NHL News

How the Capitals weathered an early COVID-19 storm and are poised to be top Cup contenders

It was inevitable that COVID-19 would impact the 2021 NHL season, but the Washington Capitals didn’t imagine it would impact them so early — or so hard.

After their first road trip to Buffalo and Pittsburgh, goalie Ilya Samsonov tested positive for the coronavirus. The NHL’s contact tracing revealed the team’s four Russian players (captain Alex Ovechkin, forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and Samsonov) spent time in the same hotel room, violating the NHL’s strict road trip rules. The Capitals were fined $100,000, and the players were required to quarantine at least 10 days.

“It was a shock at first,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “Just speaking about Ovi, he doesn’t miss many games. There haven’t been many games where No. 8 isn’t in the lineup. So that alone has been a pretty big difference, when one of the best players in the world, the best goal scorer I have ever seen, and our captain on top of it, is out. It’s tough. But to lose all four of them was quite a big surprise. Those are guys that you can’t replace.”

Ovechkin has missed only 35 games out of a possible 1,191 in his career, and only 17 were due to injury. The captain was frustrated, but he accepted his punishment — “rules are rules,” he said Saturday — and spent his time in isolation doing “some workouts in my gym” as well as “some running.” (His wife, Nastya, and two sons have remained in Russia.)

Ovechkin was cleared to return Saturday against the Bruins, and coach Peter Laviolette limited the 35-year-old to under 15 minutes to ease him back in. But it was obvious the winger got better as the game went on. And then 28 seconds into overtime, Ovechkin — who has always had a flair for the dramatic — ripped a shot from the top of the right circle past Tuukka Rask. It was Ovechkin’s 24th overtime game winner, most in NHL history.

While the Capitals often go as their captain goes, the story of their season so far isn’t what they’ve done with him in the lineup; it’s what they’ve achieved without him. Washington picked up seven of a possible eight points in Ovechkin’s absence to stay atop the East Division.

Here’s the story of how the Caps got it done and how Washington is shifting its culture to embrace fun while leaning into the urgency to win another Cup.

Two years after winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2018, the Capitals were getting stale. After back-to-back early playoff exits, management decided Todd Reirden — the first-time head coach — wasn’t getting the most from the team. Washington fired Reirden in August, with two years remaining on his contract. The Capitals hired Peter Laviolette, who has the 16th-most wins of any coach in NHL history.

“When I got the job, [Ovechkin] said, ‘I feel like I’ve been playing against your teams forever,'” Laviolette, 55, said. “Which is pretty much true. I started out as a young coach when he was coming into the league, and I feel like I’ve been coaching against him forever.”

Laviolette was looking forward to working with Ovechkin and the Caps from a new vantage point, but he knew it would be challenging, considering COVID-19 protocols made it much harder to connect with players. Laviolette stayed in Florida through the offseason; he had to decline Ovechkin’s first D.C. dinner invitation because he was still quarantining and didn’t get out until right before training camp.

Laviolette entered the season staying true to his coaching philosophy.

“I think everybody wants to be inspired,” Laviolette said. “Everybody wants to be motivated; everybody wants to sink their teeth and their hooks into something — whatever that is, or you can just wake up and live in a gray area. I truly believe that. And if you can address that, if you can get players excited about everything, then it’s a positive thing.”

Laviolette was fired by the Predators in January 2020 and spent more than eight months out of work. “I had nothing to do, so I watched everything there is to watch,” Laviolette said. “‘Cobra Kai’ came up, and my wife and I went through all of the episodes. It was about all the characters we remember from ‘Karate Kid,’ and there was a scene where they talked about offense, and staying on the offense and all you think about — I thought that was cool. That’s how you’d want your team to play. The more I thought about it, the more the story went on, and you get into the two dojos, the Miyagi dojo being all about defense and patience. And I thought, it’s sometimes hard for the defensemen, the penalty killers and the role players to get acknowledgement for how important they were in the room.”

Laviolette went online and ordered two bandanas, deciding that he would award them to the best offensive and defensive players of the game:

“It’s playful, it’s fun,” said Oshie, who was awarded the bandana for offensive player of the game in the season opener. “And I think it fits our group pretty well.”

It was an easy way for the coach to connect with the players as he installed new systems and a new style of play.

