Photo: Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
A few weeks ago, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle looked at some past transactions that the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues and the Capitals made with one another that fueled both of the two most recent Stanley Cup champions’ runs to their respective titles. In this piece, Diane looks at another parallel between the Blues and their predecessors in Washington.
The Blues won the Cup with a playoff run that included the following inspiring narratives: 1) The team found themselves in last place in the NHL in January yet came back to not only make the playoffs but win the Stanley Cup; 2) Their Head Coach at the start of the season was fired due to a poor performance and replaced with an interim coach; 3) the team won the Stanley Cup with a rookie goaltender winning every game for them and 4) the team wins the Stanley Cup for the first time ever in franchise history.
These narratives echo familiar ringings to Capitals fans of the “Rock the Red” era, as some of the Caps’ previous playoff runs featured similar stories. Had any of those past playoff runs resulted in a Stanley Cup, they would have been as close to identical as possible.
Team in Last Place
The Blues were in last place in the NHL on January 3, 2019 and were seriously considering trading veterans for picks and prospects and embarking on a rebuild. However, the then found themselves on an 11-game winning streak, the longest such streak in franchise history. At the end of the streak, they found themselves in third place in the Central Division and in playoff position. By the end of the season, they were just a single point away from finishing first in the Central. Their official regular season finish was third place, but they tied for second in points in the Central Division with the Winnipeg Jets in points, with the Jets finishing ahead of them based on tie breakers. The first place Nashville Predators had just one more point than both the Blues and the Jets.
This turnaround is similar to the 2007-08 season for the Capitals. The Capitals were in last place on November 22, after a quarter of the season and were two points behind the Los Angelse Kings for the worst record in the NHL and four points behind Buffalo for the worst record in the Eastern Conference. At the time, their chances of winning the Steven Stamkos lottery in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft looked much better than their chances of making the playoffs. The Caps had not been a good team in the years immediately prior, finishing in last place in their division two years in a row and three years in a row if their last season before the 2004-05 lockout was counted. Still, many people around the NHL were expecting their multitude of prospects to have begun maturing by this point in their rebuild. The team remained in sole possession of last place until December 10, when they tied the Los Angeles Kings in points. By December 15, they passed the Kings in points but remained in last place in the Eastern Conference as Christmas Day rolled around. By January 1, they were tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the fewest points in the Eastern Conference but ahead of the Kings in points overall. By the time the season ended, they had made an incredible late season run to finish in first place in the Southeast Division and make the playoffs, where they were unfortunately ousted in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games.
Coaches’ Corner: Promoting an Interim Coach
On November 19, the Blues, who had gotten off to a poor start to the 2018-19 season, finding themselves in last place in the Central Division and next to last in the NHL, fired Head Coach Mike Yeo and replaced him with Associate Coach Craig Berube, pegging him as interim coach. The Blues did not immediately turn their season around. In fact, they were dead last in the NHL on January 2. After that day, they won the aforementioned 11 in a row for a franchise record winning streak in January and early February as they got themselves into playoff position, made the playoffs, powered their way through the playoffs and won the Stanley Cup. At the end of the season, the interim designation was removed from Berube and the team subsequently signed him to an extension.
A similar situation played during the 2007-08 season in Washington. With the Caps in dead last in the NHL, on November 22, 2007, they fired then-Head Coach Glen Hanlon and replaced him with the Head Coach of their American Hockey League affiliate Hershey Bears, Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau had won the Calder Cup championship just two years earlier with the Bears and the team was the Calder Cup runner-up only the previous season. Like Yeo, he was designated as the interim coach, but the interim tag was removed before the end of the season.
The Caps made it to the playoffs after a remarkable turnaround, with Boudreau winning the Jack Adams Award in the process as the league’s Coach of the Year.
The Blues won the Stanley Cup this season with rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington in the crease for each of the team’s wins. It was the first time in NHL history that a rookie goalie had won 16 games during a playoff run, winning four series and four games in each series. Several rookie goalies had won 15 playoff games (including Matt Murray of Pittsburgh, Cam Ward then of Carolina, Ron Hextall of Philadelphia) but none had ever won 16.
The Capitals experienced two similar stories of rookie goalies whose postseason performance earned them the starter’s role the following season and powered the team through an impressive playoff performance. In 2009, the Caps lost Game 1 of their first round series to the New York Rangers, with then-starter Jose Theodore under-performing. As a result, Boudreau decided to use rookie goalie Semyon Varlamov for Game 2 of the series. Varlamov ended up losing Game 2 by a score of 1-0 as the Caps fell into a 2-0 series hole. However, he had clearly performed well enough to return for Game 3, backstopping the team to a victory. The Capitals went on to win the series in seven games despite falling behind in the series, 3-1. Varlamov started all the games in Round 2 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which the Caps lost in seven games.
Just three years later, the Caps saw Braden Holtby emerge as a bona fide NHL netminder after being thrust into the starter’s role after injuries to the team’s tandem of Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. By the time, the playoffs started, Holtby was the number one goaltender. While Neuvirth was well enough to back up Holtby before the first round ended, Holtby still started every game. The Caps won the first round against the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in a see-saw seven-game series, which ended in overtime in Game 7. They advanced to play the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers, but failed to advance.
First Stanley Cup Win
The Blues won their first Stanley Cup this past season, posting a 10-3 record on the road and a 6-7 record at home. Fittingly enough, the Blues won the Stanley Cup on the road. The previous season, the Capitals won their first Stanley Cup on the road, going 10-3 on the road and a 6-5 record at home during their playoff run.
By Diane Doyle
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