2018 Stanley Cup Final

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”

Stanley Cup champion Capitals to visit Trump at White House

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will get a chance to celebrate their Stanley Cup championship with President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday. One player has already said he won’t attend.

Minutes after the Capitals beat the New Jersey Devils 4-1 on Tuesday night, forward Brett Connolly said he would skip the ceremony.

”I said what I needed to say,” said Connolly, who had hinted that he would not attend before the White House sent the invitation. ”Respectfully, decline. That’s all I will say about it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. It’s obviously a big deal and gains a lot of attention, but I have been in full support of an old teammate that I am really good friends with and I agreed with.”

Connolly, who is Canadian, did not identify the player.

The most obvious choice is forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who is currently in the minors. He had told Postmedia in Canada during the Stanley Cup final that he wouldn’t go to the White House.

Ovechkin and his teammates are continuing the NHL tradition of visiting the sitting president after some recent champions in other leagues have chosen not to.

The Russian-born captain and playoff MVP said he was excited about the White House trip after the game and planned to attend.

”I can’t wait,” Ovechkin had said in June. ”I never been there. I want to take pictures around it. It will be fun.”

The Capitals are Washington’s first champions in the four major North American sports leagues since the NFL’s Redskins in 1992, also the last hometown pro team to visit the White House.

This visit has political undertones given that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia and whether the president obstructed the investigation. Ovechkin has been a vocal supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and fellow countrymen Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov are also on the team.

After posting on Instagram about Putin in November 2017, Ovechkin said it was not political while adding that he had a good relationship with Putin.

”I just support my president and just support my country because I’m from there, and you know, if people from U.S. came to Russia, they care about what happen in the U.S.,” Ovechkin said. ”So, I care about what happening in Russia because it’s my home and it’s where I’m from.”

The 2017 champion Pittsburgh Penguins visited the White House and Trump. Back-to-back Cup-winning coach Mike Sullivan said at the White House in October 2017 that the team’s visit was not political and the Penguins were ”simply honoring our championship and the accomplishments of this group of players over this season or the last two seasons.”

The NBA’s Golden State Warriors decided not to go to the White House after either of their past two championships. Several players met with former President Barack Obama before facing the Washington Wizards in February.

The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles had a visit planned, but only two players planned to go to the White House to celebrate their Super Bowl win, and Trump rescinded their invitation on the eve of the gathering. After the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in February, defensive back Devin McCourty said he wouldn’t go if the team visited Trump, which it did in 2017 – absent quarterback Tom Brady and others.

Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox are scheduled to celebrate their World Series championship at the White House on May 9.

They won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history last June against the Vegas Golden Knights.

”It will be fun,” center Nicklas Backstrom said of the White House trip on Tuesday night. ”It’s exciting. Any time you get an invitation from the president and be at the White House, it’s going to be a great experience, I think.”

Goaltender Braden Holtby said at the time the Capitals would make a team decision about the White House and ”weigh the positives and negatives of everything.”

”In any situation like that, you want to make sure you’re doing what’s right for what you believe in and that should take thought – and weigh a group decision,” Holtby said.

AP White House reporter Darlene Superville and AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan in Newark, New Jersey, contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Capitals waive Stanley Cup hero Smith-Pelly

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When the Washington Capitals signed Devante Smith-Pelly to a one-year contract before the 2017-18 season they probably were not expecting him to play such a huge role in a Stanley Cup winning season.

He turned out to be one of the surprising heroes of their championship run by scoring seven postseason goals, three of them coming in the Stanley Cup Final series against the Vegas Golden Knights, including the game-tying goal in their clinching Game 5 win.

That postseason performance reportedly resulted in him getting an opportunity to secure a multi-year deal in free agency over the summer. He turned down that opportunity to re-sign with the Capitals on a one-year, $1 million contract.

On Wednesday, the team placed him on waivers in what is another reminder of what a harsh, bottom line business professional sports is.

