Washington Capitals

NHL players forget outside world during long playoff runs

Two minutes after wrapping up a conversation with his wife, Lars Eller couldn’t remember anything.

”She would be, like a half-hour later, ‘Remember what we just talked about?”’ Eller recalled. ”I’m like: ‘No, I’m sorry. I completely forgot.”’

A lot of things were forgotten during the Washington Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run that culminated with Eller’s clinching goal. This is the time of year when hockey crowds virtually everything else out for players who go on deep playoff runs. Travel, hotel rooms, practices, sleep, playoff beards and, above all, the next game are front and center. Things like cutting the grass and paying the bills fall by the wayside. They can wait, right?

”The whole world is put on hold,” said Mike Rupp, who won the Cup with New Jersey in 2003. ”When I was playing in the playoffs, I wouldn’t pay bills back before I had automatic bill pays. Playoffs, if you go on a decent run, I have all these late payments because you just forget about everything. Nothing matters. You’re just so entrenched in it.”

Automatic bill payments have become Jordan Staal‘s friend growing up from a 20-year-old on Pittsburgh’s 2009 championship team to a husband and father a decade later with Carolina. As younger teammates like Teuvo Teravainen have no problem going all in on playoff hockey mode, Staal leans on loved ones to get him through the daily needs off the ice.

”There’s that small realm of what you’re focused on, and paying the bills may not be one of them,” Staal said. ”That’s when you’ve got a good family around you and good friends to kind of just take that stuff off your hands and let you focus on what you’ve got to do.”

Hurricanes captain Justin Williams loses track of what day it is: It’s either a game day or not a game day, though doing a daily newspaper crossword puzzle reminds him that it’s actually, say, Saturday. But after winning the Cup in 2006, 2012 and 2014 at different stages of his life and going on several other long runs, the grizzled veteran has it all figured out by now.

”It’s easy to do,” Williams said. ”You just deflect as much as you can and use the excuse of ‘I’ve got to focus on hockey’ for everything. When you’re home, it’s dad time. When you’re at the rink, it’s hockey.”

While Eller said his one-track hockey mind is always thinking about the last game or the next game during the playoffs, some players try to fight that instinct. Carl Hagelin, who won the Cup with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017, tries to forget about hockey when he’s not at the rink.

Easier said than done.

”Obviously you go into your own bubble,” Hagelin said. ”You’ve got to spend time with your family and do all that stuff. I guess stuff that doesn’t concern your family isn’t as important.”

This phenomenon isn’t limited to players, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman ‘s family knows all about how the playoffs take over. Bettman said his wife, Shelli, knows she can’t make any plans during the postseason unless it’s a place he can watch games on a TV or his iPad.

Bettman said he typically talks to director of hockey operations Colin Campbell multiple times on any given game day, well past midnight. But he loves every bit of it.

”This is the best time of year. This is just awesome,” Bettman said. ”As (Shelli) says, going out to dinner with my iPad and watching a game has become an excuse for our social life. But, yeah, everything’s on hold for two months because I never know where I have to be, what I have to do.”

Players and Bettman agree the thrill of the playoffs makes everything worth it. Rupp, now an NHL Network analyst, said ”you’re eating, sleeping and breathing this.”

Yes, about that: Players do have to remember to eat properly and get enough sleep.

”You’ve got to focus, prepare, eat, sleep and do whatever you can to be the best on the ice,” said Teravainen, who won the Cup in 2015 with Chicago. ”The playoffs, it’s all about hockey and you just prepare yourself for the game.”

Eller said he focuses on what matters most. And much like Staal, he knows his wife will keep his head straight.

”If you live with someone long enough, they know your tendencies and know you’re maybe not always quite there and at the end of the day it’s always things that can wait,” Eller said. ”But it can be a challenge sometimes because you give 100 percent of yourself to it and it means everything, right? You just live a little bit in your own world.”

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

Early exit a year after Cup win teaches Caps another lesson

5 Comments

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Nicklas Backstrom always wondered what it would take to win it all.

When he stood outside the Washington Capitals’ locker room following first- or second-round playoff losses in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, he lamented each missed opportunity but could never definitively say what it would take to get over the hump. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 and going out in the first round this year, Backstrom has a bit of a better clue for the future.