“[Laviolette] has been very up-front about what he expects and how he expects us to play — and also why he wants us to play that way,” Oshie said. “And I think it’s gotten through to some guys that in the past maybe didn’t want to play a simpler game, or get pucks deep. That if we all do this, and if there’s nothing else, this is a way to create more offense and offensive zone time, and it’s really been a fun system to play in. We’re getting better every game. It’s starting to get natural, and less thinking.”

The Capitals thrived without their Russian four because they received contributions from everyone. In the four Ovechkin-less games, 11 players scored at least one goal, and nobody scored more than two. “We kind of just had a next-man-up mentality,” Oshie said. “And little by little as a group we tried to work for each other and just play hard for each other.”

It helped that young players stepped up, especially 25-year-old goalie Vitek Vanecek, who has made six straight starts, with a .923 save percentage over his past four. Vanecek was supposed to be the third-string goalie this season, but saw surprise promotions after Henrik Lundqvist had to opt out due to a heart condition and Samsonov’s positive case.

“Vitek has been a really steady presence back there for us,” Oshie said. “Even when we do make mistakes, or we do get scored on — we had a three-goal deficit the other night [against the Islanders] — nobody was hanging their heads. We kept working on our game, kept finding different ways to score, and we’re finding ways to get wins.”

Another important addition to the Capitals has been defenseman Zdeno Chara, the longtime Bruins captain who was signed just days before the season. The 43-year-old left Boston because the Bruins saw a reduced role for him. In Washington, Chara has skated 20:32 per game, the third-most minutes of any Caps skater.

“I know Zdeno, we would text once in a while, so I have a little bit of history — not much, but a little,” Laviolette said. “And the conversation we had was really honest. We have eight good defensemen, and I was going to play the best six defensemen. And there was nothing guaranteed here, either. I know how he plays, what he’s done in his career and what he’s capable of. But I didn’t say you’re going to come here and be a top-four defenseman, play 20 minutes every night, and that’s guaranteed. It’s hard for the guys sitting right now, but Zdeno came here and lived up to the bill. He’s exactly what we were expecting.”

The Capitals are a team with a strong veteran presence. Ovechkin, Orlov, John Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson have all been with the team since 2013.

“It was interesting, in the offseason for all of us, seeing this captain [Chara] come in that is very well respected around the league,” said Oshie, who joined the group in 2015. “He handled it so well. And the guys embraced him, we love having him here. I battled with this guy for like 13 years, and to see this side of him and how much he cares about the guys is awesome. He’s always doing a little extra training here or there; for a veteran guy, he’s always coming to the rink with a smile on his face.”

The coolest thing, Oshie said, is how willing Chara is to adapt; big Zee is still willing to learn in his 23rd NHL season.

“[Chara] came up to me on the bike the other night. I don’t really ride the bike that much, to be honest with you,” Oshie said. “And he was like ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ And I told him what I was thinking, and he said, ‘Yeah, OK. I’ll do that too.’ After games he’s always like, ‘Osh, what are you thinking?’ and he’ll do it too. I’m obviously lifting slightly lighter weights than him, but it’s been really cool to see his approach.”

Jump ahead:
Three stars of the week
What we liked this week
What we didn’t like
Best games on tap
Social post of the week

Emptying the notebook

Lee Stempniak was always mathematically inclined. In eighth grade, Stempniak’s teacher pulled his parents aside and said their son should be a math major. At Dartmouth, where he played Division I hockey, Stempniak majored in economics and ran his own regression model for a senior project.

But his hockey career took off, and Stempniak carved out a 14-year NHL career, mostly as a role player for 10 different teams. The 37-year-old’s playing career ended 18 months ago. He tried chasing a Stanley Cup his last season in the league — after a training camp invite to the Bruins in 2018-19, he worked out a deal where he practiced with the Bruins at home, and skated with injured players while they were away. He ended up signing a contract after the trade deadline that season, but played only two games with Boston, mostly finishing the season with the Bruins’ AHL franchise in Providence.

“I knew that was the end,” Stempniak says. “I have three young kids, it was time to move on.”

Stempniak was looking to get back into hockey and thought he would like being a player development coach. Then Bill Armstrong was hired as the GM of the Arizona Coyotes in September. Stempniak knew Armstrong from their time together in St. Louis, and the two traded emails. Then Stempniak got a call from Brian Daccord from Arizona’s front office.

“He basically pitched me this idea, which Bill borrowed from baseball: the conduit,” Stempniak says. “Basically there’s a disconnect between the analytics department with hockey operations — the coaches, the players, scouts, etc. There’s basically nobody linking the two together. So my job is to filter and understand the vast amount of analytics that is generated by the analytics department, and then translate it, fact check it, and make sure it’s purposeful.

