were born in a few months apart in 1958 in Ontario.
  • They captured the Canadian Jr. A championship as members of the 1977-78 Guelph Platers.
  • Both were on scholarship at Bowling Green from 1978-1982.
  • They played together with the New York Rangers in 1985-86.
  • And, finally, they worked side-by-side in Washington from 2000-2014. After working his way up from the scouting ranks, MacLellan replaced his managerial mentor, who had been let go following a disappointing season.

 

“It's kind of a weird experience,” MacLellan said. “We kind of have been texting back and forth how strange it feels to have this line up the way it has. It's a little awkward, but it's going to be a fun experience, I hope.”

At one point, MacLellan got choked up when talking about his relationship with McPhee, who’ll become the first GM in the expansion era to face a former team of which he served as GM.

“We played junior together and then we both went to Bowling Green on scholarships, so we lived together,” he said, fighting back tears. “It was fun.”

MacLellan also acknowledged that the two weren’t as tight—for a time, at least—after he replaced McPhee four years ago. McPhee also hinted at some strain, though he said the two men had dinner at the most recent GM’s meetings.

“Not as close, I don't think,” MacLellan said of his relationship with McPhee following McPhee’s dismissal. “A little bit of communication here and there. But I think it just took a little time for things to evolve. I think he needed a break from the game, needed a break from how it went down for him here and it just took time.”

When the two negotiated during last year’s expansion draft, which saw McPhee pluck promising you blueliner Nate Schmidt from Washington’s roster, MacLellan said the two old friends keep things “businesslike.”

“He was all business,” MacLellan said. “He wasn’t giving in on anything.”

Although McPhee drafted most of the core players who delivered the Caps to this year’s Final, MacLellan also deserves credit for getting this team over the second round hump. Among his first acquisitions were defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, a pair of vets that helped shore up a shaky defense. MacLellan also added forwards T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller via trade in recent seasons and, this year, added defenseman Michal Kempny, a particularly shrewd move that bolstered a blue line that needed a little tightening.

As weird as the next few days will be for MacLellan as he faces his old friend, it figures to even more strange for McPhee, who will look down from the GM’s suite on Monday and see not one, but two teams that he built on the ice. McPhee also pilfered a handful of current and former front office employees from Caps, including Goalie Coach Dave Prior, while building the Golden Knights.

Indeed, the history between MacLellan and McPhee runs deep. But for the next couple of weeks, they’ll put aside their decades-old friendship as their clubs battle for the NHL’s ultimate prize.
 

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS:

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What winning the Stanley Cup would actually mean, a fan's perspective

What winning the Stanley Cup would actually mean, a fan's perspective

Just four more wins. It hardly seems possible.

For only the second time ever and for the first time in 20 years, the Capitals will be playing in the Stanley Cup Final. And they could actually win it.

They’re not there yet. The Vegas Golden Knights have cruised through the playoffs thus far and continue to shock the hockey community with their postseason run. Washington’s players need to think about how to beat Vegas, not what happens after.

But while the players cannot and should not look ahead, for fans, it’s hard not to. It’s hard not to dream about that moment when Gary Bettman hands the Stanley Cup over to Alex Ovechkin.

Winning the conference is always a huge achievement that should be celebrated, but this year is different than 1998’s run. Back in 1998, the Caps played against a Detroit Red Wings team that is one of the greatest teams in NHL history. They were the defending champions after sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers the year before. Washington suffered the same fate as the Flyers, losing in just four games.

This year is a battle between two more evenly matched teams. Picking the Caps to win this series is not outlandish or crazy at all. This year, they could actually do it.

So before the puck drops for Game 1 and all dreams are pushed aside for the realities of what may happen, allow a fan a chance to think about what seeing the Washington Capitals actually hoist the Stanley Cup would actually mean.

Breaking news: Washington is not Canada and the Capitals are not an original six team. Hockey is not ingrained in the culture of D.C. the way it is in Canadian cities or in places like Boston and Detroit. Unlike in Vegas where the success of the team in its inaugural season has caught the city by storm, the Capitals won only eight games in their first year. Eight wins doesn’t exactly help a team grow roots in the community.

If you’ve been a fan of the Capitals long enough, chances are you’ve seen some pretty tough times. There have been plenty of playoff disappointments in this team’s history even before the current era. There was also the rebuild that began before the lockout that saw a very bad team play in front of a half empty stadium for several years. And they would not have even gotten to that point without the “Save the Caps” campaign in 1982.

But through it all, that small group of hardcore fans kept coming back. Some may have wavered from time to time, but they came back because being a hockey fan is different than other sports.

It’s hard to be a sports fan in any city with an NFL team and not follow football. Football may not even be your sport, but there is almost on obligation to following it because coverage and interest in football is so prevalent. It’s hard to avoid.

You have to seek out hockey

Hockey at times has been viewed as more of a niche sport than mainstream. Before the age of Alex Ovechkin, if you were from Washington and you were following the Caps, it was because you loved both.

So why did those Caps fans keep coming back after so much heartbreak? Because despite all of the disappointing seasons we always walked away telling ourselves, this will just make it that much sweeter when they do win.

One day, it will all be worth it.

That’s why we watch sports, isn’t it? We watch with the knowledge that sometimes, our hearts will be broken but it’s OK because the good will always outweigh the bad. And the worse the bad times are, the better the good times will feel afterward.

We kept telling ourselves that for a long time, but admittedly some years were tougher to get past than others. It’s hard to keep believing when you’ve seen your rival beat you nine times out of 10 in the playoffs heading into this year’s postseason. It’s hard when a team cannot seem to overcome its playoff history despite having one of the best players of all-time on its roster.

When Ovechkin was drafted, the question we all asked ourselves was not whether he would bring a Cup to Washington, but how many? He brought new fans with him, he brought excitement with him, he brought validation with him…at least initially.

But with every passing year, doubt began to creep into our minds. The upset loss to Montreal in 2010 stung, but Ovechkin was still 24. There was still hope that one day, he would still win the Cup.

Now at 32 years old, many did not know what to expect from the Great 8 this year. When would decline start to show in his game?

Ovechkin is part of why we want the Cup so badly. We want to see the best player in this franchise’s history honored. We want to see the player who transformed hockey in Washington from niche sport to mainstream take his proper place in the sport’s history. No one wants to hear him described as one of the best players to never win a Cup because he should be remembered as one of the best players, period.

But that’s not all of it.

This is about all those times we told ourselves this would all be worth it someday. This is about how we used to cope with the sting of another postseason heartbreak by thinking about what it would feel like when it was finally our year. This is about how we stuck with the team when the stadium was half empty. This is about the blue jersey in our closet with the eagle on the front and the black one hanging next to it with the capitol building on the front. This is about all the 5, 12, 32 and 37 jerseys. This is about replacing Esa Tikkanen as our lasting Stanley Cup memory.

When the Washington Redskins have a rough year, those fans who can remember them think about those three Super Bowl wins. When the Washington Wizards fall short, those fans who can remember it think about the championship in 1978. Even if you’re too young to remember the Super Bowls or NBA championship, those banners still give your team a sense of validation. They have their little piece of history to be proud of.

That’s what this would mean. A Stanley Cup would be not just for the players, it would be for the fans who stuck it out through thick and thin, those fans who despite everything still supported their team. This win would be about the Capitals forever earning their spot in the heart of Washington sports alongside the Redskins and Wizards.

This would be about never having to tell ourselves again that someday all the love we pour into this team will pay off.

A Stanley Cup would mean finally getting to experience a championship and realizing, yeah, it was all worth it.

Let’s go Caps!

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