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Mike Weber 'wanted to be a Penguin,' but now wants to beat them

Mike Weber 'wanted to be a Penguin,' but now wants to beat them

Capitals defenseman Mike Weber is not ashamed to admit it. As a child growing up just 20 miles north of downtown Pittsburgh, he always wanted to be a Penguin.

There was one problem, however, his grandmother was a diehard Steelers fans and so was everyone else in his family.

“The town bleeds black and gold,” said Weber, who is expected to be in the lineup tonight at Consol Energy Cenrer in place of the suspended Brooks Orpik when the Capitals face the Penguins in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series.

“I grew up with that mindset. In school it was all about football.”

As a tall, athletic teenager, Weber played defensive back and defensive line, but after watching Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis and Paul Coffey win two Stanley Cups in the early 1990s at the old Igloo, his true love was hockey.

“I played football for a few years, until I had to choose between football and hockey,” Weber said. “It was an easy decision. I wanted to be a Penguin. I didn’t fit in that well in school. I’m sure hockey is a lot more popular now than it was when I was coming up.

“They take (football) pretty serious in Western Pennsylvania and when I missed one football practice for a hockey game they kind of gave me the ultimatum. I said, ‘OK, see ya later.’”

Weber attended Seneca Valley High School in Cranberry Township, close to where the Penguins practice today, and moved to Tecumseh, Ontario, where he played four seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the 2006 NHL draft.

One of Weber’s greatest hockey memories was recording his first NHL point in his first-ever game at the old Igloo, which is now a parking lot across the street from Consol. His family and friends were there to share the moment.

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“It was special because I went to a few Penguins games as a kid and listened on the radio on the way back from late-night hockey practices,” Weber recalled. “They catapulted me into watching and wanting to play and it worked out pretty well.”

Weber spent his entire NHL career with the Sabres before they traded him to the Capitals for a third-round draft pick just before February’s NHL trade deadline. 

In his first game in Pittsburgh as a Capital on March 20, Weber made quite a few enemies when he checked rookie Bryan Rust from behind and was given a game misconduct. 

“I know I’ve had some impact there playing against them,” he said. “Maybe I get mixed reviews now about going back.” 

Weber says his rugged style is a product of his upbringing.

“It’s a special area and it’s nice to be from such a hard-working town,” he said. “As I’ve gone along in my career I’ve always kept that chip on my shoulder and not forget where I came from. They’re working-class people and I try to bring that along with me. 

“I always get jacked up to play the Pens. It’s always fun going back to Pittsburgh, but it’s more fun to beat them.”

As for his grandmother and the rest of his family, he expects blood to be thicker than their deep-rooted rooting interests. 

“They have to support their family,” Weber said. “They can wear a Pens jersey if they want underneath, but it better be a Caps jacket on top. They better be supporting the family.”

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

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USA Today Sports

The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.

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