Column: It will be hard for any team to replicate the heart of the Washington Capitals
Instead of grumbling over the mystery of what exactly constitutes goaltender interference or continuing the tired narrative that the Vegas Golden Knights got an unfair head start in their remarkably successful first season, take into this summer the vision of Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie raising the Stanley Cup with his father, Tim, who is in the terrible clutches of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
The NHL gets a lot of things wrong. On Thursday, after the Capitals completed a five-game victory over the Golden Knights to win the Cup for the first time in franchise history, everything came out right.
Superstar Alex Ovechkin, who scored and hit and backchecked his way into his teammates’ hearts, finally had his championship after 13 NHL seasons. So did veteran Nicklas Backstrom, whose 11 seasons with Washington have included some cringe-worthy postseason collapses by teams that lacked the guts and selflessness this group displayed. “Batman and Robin,” coach Barry Trotz affectionately called the duo.
Among these new champions Oshie stood out as the emotional engine of a team that had committed to playing staunch defense and, above all, to playing for one another. Holding the Cup was overwhelming to Oshie, who calls his father “Coach” in tribute to Tim’s early guidance of his career.
“He doesn’t remember a lot of stuff these days,” a tearful Oshie said while on the ice at T-Mobile Arena. “He remembers enough, but I’ll tell you what, he’s here tonight… This one will stick with him forever. You can guarantee that.”
May that be true for him and for everyone who watched his son’s progress with a team that had every excuse to fail but instead willed itself to win. With fewer expectations than the past two seasons, when they had the NHL’s top regular-season record, the Capitals looked inward and found strength they didn’t know they had. “It allowed us to relax and enjoy it a lot more than we did the last couple years,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “The love this group has for each other is pretty visible.”
It’s traditional for the rest of the league to try to copy the style and strategy of the Cup winner, but that could be difficult in this case.
The Capitals used first-round picks to draft Ovechkin, Backstrom and the brilliant Evgeny Kuznetsov, who complemented MVP Ovechkin by leading all playoff scorers with 32 points in 24 games. They brought in the right character players in Lars Eller and Devante Smith-Pelly — whose seven postseason goals matched his regular-season total — and they depended on goaltender Braden Holtby without revolving around him. They mixed in kids, sometimes because injuries left them no choice and sometimes because the kids earned it. “I was sitting at breakfast [Thursday] morning with Jakub Vrana,” Orpik said of his 22-year-old teammate, “and we were telling him about a bunch of superstars in this league that never even got the chance to play in the Final. It’s a really tough thing to win.”
Which makes victory so sweet, but general manager Brian MacLellan will have little time to enjoy it before he must make some difficult salary cap-related decisions. Dynamic defenseman John Carlson is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent, and his price could be more than the Capitals can afford even under an increased cap. Defenseman Michal Kempny, a late-season addition, and fourth-line center Jay Beagle also can become unrestricted free agents. With a new cast it will be a challenge to recreate this chemistry and hunger. “You’ve got to have the heart and the will first, and once that base is there the skill sort of comes out,” said Trotz, who doesn’t have a contract for next season but said he “absolutely” believes his future is in Washington.
Allegiance to the Golden Knights might have begun as a civic duty toward Las Vegas’ first major professional sports team but duty quickly became devotion. General manager George McPhee, who acquired many of Washington’s key assets while in charge there, did a masterful job. So did coach Gerard Gallant. They took favorable expansion terms and ran with them to a record season for a first-year team. In the end, the second line was too easily silenced, the defense too adventurous offensively. They might need more size, too. Their fairy tale season was ended by a team with an uplifting story of its own.
The NHL has its flaws, but it was encouraging to see speed increase leaguewide — a trend that’s sure to continue — and to see scoring increase over previous seasons. With any luck, that will continue, too.
Until October we can remember Oshie and his father celebrating and appreciate Trotz’s response when asked what he will most cherish about the instant his team became a champion. “Just the pure joy. That is what you remember,” he said. “When I go to my grave I’ll remember that moment. Because you just do. It has such an imprint in your soul.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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