Photo: Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Jay Beagle, and Braden Holtby have seen their share of playoff hockey action. Now they’ll get to experience the third round. While each of these players did their part in contributing to this run, one piece that helped get them this far was the new generation of “young guns” and a couple of acquisitions.
Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andre Burakovsky are all the key part of the young guns in a sense, as each of them are in the middle of their fourth postseason with the Caps. They’re all well-known by now among Caps fans. But there’s a select few faces that are playing in the playoffs for the first time. Rookies Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey and Nathan Walker were once standouts on the Capitals’ AHL affiliate Hershey Bears and helped lead them to an appearance in the Calder Cup Final just two short years ago. Shane Gersich was just in college a few months ago and is now on an NHL playoff roster.
Devante Smith-Pelly (signed over the summer from the New Jersey Devils), Alex Chiasson (signed right before the season after making the roster from training camp as a PTO), and Michal Kempny (a mid-season pre-trade deadline acquisition from the Chicago Blackhawks) have each stepped up as well. In his NHL playoff debut, Vrana made a great cross-ice pass to Smith-Pelly that gave the Capitals a late lead in Game 1 of their first round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. While the Capitals did go on to lose that game, it was a sign of amazing things to come from the newbies.
That Game 1 tally would be the first of two goals from Smith-Pelly, who also scored what would turn out to be the game-winner in the Capitals’ series clinching victory over the Blue Jackets. Also in that clincher, Stephenson came up big on the penalty kill and had a shorthanded goal in the third period that put the game out of reach.
When that series ended, the Capitals had a big hurdle to face, a second round matchup with the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. As daunting of a task as it sounded in terms of both the team and the playoff history against them, it didn’t stop any of the young guns or new faces. Vrana rose to the occasion in this particular series with a goal in Game 2 and an even bigger one in Game 5.
The Capitals had a dismal second period in that fifth game in which they put up five shots while the Penguins fired 18. One could feel the tension inside the building as the Capitals trailed 3-2 entering the final period. Head Coach Barry Trotz placed Vrana on the top-line, hoping to get a spark going. It worked.
A goal by Kuznetsov 52 seconds into the third period tied the game. Then with 4:38, to go, Ovechkin faked out goaltender Matt Murray and whiffed a soft pass to Vrana. Vrana quickly put it in to set the building to bedlam. Capital One Arena was rocking, the Caps would add two empty-net goals for a 6-3 win. Once the final horn sounded fans gathered to celebrate on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery.
Taking Game 5, the Capitals were right in the driver’s seat with a chance to defeat the Penguins for the first time since 1994 and advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998. As the Capitals took the ice on Monday night for warmups, Backstrom wasn’t in his uniform and wouldn’t be able to play due to an upper-body injury that he suffered in Game 5.
With Backstrom’s absence, Lars Eller had to jump from the third-line to center the second-line which gave Travis Boyd an opportunity to center the third-line. Walker was placed on the fourth-line in place of Gersich. Both Walker and Boyd made their playoff debuts Monday night. For Walker, he was the first Australian-born athlete to play in a Stanley Cup playoff game and in the second period of that contest, became the first Australian hockey player to record a point in a playoff game, as he assisted on Alex Chiasson’s goal.
Kuznetsov would go on to win the game in overtime, punching their ticket to the Eastern Conference finals. While Ovechkin‘s leadership and Braden Holtby’s saves have been a key to the Capitals’ success this spring, it was additionally the young guns and new guys who stepped up when the Capitals needed them the most. The Capitals defeated the Penguins because of their depth, continuity, chemistry, and togetherness as a team. Everybody from the top to the bottom of the roster has bought in and is fully committed to bringing the Stanley Cup to Washington, D.C. The Capitals now need just eight more wins for that vision to become a reality.
By Michael Marzzacco