Harsh as it may be, it’s also not totally unjustified. It has been an extremely tough year for the 26-year-old winger who enters Wednesday with just four goals and four assists in 54 games and some of the worst possession numbers on the team. He also hasn’t seemed to fully capture the trust of first-year coach Todd Rierden after showing up to camp and not meeting certain team conditioning standards. Now he finds himself on waivers.

What is perhaps most interesting about the move is Reirden said the team had initially planned to waive Dmitrij Jaskin but changed their mind, and that there are a lot of moving parts right now. That would seem to indicate that a trade could be on the horizon.

Given that Smith-Pelly doesn’t have a huge contract or cap hit and was so successful in the playoffs a year ago there is always a chance a playoff team could take a shot on claiming him.

Smith-Pelly has 44 goals and 57 assists in 395 career regular season games with the Capitals, Ducks, Canadiens, and Devils. He has not recorded a point in 17 consecutive games.

MORE: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Barry Trotz’s emotional return to D.C. will also have playoff feel

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Barry Trotz may want to treat Friday’s meeting with the Washington Capitals as “any other game,” but it will be anything but that as he returns to D.C. for the first time since the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

The Islanders and Trotz will visit Capital One Arena for the first time this season, which is also the first time the head coach has been in the building since Game 4 of the Cup Final. Two days later the Capitals were celebrating their first championship. Two weeks after that Trotz resigned and later headed for Long Island.

It was a successful four years in D.C. for Trotz, who guided the Capitals to the most regular-season wins (205) in the NHL between 2014-2018. As he did for years in Nashville, Washington followed his lead with a strong defensive mindset, which was helped by goaltending coach Mitch Korn, that saw them allow only an average of 2.45 goals per game over that period.

Now Trotz and Korn are with the Islanders (Korn is the Director of Goaltending, while Piero Greco is the team’s goaltending coach) and the results have followed.

The Islanders are one of the NHL’s biggest surprises this season and the Trotz Effect has already taken hold. They have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (116) and are only averaging 2.52 goals allowed per game through 46 games. Greco and Korn have turned Robin Lehner (.934 even strength save percentage) and Thomas Greiss (.928 EVSV%) into a formidable tandem who offer confident options in net every night. 

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Listen to Capitals players, especially the veterans who played under Trotz all four years, and you’ll hear them talk about he changed the culture in that dressing room, about how he stayed relaxed no matter how high or low the situation, about his attention to details. That had a positive effect on his team — one that was so desperately seeking to overcome playoff ghosts. Nicklas Backstrom said he instilled a “never being satisfied” attitude. John Carlson noted how that as the Trotz evolved as a coach so too did his team, which resulted in a championship.

The things that Trotz brought to D.C. remain as his former associate head coach, Todd Reirden, now runs the Capitals’ bench. Another assistant, Lane Lambert, joined Trotz and Korn on Long Island, and he’s hoping that whatever video tribute that’s played Friday night also includes them.

This will the second emotional moment Trotz will have had this season involving his former team. Back in November, when the Capitals visited the Islanders at Barclays Center, he received his Stanley Cup ring and got to give a few words of thanks to his former players, along with Lambert and Korn.

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At the time, the Islanders were third in the Metropolitan Division. They remain in that spot and following Thursday’s win over the New Jersey Devils sit one point behind the Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets for tops in the division. As Trotz said, there was work to be done to put his new team on the level to what his old team accomplished, but the trend is certainly heading into the right direction. After joining his new team, he felt they could be in the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference but was unsure because there were many unknowns.

Now it’s a reality and with 36 games to go the Islanders have banked enough points to give them a bit of a cushion in the playoff picture. Balanced scoring, good defense, dependable goaltending — these are the marks of a Barry Trotz team. Friday’s game will have an emotional touch, but also a playoff feel for both sides.

“We see every game as a normal game and try to get ready as a normal game, whether there’s a former coach, there’s a playoff game, whatever” said Backstrom. “But obviously we all know what Barry’s done for us here as players and for us as a city. I think it’s pretty special. So I’m sure he will be well-received here [Friday], and he should be because he deserves it.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.