”It’s kind of like, ‘What do you need?’ You don’t know the answer to that,” Backstrom said Friday as players cleared out their lockers. ”You’re just guessing and going on your instinct. But now I feel like we’ve been through it and it is possible, especially when you don’t expect the team to do it.”

Despite a seven-game upset loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Capitals will again be expected to compete for a title with the core of captain Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman John Carlson and goaltender Braden Holtby intact. After so much went right for them to win the first Cup in franchise history, they didn’t get the good fortune of health or bounces and now have a long summer to think about what to do better next time.

”Everybody have to work hard, play hard and try to do their best,” Ovechkin said. ”You can’t win with only like half the team or two players. You have to compete. If you don’t score goals, you have to do some different job, different work. It’s good lessons for us.”

One lesson two-time Cup winner Brooks Orpik knows very well?

”You’ve got to get lucky,” Orpik said. ”Anybody that tells you differently hasn’t won before. You need a lot of luck on your side.”

Sometimes it’s a combination of luck, health, depth and coaching. After former Capitals coach Barry Trotz took the New York Islanders from losing John Tavares in free agency to the second round of the playoffs, general manager Brian MacLellan did not pin any of the blame for Washington’s early exit on Trotz’s replacement, Todd Reirden.

”They’re different coaches, they have different styles with the way they go about it,” MacLellan said. ”Are we saying that we underperformed because we had a rookie coach? I don’t think so. You look at the performance of the players.”

The top players – Ovechkin and Backstrom – were among the best on the ice, Kuznetsov struggled and the Capitals didn’t get the secondary scoring they did last year. And as much as it’s easy to say that’s needed to win again, Kuznetsov feels motivated by the disappointment as much as the joy.

”It’s all about the happiness when you win and when you lose, it hurt,” he said. ”That’s probably when you go next time on the ice, you don’t want to feel that again. That’s probably the biggest lesson.”

OVECHKIN AGAIN

After becoming the oldest 50-goal scorer since the 1970s, there is no reason to bet against Ovechkin reaching the mark again next season at age 34. Ovechkin led all players in the Capitals’ first-round series with nine points after being playoff MVP a year ago and continues to defy convention to the point that teammates don’t expect him to slow down.

”I just don’t know like a cutoff date on things like that,” defenseman John Carlson said. ”It seems like we’ve kind of been answering those questions for a couple years and the next year it’s a new spin on Ovi’s still great. I just, I don’t know. I can’t see it. Not next year.”

INJURY REPORT

Backstrom, center Lars Eller and winger Jakub Vrana said they were banged up with undisclosed injuries. Winger T.J. Oshie, who broke his right clavicle in Game 4 against Carolina, and defenseman Michal Kempny, who tore his left hamstring in March, said they would be ready for training camp.

”(Doctors) know how excited I get to try to beat recovery times, so they didn’t give me one, but I was pretty lucky,” Oshie said. ”It’s not like a separated shoulder or something that really takes a lot of rehabbing. It’s just the bone and plate have to heal, and I’ll be good to go and have a nice full summer of workouts.”

GOODBYE, ORPIK?

Orpik has intimated all season that this could be his last, and the thought went through his head that Game 7 was the final one he’d ever play in the NHL. But the 38-year-old defenseman isn’t hurrying a life-altering decision.

”We’ve got Disney World coming up – I don’t know, I’ll just wait till my daughter is done with school here and then take a couple trips,” Orpik said. ”But I’m in no rush in terms of deciding on my future in terms of hockey. That’ll be a more health-related decision down the road.”

MacLellan said it might be tough to fit Orpik in, and there are younger players who could fill his spot on the blue line at a cheaper price.

MORE CHANGES

Washington this season brought back 18 of 20 players who dressed in its Cup-clinching game, but that continuity isn’t realistic for 2019-20. Beyond Orpik, Brett Connolly could cash in on his first 20-goal season, fellow pending free agent winger Devante Smith-Pelly isn’t expected to be back and the Capitals face another salary-cap crunch.

Connolly pointed out contracts for Backstrom and Holtby are up after next season, and that’s going to factor into organizational planning. Backstrom said playing in Washington is all he knows, and Holtby would love for an extension to happen this summer, but he also knows top prospect Ilya Samsonov is waiting in the wings.

”I’m pretty realistic about what goes on in the business and such,” Holtby said. ”My focus is going to be to put in everything I can this summer to make sure I’m ready to help this team win next year. Everything outside of that you let sort itself out.”