“From what I gather, it’s the first role of its type in the NHL.”

Stempniak’s official title: hockey data strategist. In 2021, there are few more intriguing jobs in hockey.

“There’s a ton of information out there especially now with player tracking being here,” Stempniak says. “Not all of it is useful. It’s like trying to drink out of a fire hose at some point.”

Thanks to his experience playing for so many different organizations in the NHL, he has a good sense of how information is being processed and relayed to players — as well as the variance from team to team.

“I know ‘coachspeak,’ I know what they’re looking for, but I also know that’s where there is a disconnect sometimes,” Stempniak says. “[The analytics department] would say, ‘Oh this guy is the best passer in the NHL, he completes 90% of his passes.’ Well, if most of those passes are uncontested, D-to-D passes in his own zone without a forecheck, that’s not really painting the full picture. That’s where I can come in and help explain what they’re looking for — what Bill Armstrong is looking for, what [coach] Rick Tocchet is looking for, and making sure we really capture the information.”

Stempniak will remain with his family in Boston for now — as, of course, it’s easier than ever to stay connected virtually. He couldn’t be more pumped about the new gig. “It touches on everything that interests me about hockey,” he says.

Three stars of the week

Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers

The best player in the world has gone to next-level mode, and it’s only three weeks into the season. McDavid has three goals and four assists in three games this week, including an overtime winner and this beauty. McDavid is up to 17 points in just 10 games.

Thatcher Demko, G, Vancouver Canucks

The 25-year-old is sick of talking about his bubble performance. “It was a great little run for me there, but I’m all about moving forward and focusing on this year,” he said. But “Bubble Demko” might be back, after turning away 100 of 103 shots (.971 save percentage) in three games, all wins, this week.

Charlie McAvoy, D, Boston Bruins

The 23-year-old is already shouldering big-time minutes for Boston, but told me recently he wanted to be a bigger part of the offense. He recorded one goal and five assists in three games this week — including the game-tying tally late in the third that helped salvage a point against his former mentor, Zdeno Chara, and the Caps.

Honorable mention: Leon Draisaitl, C, Edmonton Oilers

With six assists (!) in Sunday night’s win against the Senators, Draisaitl came very close to joining some exclusive company:

What we liked this week

1. The stars aligned for the NHL on Saturday night. In a 12-minute span, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Connor McDavid each scored the winner in overtime for his respective team. It was the first time in NHL history three No. 1 draft picks scored OT winners on the same day. The NHL, and its historic reluctance to stagger game starts, might just give fans a red zone fix when the NFL goes back on hiatus.

2. When I covered the NFL, there was an adage scouts used to say about quarterbacks: If you have two quarterbacks, that means you don’t have one. That’s how I felt about the Chicago Blackhawks‘ goaltending situation when they decided to not re-sign franchise legend Corey Crawford, instead opting for a trio of youngsters (Malcolm Subban, Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen) who had started a combined 76 career games.

“We have these three young goalies who are all around the same age that Corey was when he first came into the league,” GM Stan Bowman rationalized to me in October, explaining he felt one of the young goalies just needed the opportunity to emerge as the new No. 1. Three weeks into the season, it appears Lankinen is the front-runner. The 25-year-old Finn has started six of the past seven games, including a 41-save effort against the Predators last week. And check out this chart from Sean Tierney on Thursday, which puts Lankinen’s incredible emergence in perspective:

3. I love this Alexandre Texier shootout goal just as much as I love the real-time reaction from NHL Network analysts Kevin Weekes and Brian Lawton:

4. Happy trails to longtime Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard, who announced his retirement from hockey after 14 seasons with the organization. He ranks third all time in franchise history for games played by a goaltender (543) and wins (246), and posted a .912 save percentage, which is third best for any Red Wings goalie who made at least 50 starts.

The 36-year-old Syracuse, New York, native and University of Maine alum wrote in an Instagram post: “Becoming an NHL goalie was an NHL dream…. As I enter this new chapter in my life, I look forward to spending more time with my family, coaching my son’s hockey team and new opportunities the future will hold.”

5. According to the Anchorage Daily News, the Seattle Kraken are donating $100,000 to Save Seawolf Hockey, the fundraising group trying to save the University of Alaska Anchorage hockey program from elimination. Supporters need to raise $3 million — which would cover two years’ worth of operations — by next month.

