We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions of the world
After 44 years of often times crushing defeats, the Washington Capitals players and fans were finally able to sing this legendary song together at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night in what was the greatest opening night in Caps history. The team was honored in a pregame ceremony that saw Alexander Ovechkin skate the Cup onto home ice to a thunderous ovation followed by an amazing video montage, and then the raising of the 2018 Stanley Cup Championship banner to the rafters.
To top it all off, the Capitals came out and buried the Boston Bruins, 7-0, to start the 2018-19 season in fine fashion.
Evgeny Kuznetsov notched two goals, Nicklas Backstrom had three assists, and Alex Ovechkin, T.J.Oshie, and John Carlson all had two points each while Braden Holtby stopped all 25 shots he faced in this affair. It was the 13th straight victory for the Caps over the B’s and more importantly, it gave Head Coach Todd Reirden his first NHL win in his debut as Washington’s bench boss.
This was a fun game and the fans, many of whom paid top dollar for tickets to attend this tilt, certainly received their money’s worth. The atmosphere was absolutely electric during the pregame ceremony and when Oshie scored just 24 seconds into the contest, it was apparent this was going to be Washington’s night. Kuznetsov followed that tally up just 83 seconds later on a power play goal right off of the face off and then the Caps exploded for three goals in the first seven and a half minutes of period two to put this one out of reach before the game’s midway point.
Below are my thoughts and analysis on the game and other impending Capitals issues:
Special Teams were a major key as the Caps went four for six on the power play and thwarted both of the Bruins man advantage situations. The Capitals are typically deadly with a manpower advantage and Boston certainly felt that in the season opener. Ovechkin and Carlson both tallied from the “Ovi spot” and Backstrom was just a magician on the ice dishing the biscuit around like he had the puck on a string. There is no doubt that if you take penalties against the Caps, you are going to pay the price. On the PK side of things, with Tom Wilson out 20 games due to suspension (more on that later), Devante Smith-Pelly stepped up and did a marvelous job while shorthanded and Reirden’s tactical change to add Kuzy to the mix paid off, as well. Evgeny logged 1:02 of penalty killing time and he helped the Caps to generate four shots on goal while down a skater, including a golden chance for Nathan Walker (Brooks Orpik had a nice pass on that sequence, too). The Caps penalty killing was somewhat of a weakness last season, but there is cause for optimism after game one, although they will face one of the best power plays in the league in the Penguins on Thursday night in Pittsburgh at 7 pm.
The Capitals played a really solid first period and big credit goes to the defense for moving the puck well out of their own end, which allowed the Caps to dominate possession. Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, who were both rookies last season, played superbly on Wednesday. Coach Reirden was especially pleased with Bowey, who was paired with Orpik, given that this was his first meaningful hockey game in a long time. Even with Michal Kempny out due to injury (concussion – but skated for 15 minutes on Wednesday morning), the blue line was really solid. Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Matt Niskanen were stellar.
I spent a good part of my summer watching reruns of the Capitals Stanley Cup run and the thing that really stood out to me was the commitment level of the players, especially the forwards, to maintain their gap control through the neutral and defensive zones on the back check. The game winning goal against Pittsburgh was the result of that type of effort since it was Kuznetsov who knocked the puck off of Sidney Crosby’s stick before he went in and scored on a breakaway to send Washington to the Eastern Conference Finals. In the season opener, the gap control and commitment to back checking/pressure was still there. There were lots of sensational plays in this contest, but to me the one that stood out the most was DSP hustling and getting his stick in the passing lane on a potential golden chance for the Bruins. This came late in the second period with the score 6-0! Coach Reirden smiled when asked about that play and said everyone on the bench really noticed it. He also stated that this team is accountable and really plays for each other. In the post season the Capitals moved their feet and had a focus on taking the body, but there is no way to keep that style of physical play going through all 82 games and then the post season. However, you can continue to move your feet when you don’t have the puck and if you do that well, you are in position to steal or intercept the disc night after night and keep your opponents off of the score sheet. In game one, the Capitals skated hard on the back check and as a result, they dominated the game taking away time and space from some top notch players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.
Goaltending is so important in hockey and even though the Caps grabbed a two puck lead early, the Holtbeast was still needed. His best save of the night was on Bergeron, who was in all alone on #70, in period one. Boston didn’t get a ton of quality shots because of the great play in front of Holtby, but Braden did have a few ten bell saves in this tilt. He simply owns the Bruins and it was his first regular season shutout since 2016-17. The Holtbeast did have two shutouts in the playoffs, games six and seven against Tampa in the Eastern Conference Final. Game six was arguably the best playoff game I’ve ever seen Washington play.
With Kempny out due to injury and Wilson suspended on Wednesday for the first 20 games (eligible to return on November 21st), there were available spots in the lineup for new players. The aforementioned Bowey stepped up on the blue line and Nathan Walker and Nic Dowd received sweaters up front. Dowd filled the fourth line center role vacated by Jay Beagle (signed by Vancouver for four years at $3M per season) and scored a sweet backhanded tally in the high slot to make it 4-0 at the 6:13 mark of period two. DSP made a nice keep in at the point as Washington played their aggressive fore checking system perfectly on that goal scoring instance.
Willy, who will likely appeal the length of the suspension, is going to be missed because of his physical presence and talent. He’s helped make the top line with Ovi and Kuzy one of the best in the league. He is also a great penalty killer and gets in the collective heads of the Capitals opponents. He is a major plus to the Caps over 99% of the time, but hits like the one against St. Louis that led to the suspension need to be taken out of his game. As a result of his absence, the Capitals will have to play more of a finesse and high skill style early on, but the good news is the first half of the NHL season is nowhere near as physical as it is after January 1st, so if he was going to be out, this is the period where his loss should work best. As Backstrom said afterwards, the team needs Wilson, but it is also an opportunity for other players, such as Walker and Brett Connolly, to show that they can step up and minimize the impact of #43’s absence.
In summary, this was about as perfect of an opening night as you could get for the Capitals organization. The fans were energized from the time they walked into the arena and the players fed off of that energy with a quick start. Hearing We Are The Champions on the jumbotron and from the fans was special, and Backstrom summed it up best when he noted, “It was an amazing feeling, I want to experience that again.”
Cue the Osh Babe and the fans with the “Back to Back” chant.
Notes: Shot attempts were 64-53 for the Caps. Shots on goal were 37-25, Washington…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:06. Djoos logged 17:23 as #74’s partner at even strength. Niskanen (21:48) and Orlov (22:00) were a dominant duo in this game…the Caps were a putrid 19-41 from the dot, but one of the wins resulted in Kuznetsov’s first goal. Face offs are an area that will need improvement going forward. Beagle is no longer around to take the key defensive zone draws…Tuukka Rask has still never won at Capital One Arena…Marchand jumped Eller with just over six minutes left because he was being a baby and didn’t like Tiger’s celebration after his goal that made it 7-0. Lars was cut when Marchand ripped off #20’s helmet. Eller also never took off his gloves but still received the fighting major. I imagine Wilson took note of Marchand’s pest-like sequence and will file it away for reference for future games against Boston.