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

Explaining the unpredictable Round 1 results

Getty
3 Comments

The story of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs has been all about upsets and a bunch of teams you’re not used to seeing this time of year making unexpected runs.

All four division winners lost in Round 1, five lower-seeded teams in total advanced, and a lot of the traditional powers that we have come to expect to be playing this time of year are already finished. Chicago and Los Angeles didn’t even make the playoffs. Pittsburgh, Washington, and Tampa were all bounced and won just three games (all from Washington!) between them. Winnipeg and Nashville, a Stanley Cup favorite for much of this season and a recent Cup Finalist, are also gone.

Other than Boston, San Jose, and St. Louis, we are left with a wide open field that is full of teams that are not normally here.

  • The Carolina Hurricanes are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season, and obviously playing in Round 2 for the first time since then.
  • This is the first time the Columbus Blue Jackets have EVER made it this far in the playoffs.
  • The Dallas Stars are in the playoffs for just the third time since 2009, and in Round 2 for just the second time since then.
  • The Colorado Avalanche have not been in Round 2 since the 2007-08 postseason.
  • This is only the second time since 1993 that the New York Islanders have made it this far.

The two main talking points as to how we got here seem to revolve around the highly controversial playoff format, and just how meaningful the regular season actually is.

Let’s start with the latter point, regarding the regular season and what it means. When you see all four division winners go down in Round 1 it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the 82 games you just played didn’t mean anything and that just getting in is all you need. There might be some element of truth to “just getting in” being important, but let’s not overreact to one year here and just assume the regular doesn’t mean anything. Because it does, and winning your division usually does get you a pretty big advantage in the playoffs because it means you are playing one of the weaker teams in the field.

The results before this season show just how big of an advantage that is.

In the five previous seasons under this current playoff format division winners won their first-round matchup 14 out of 20 times, and usually did so relatively easily. Those division winners won their series in an average of only 5.2 games, and none of them needed a seventh game to advance.

On the six occasions that they did lose, three of them were in a seventh game and two of them were in a sixth. You had the occasional upset, usually in an anything can happen Game 7, but it wasn’t anything like this. 

Obviously Tampa and Calgary are the two big upsets, simply because they were top seeds in their respective conferences and because they went out with such a thud. Tampa was swept, while Calgary managed just one win against the No. 8 seeded Avalanche.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The only thing you can probably say about each one is they were playing teams that probably weren’t your typical “No. 8 seeds” going in to the playoffs.

Columbus loaded up at the trade deadline with rentals to bolster what was an already strong lineup that was probably better than its record had indicated all season (I was high on them around mid-January, even before the trades!) because the goaltending had sunk it so much. Throw in a Victor Hedman injury and a Nikita Kucherov meltdown on the Tampa side and suddenly the gap closes a little. That doesn’t excuse the rest of the Lightning’s no-show performance, but if you dig below the surface “top seed loses four in a row” you can at least start to rationalize it a little (but only a little).

Even though Colorado was 17 points worse than the Flames during the regular season, the Avalanche still have three of the best forwards in the NHL, all of whom can take over a game at any time, and they had the better goalie going into the series. That isn’t to say Mike Smith wasn’t the reason the Flames lost, but Philipp Grubauer was great in the Avalanche net (and the three superstar forwards were also great) and sometimes that is all it takes for an upset.

These are still stunning results, and even more stunning when you add them to the other division winners going out. It’s there that things start to become a little more reasonable (and this also includes Pittsburgh and Winnipeg going out) because the gaps between the teams just weren’t that large.

If they even existed at all.

The Capitals were the defending Stanley Cup champions, but only finished five points ahead of their first-round opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes had been one of the best teams in the NHL since January 1, storming into the playoffs playing on a level that only a handful of other teams in the league were at.

The Predators, Central Division champions, were seven points ahead of the Stars, and that gap had been shrinking for weeks leading up to the end of the regular season as the Predators started to fade and the Stars started to trend upward.

The Islanders finished three points ahead of the Penguins. The Blues and Jets finished with the exact same number of points.

A No. 1 seed going down in Round 1 isn’t unheard of in the NHL. It happens. Not regularly, but often enough that it’s not a total shock when it does happen. We also know that the Stanley Cup Playoffs can be a bit unpredictable because of the nature of the game where a hot or cold goalie can swing a series, an injury can hold a team back, or a couple of forwards can simply shoot the lights out for six or seven games and carry a team.

