It’s been exactly a week since the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup and the vibe I’ve been getting around the DMV is that people are still basking in the afterglow of the victory and are dying for more information and news on the team. It’s pretty apparent that this group of players, coaches, training staff, and managers will be heroes, at least in this part of the country, for the rest of their lives. Owner Ted Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick have put their heart and soul, plus a lot of money, into this organization over the years and are finally being rewarded with a Championship.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, Coach Barry Trotz, and the others on this team have silenced the critics with this amazing season that included a Metropolitan Division title, when most people had them barely getting into the post season or not making it at all. Once game three of the Columbus series began, they went on an incredible 16-6 run in which they overcame a games deficit in all four rounds to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup. It was a remarkable display of grit, toughness, perseverance, and desire to do what had never been done by the franchise before.
There were many moments along the way where they seemed destined to fail, but somehow found a way to push through. Columbus hits the post in game three of the first overtime that would’ve given them a 3-0 series lead before Lars Eller’s magical goal off of a Brett Connolly shot. Tom Kuhnhackl hits the post in overtime of game six before Evgeny Kuznetsov takes that super pass from Ovechkin to finally slay the Penguins dragon. The Caps give up a two game series lead to Tampa with three straight losses, but shut out the Bolts over the final 159 minutes of the series to storm into the Cup Final. In game two of the Stanley Cup Final, with 1:59 remaining and a one goal lead, the Holtbeat makes “The Save” on Alex Tuch to prevent overtime and propel Washington to four straight wins and hockey’s ultimate prize.
It was clear that the tightness of this team provided the foundation that allowed them to rise up and seize the critical moments in the postseason that the Washington Capitals had never done before, in any era. It was legendary, that’s the best way for me to describe it and as each moment since has transpired, I am appreciating more and more what they’ve accomplished. Many in Caps Nation surely feel the same way. Thank you, 2018 Washington Capitals.
Wednesday was breakdown day at Kettler IcePlex, as I chronicled yesterday in this blog, but as promised, below is the transcript of a one on one exclusive interview WNST was able to obtain with Connolly, who came to Washington in 2016 looking for an opportunity after stints with Tampa and Boston, and has completely seized it.
WNST: You’ve been telling me for two years since you’ve been here that you guys have a good team, but the way you guys played and came together, that was amazing.
Connolly: Yeah, it was amazing, such a good group, such a committed group, such a highly skilled group. We really just came together at the right time, especially after that Pittsburgh series where we first really believed we could win this. It’s such a big moment for all of us, we’re all just so happy that we could ultimately get this done for all of our fans, for our families, it was such a special moment.
WNST: Coach Trotz told us when he came out to Baltimore that this team this year, whenever he asked someone to move around in the lineup, that he received no push back. That seems to really speak to the type of team you had this year?
Connolly: Yeah, I think you have to be playing the guys that are playing well, whether you’re a veteran guy or a rookie guy, it doesn’t matter. I think we were just cheering for whoever was in, whoever was getting more ice time that night. If a guy wasn’t playing well we’d pick him up, he’d ultimately change his game and they’d figure it out. It was just a good environment to be in, everyone was playing their best hockey at the right time of the year.
WNST: The way you, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky played in the playoffs, all three of you guys have always had high skill, but the way the three of you took the body, were in the proper position on the walls, it seemed like that was the biggest jump you guys made and was a big part of the team’s success. Would you agree with that?
Connolly: Yes, I think so. I think I got a little taste of [the playoffs] last year, I didn’t play a whole lot, there were a lot of other guys deserving of that chance and I just wasn’t, but I think I got a little confidence from that, just knowing what to expect. I think we all really just played solid, just did what was asked of us, we didn’t really care. I think overall a lot of our games got better throughout the playoffs. It was ultimately why a lot of us were successful and had good stats and helped the team win.
WNST: It seems like every time an obstacle was thrown at you guys, you overcame it. First one, game three against Columbus, you score a goal that would’ve made it 2-0, it comes back on an offside, but on the game winning goal in double overtime, you make a smart play by shooting quickly and the puck goes in off of Lars Eller for the team’s first win.
Connolly: Simple, but that’s the playoffs, really simple. I had a couple of those in the postseason, just need a break sometimes and I just tried to shoot it as quick as I could and as hard as I could. You know we were earning all of our breaks in the playoffs, we were working for each other and I think we legitimately deserved everything we got.
WNST: The last goal of the Stanley Cup playoffs, you didn’t score the goal, but it was your shot, with again Lars going to the net. This team did that the whole playoffs.
Connolly: Yeah, just the same thing. Lars was hungry all playoffs, he’s a guy that’s going to the net all of the time. He really, really elevated his game the whole playoffs. Really awesome to see, he really turned a lot of heads. Such a big moment for the city, for me, him, and Burkie, whoever was on the ice, at that point.
WNST: You’ve been here two years, I grew up here, I’ve been around this team for 44 years. I don’t know how much you realize what legends you guys are going to be around this area to finally bring a Cup here. This team was gone in 1982, but for the Save the Caps. Then in 2004 it is gone again if Ovi doesn’t comes along. You guys now go and win a Cup and have put it over the top.
Connolly: It’s pretty cool. We saw the support at the parade. People are on cloud nine and it’s amazing to see everybody so happy. It’s really cool to be a part of something like that. To put so many smiles on so many people’s faces. There’s been so much good support the last couple of years I’ve been here, but that parade was insane and it was something that I’ll never forget and a lot of guys will never forget.
WNST: What are you going to do with the Cup?
Connolly: I’m going to go home to British Columbia, Prince George, just take it around town. I don’t know what we’ll do, but just try to get as many people to see it as possible.
Connolly is definitely one of the better interviews on the team and I’ve appreciated his insight since he joined the Caps last season. He has worked hard to improve and he’s made General Manager Brian MacLellan and his scouting staff look super smart for bringing him to town. Kudos, Brett.
In yesterday’s blog, I failed to mention that Kuznetsov’s injury from the Brayden McNabb hit in game two was to his left shoulder. Fortunately, Kuzy is a smaller version of the Russian Machine that Never Breaks and came back in game three to lead his team to victory with an outstanding performance. All season long, in this blog and in my radio sessions with WNST owner Nestor Aparacio, I showered number 92 with tough love. He is an immensely talented hockey player who I knew, if he took his game to another level and played the right way, would be such a key to the Capitals finally breaking through into the later rounds of the playoffs. Boy did he do just that, and more. Evgeny led all players in scoring in the playoffs and he delivered when the team really needed him to do so. He has moved himself from the very good category to the elite/superstar level with his postseason performance. He earned every bit of the $7.8M he received from the Caps this past season.
The Caps now have a short turnaround for training camp, which will start around September 10th or so. It’s already June 14th, so there will be less time to get ready. Jay Beagle, who has won championships at the ECHL, AHL, and now the NHL level did point out that the short time to get ready isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beags said that in the three summers following his ECHL and two AHL triumphs, he was more motivated to train and that he didn’t have to work hard to prevent losing focus like he’s done when the team has been eliminated earlier in the spring. So it would appear that this summer the Caps players do have that going for them….which is nice.