After losing to the Florida Panthers, 2-0, on Sunday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals completed their 2016-17 regular season with a 55-19-8 record (118 points). Here are twelve Caps thoughts, including quotes from several players, as we move into the most wonderful time of the year, the Stanley Cup Playoffs
What a classy move by Caps GM Brian MacLellan, Coach Barry Trotz and the entire organization rewarding forward Garrett Mitchell, a 6th round pick in the 2009 draft and captain of the Hershey Bears for the last two seasons, with his first NHL game on Sunday night. The 25 year old has been a regular in Chocolatetown for six straight seasons without making “The Show.” Mitchell, who is a free agent after the spring, not only played, but started the game with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Nicky even got himself thrown out of the opening draw so that Mitchell could begin his NHL debut taking the face off. Kudos to all involved and afterwards you could not wipe the smile off of Garrett’s face. It was truly a feel good moment for a player who has done everything asked of him since he’s been drafted.
With the Columbus Blue Jackets rallying from a 2-0 hole on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night to win, 3-2 in regulation, the Caps will now face the Leafs instead of the Bruins in round one. This is a matchup that I’ve wanted for several weeks and now Washington has a chance to show why it favors the Capitals. Toronto is certainly faster than Boston, but they are far less experienced than the B’s and they have a blue line that the Caps should be able to expose. Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev was also injured in game 82 for the Leafs and his status for game one on Thursday is in question.
The Capitals won the Jennings Trophy for the first time since 1983-84 for allowing the fewest goals per game in the NHL over the course of 82 contests. Coach Trotz credited all three aspects of the team’s game, offense, defense, and goaltending for the achievement, but he put extra emphasis on what Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have done in net. Trotz stated that you really need strong goaltending in this league and he noted that if you look at the numbers for the Holtbeast and Grubauer they are very similar, especially in terms of save percentage.
Washington is at its best when they are playing a structured game and not giving up odd man rushes. Following Sunday night’s season finale, forward Daniel Winnik provided insight into the key to limiting them. “I think a lot of that just has to do with, you know I’d love to see our goal differential from when we’ve had the set lines and set d-pairings since December. I think that’s made a huge difference and tightening up our overall defensive game. A lot of that has come from limiting turnovers at the offensive blue line. I think we’ve done less of exchanging chances with teams. I think we have the best five on five goal differential in the league.”
T.J. Oshie (33), Marcus Johansson (24), and Justin Williams (24) all had career highs in goals this season and those three players have been very good at getting to the front of the opposing team’s net, something that is very important in playoff hockey. I asked Jojo on how the Caps have improved their ability to do that this season. “We’ve talked about [net presence] a lot. When it comes down to the playoffs most goals are scored from there. We have to get to those dirty areas and I think it’s shown that when you go there you are going to get goals and get rewarded. So I’m going to keep doing it.”
The addition of Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis at the NHL trade deadline has been a big one for the Caps. I asked Shattenkirk about the change in systems between the two clubs. “It seems like here we play a little more defense skating forward. We’re pushing up on teams and really trying to squeeze all of their time and space out of them. I think in St. Louis we received the rush a little more and allowed forwards to back check and apply pressure. But here I like that, I like playing on my toes. It keeps me engaged the whole game, it sets up well for me.”
I followed up with Shattenkirk by saying that I thought Coach Trotz’ system fits his skill set better. Here’s what Shatty had to say in reply, “It does, it does. I think especially when we turn pucks over in the neutral zone I think the skill that we have up front, the way that these forwards present themselves, our system allows us to turn back on teams and I think that’s a strong area of my game, getting those pucks and finding that outlet pass that we can turn right back on teams and get instant offense on it. All of that stuff really starts to feed into my game.”
Shattenkirk has been paired primarily with 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Brooks Orpik for the first time in his career. Here’s Kevin’s take on how he sees things working out so far. “I knew the style of defensemen I was going to be playing with here and he’s surprised me a bit. Playing here the last few years he’s changed his game in a way that he makes some poised plays. He’s not just an off of the wall and out kind of guy anymore, he makes plays through the middle and he makes plays at the blue line. We’ve been moving a lot from our offensive blue line and creating a lot of space for our forwards. He’s a guy that can dive in and dive back out. Every game has seemed to go better and better and I really like the way that we’re going.”
There’s no doubt that the addition of #22 has strengthened the Capitals power play and I asked him about the key to finding his role on that unit. “It’s great. For me it was a matter of the first couple of games, I think just like any player who would get that opportunity, you’re looking for Ovi all the time. I’m looking to go back to Nicky and let him make the plays. It wasn’t until the third or fourth game I started realizing that I had to shoot some pucks. Teams weren’t really worrying about me shooting pucks and that’s something we’ve worked on in practice, me just getting pucks into T.J. and Marcus, who are great around the net. Once I started to establish that, it seems like those other plays really opened up, the big plays, and Ovi only needs one shot a game to make it count and I just want to make sure that when that time comes I’m putting it in the right spot for him.”
The Capitals have yet to win a Stanley Cup, but both Williams (three times) and Orpik have raised Lord Stanley. Shattenkirk also went to the Western Conference finals last season while many of the Caps have yet to advance past the second round. I asked Shattenkirk what it takes to advance that deep in the postseason. “That’s a loaded question. There are a lot of things that factor into it. One is being even keeled. I think that we [in St. Louis] were the same last year as this team is now. We were the team that was out in the first and second round for four straight years. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, you just have to stick with it. You have to have resiliency about your team and make sure that you realize there’s going to be lows; you can’t put too much pressure on yourselves throughout the playoffs. The way we ride those waves is going to be important and like you said the two guys that we have with the most experience here [Williams and Orpik], we’re going to lean on those guys, hopefully I can be a fresh voice and we just have to keep the hunger there. This team has everything that we need in the locker room to win playoff games; we just have to make sure that we don’t beat ourselves up too bad.”
Coach Trotz has done an outstanding job of spreading minutes around the blue line this season, but once Shattenkirk came on board, things evened out more. I asked #22 if that allows the Caps to play faster. “It does and more than anything it’s the rhythm. In St. Louis it was more situational when I would play more minutes, here it’s we’ve got three pairs that can play. Depending what happens with penalties and power plays, that can skew things a little bit, but for the most part we’re all rolling and I think for us to have that rhythm as a defensive pair and as a defensive unit, it’s great for our team because you don’t want to have guys sitting three, four minutes in a row, especially in the playoffs in critical situations.”
The Capitals finished the season on an 11-2-1 run and you can pretty much throw that last loss to Florida out since it was a Hockey North America like no checking affair. Winnik was asked if he thinks momentum matters heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “Completely. I think it matters how you play before the playoffs. I think Pittsburgh proved that, the previous winners, LA, so I think playing the way we are hopefully its good foreshadowing.”
Here’s the official Caps-Leafs first round schedule:
Date TIME (ET)
Thursday, April 13 7 p.m. Toronto at Washington
Saturday, April 15 7 p.m. Toronto at Washington
Monday, April 17 7 p.m. Washington at Toronto
Wednesday, April 19 7 p.m. Washington at Toronto
*Friday, April 21 TBD Toronto at Washington
*Sunday, April 23 TBD Washington at Toronto
*Tuesday, April 25 TBD Toronto at Washington