Reporting David Elfin
The Capitals begin their quest to win the first Stanley Cup of their 39 seasons against the defending champion Blackhawks tonight in Chicago, a matchup that didn’t sit well with a couple of key members of the road team.
“The worst thing that could happen to me was having to play them opening night and see the banner,” said winger Troy Brouwer, who won a Cup with Chicago in 2010 before coming to Washington the following summer. “I still live there [during the offseason] and when they were in the finals, I got out of the city. I’m happy for the city, but a lot of the guys I played with got traded away. It’s a completely different team. I know Rocky [Wirtz], the owner, really well and I’m happy for him, but I’m glad to be here. I want to help this team win on opening night.”
Goalie Braden Holtby, who beat the Blackhawks 4-3 in his only game against them as a rookie in March 2011, isn’t happy that the NHL decided to make the Caps sacrificial lambs of sorts tonight.
“I don’t think anyone’s too happy about [the opener],” Holtby said. “It’s kinda surprising with them being in the West that we’d be there. It will be a bit of a challenge [to play well after watching the ceremony].”
On the other hand, maybe the Hawks can serve as an inspiration for the Caps, who have reached postseason six years running but haven’t gotten past the second round since their lone trip to the Cup finals back in 1998.
After all, Chicago hadn’t skated with Lord Stanley’s chalice since 1961 until doing so two of the past four seasons. In fact, the Hawks made the playoffs just once from 1998-2008 and lost in the first round in the only year they qualified. In 2009, they reached the conference finals for the first time in 14 years. But now they’re the NHL’s unquestioned kings.
Washington general manager George McPhee, coach Adam Oates and assistants Calle Johansson and Olie Kolzig – the latter trio as players – are the only Caps who were part of that 1998 run to the finals.
“You come to camp every year hoping that it’s the greatest year you’ll ever have,” McPhee said. “The objective is always to make the playoffs and put yourselves in position to compete for the Cup. Our team speed should be pretty good, maybe one of the quicker teams we’ve had, but that’s the way our league is going. It just seems to get quicker every year. It’s nice to have the speed because it pushes people back and gets them on their heels a little bit.”
With the lockout having virtually eliminated training camp, the Caps had to learn new coach Oates’ system on the fly. So they started on their heels at 2-8-1 but reversed course in time to finish with the Eastern Conference’s fourth-best record thanks to a closing 15-2-2 tear.
“It was a bit of a whirlwind year and then everything came to a halt,” Holtby said, referring to the losses to the New York Rangers in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. “[But] we know we made huge steps forward.”
And with second-line center Mikhail Grabovski – who signed as a free agent in August – and rookies Connor Carrick and Michael Latta the only players without experience in Oates’ system, the Caps should be ready from the get-go this season. Only two of their 11 games this month after tonight’s are against 2012-13 playoff teams.
“Guys are more comfortable,” Holtby said. “It’s the good team chemistry we were feeling towards the end of last year. To have that where it is already is a good thing.”
Oates is excited about Grabovski, who fell out of favor in Toronto but is expected to fill the void opened when the sweet-passing Mike Ribeiro – one of the quarterbacks of the NHL’s top 2012-13 power play — signed with Phoenix in July.
“I’m sure he’s very motivated,” Oates said of Grabovski. “He’s not happy with what happened to him at the end of the year. We lost Mike Ribeiro, a left shot center. He’s a left shot center. He’s a power play guy. He’s the guy who’s going to get that chance to fill that role to help Brouw score his goals.”
Of course, the most critical Cap when it comes to scoring goals and powering the power play is captain Alex Ovechkin, who accepted Oates’ challenge to move to the right wing. After needing half a season to adjust to the new position, Ovechkin scored 22 goals during the final 21 games and won the third Hart Trophy (MVP) of his eight seasons.
“I’m very thankful he trusted me enough to try it,” Oates said of Ovechkin, who didn’t get along with previous coach Dale Hunter. “All [the move from left wing] did was allow him to touch the puck more. The power play is always going to be the same. He’s never going to change his position [in those situations]. He’s going to be solid there. He knows what to do there. But in 5-on-5, the more he gets used to [playing right wing], the more he gets the puck, the more opportunities the line’s going to have. I think he can just keep growing.”
Ovi and Co. have plenty of growing to do if they’re going to reach the Hawks’ level come playoff time. Tonight’s the first step on that journey.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.