It is at times a completely random sport.

This postseason has just been a perfect of storm where all of it came together at the same time to produce what has been, so far, one of the weirdest and most unpredictable postseasons we have ever seen. The wild card teams were, in a lot of ways, better than your typical wild card teams we are used to seeing. The division winners were maybe a little more vulnerable for one reason or another (injuries, goaltending).

I don’t think it’s a statement on the league or the format as a whole, I think it’s just a statement on the sport itself in that sometimes weird things happen.

And that might be the simplest way to explain the 2019 playoffs: It’s been a weird year.

MORE Round 2 coverage:
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Blue Jackets vs. Bruins
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars
Avalanche vs. Sharks

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Canes-Caps Game 7 reaction; Optimism for Vegas

10 Comments
Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Here’s the NBC Sports playoff update for April 25

• Going through some of the fan reactions to the Carolina Hurricanes taking Game 7 against the Washington Capitals in 2OT. (FanSided)

• The Capitals players were solemn after being eliminated. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Thom Loverro argues that losing Barry Trotz and replacing him with Todd Reirden as head coach ultimately hurt the Washington Capitals. (Washington Times)

• While Vegas was defeated in Round 1, the Golden Knights showed in 2018-19 that their inaugural season was far from a fluke. (The Hockey News)

• Jay O’Brien will not stick with Providence for the 2019-20 campaign. He wants a change after a difficult freshman season. (Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News)

• Taking a look back at what Steve Yzerman did in his first year as the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning to gauge what he might do early on with the Detroit Red Wings. (Winging It In Motown)

• Bruins GM Don Sweeney spoke highly of the Columbus Blue Jackets and believes they will present a challenge to Boston. (NBC Sports Boston)

• The Senators search for a new head coach is going to be thorough. They reportedly have permission to speak with Penguins assistant coach Jacques Martin and want to talk with Providence coach Nate Leaman. (Ottawa Citizen)

• Reflecting on the Islanders’ logo and what it means to the players. (Newsday)

Petr Mrazek took a spill after the game-winning goal, but made a celebration out of it. (Bardown)

• Taking a thorough look at Clayton Keller‘s regression in his sophomore campaign. (Arizona Republic)

• The Chicago Blackhawks announced that assistant coach Don Granato won’t be back for the 2019-20 campaign. Granato was a holdover from when head coach Joel Quenneville was fired along with assistant coaches Ulf Samuelsson and Kevin Dineen. (Chicago Tribune)

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

No More Champs: Hurricanes oust Capitals in 2OT

38 Comments

Not even the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals were immune in one of the craziest opening rounds ever seen. Brock McGinn tipped a shot by Justin Williams in double overtime in a series-clinching 4-3 victory for the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7.

Early on, it didn’t look like this would be a dramatic contest. Andre Burakovsky stripped the puck away in the Hurricanes’ zone and then beat goalie Petr Mrazek to put Washington on the board just 2:13 minutes into the game. Just four minutes later, Alex Ovechkin outplayed Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton before feeding the puck to Tom Wilson, who made the game 2-0.

Carolina hung in there though. Sebastian Aho scored a shorthanded goal at 9:51 of the second period to cut the lead in half. Evgeny Kuznetsov regained the two-goal lead at 13:22 of the second period, but Teuvo Teravainen answered right back at 16:37.

Early in the third period, Jordan Staal got a clean shot on Braden Holtby that he managed to get by him. It’s one that Holtby arguably should have gotten, but he didn’t have help on that play either and the end result was the game was tied.

From there, Carolina was a dominant force in overtime and it looked more and more like it was just a matter of time before the Hurricanes beat Holtby one more time. It took a while, but it happened.

Just like that, all four wild-card teams have advanced. Washington is out. Pittsburgh, which won the Cup in 2016 and 2017, is out. Vegas, which got to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, is out. Tampa Bay, which tied an NHL record with 62 wins in the regular season, is out.

This year has reinforced the notion that anything can happen in the playoffs. Carolina will face the New York Islanders in Round 2 and while the Hurricanes might be the underdogs, that hasn’t been a bad spot to be in.

MORE: Round 2 schedule, TV info

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.