What we didn’t like this week

1. It’s been a dramatic and uninspiring start to the Rangers’ season. The latest wrinkle came Sunday, as New York waived defenseman Tony DeAngelo, after signing the 25-year-old defenseman to a two-year, $9.6 million extension in October. DeAngelo has struggled this season following his breakout 2019-20 campaign, and I can confirm The Athletic’s report that he got into an altercation with a teammate after Saturday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Penguins (in which he was on the ice for four Pittsburgh goals).

I wrote about the Rangers’ slow start recently — dissecting what has gone wrong, from goaltending to line chemistry — and my biggest takeaway was this quote from MSG analyst Dave Maloney: “The expectations got a little beyond where they are reality-wise.” DeAngelo’s sudden fall reminds us that while last season was a pleasant surprise, the Rangers are still a team with fundamental flaws. They’re also a team that management isn’t expecting to win right now. That means it’s still a malleable time for the franchise. Any players who don’t fit into the Rangers’ goals — or threaten to derail them in any way — are going to be seen as expendable.

2. A reminder that the COVID protocol list doesn’t just keep players away from the ice; it also has them isolating away from others, which can be a struggle, both from a mental health perspective, but also logistically. Curtis McElhinney of the Tampa Bay Lightning was recently cleared from the protocol list but said it was a tough two weeks: “I don’t have that big of a house. Not too many places to hide.”

Some players are slightly better equipped than others. For example, Dmitry Orlov has synthetic ice in his basement, which helped him stay in game shape while isolating. But even Orlov admitted it wasn’t easy. “Don’t get crazy, don’t kill myself at the house,” Orlov said of how he got through his 10-plus days away. “It was tough, because my family [is] not here. It doesn’t matter where I [did] it, [it was] still tough. You miss the team. You miss the games. It was tough.”

3. It’s always alarming when you read a sentence like this: 19-year-old Marco Rossi returned to Austria to “rest with his family due to complications” from COVID-19. Michael Russo of The Athletic was first to report the news, and the Wild are not disclosing the nature of Rossi’s complications, citing medical privacy. Rossi, the No. 9 pick of the 2020 draft, is an important part of Minnesota’s future — and hopefully the No. 1 center the franchise is desperately lacking.

According to Russo, Rossi was “exhausted” throughout the world juniors tournament (where he was captain for Austria) “but he never knew anything was wrong with him until Wild doctors wouldn’t clear him to begin training camp after undergoing a physical.” Hoping for a full and speedy recovery.

4. Kevin Fiala is a tremendous player, but the Wild forward made a very bad hockey play this week against the Los Angeles Kings, boarding and injuring defenseman Matt Roy. Fiala was suspended three games — not ideal for the already depleted Wild — and had to forfeit $77,586.21 in salary (an amount calculated based off his salary) which will go to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

“It will be on multiple videos, teaching clips for young players, older players, junior players, pro players on basically what not to do,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said of the hit. “I feel bad for Roysie. I don’t even know if there’s any intent on the Fiala thing, it just happened. But we have to know by now that we can’t do that.”

Top games on tap this week

Note: All times Eastern

Monday Feb. 1: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers, 7 p.m.

These two teams had a week, to say the least. Pittsburgh was stunned when GM Jim Rutherford resigned for personal reasons, and now looks to get the season on track after a shaky 5-3-1 start. The Rangers are in worse shape, in terms of the standings, and as mentioned above, they waived Tony DeAngelo on Sunday after signing him to a two-year, $9.6 million extension prior to this season.

Tuesday, Feb. 2: Dallas Stars at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7 p.m.

Patrik Laine sorted out his visa in Canada last week, then the Blue Jackets sent a private jet for him on Friday. After 48 hours of quarantine, Laine could make his Columbus debut in this game against the Stars. It could be opportunistic timing for a first impression; Laine has 18 goals in 17 career games against Dallas.

Sunday, Feb. 7: Colorado Avalanche at St. Louis Blues, 3 p.m. (ESPN+)

No better way to crush a few hours before the Super Bowl than by watching this matchup of West Division heavyweights. The Blues are looking for revenge in this series after getting thumped by the Avs 8-0 in the second game of the season. It’s also worth monitoring the situation around St. Louis defenseman Vince Dunn, who appears to be on the trade block.

Social media post of the week

Hockey players, man. Unfortunately, Kings defenseman Sean Walker will be out “for an extended period,” per coach Todd McLellan. Sending thoughts for a speedy recovery.

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