The Washington Capitals roster is filled with names that also are on the Stanley Cup, but after consecutive first-round playoff exits, the challenge for players is to prove they are still championship contenders.
As a new season begins, recent postseason pain cannot erase the not-so-long-ago memory of the Capitals winning the 2018 Stanley Cup. The team believes there is still a window of opportunity to win another title with a group led by Alex Ovechkin, Nicolas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
That belief is a big reason why the Capitals hired Peter Laviolette, who has taken three different teams to the Stanley Cup Finals, as their head coach.
“This is a ‘win now’ team, there is no question,” said Capitals radio play-by-play voice John Walton.
“You bring in Peter Laviolette, he’s a proven winner, and you bring him in because this team needs to win now … they are young in goal, but this is a team expected to compete for a Stanley Cup and I think that’s the hope and aspiration for everyone in that dressing room.”
The big unknown for the Capitals is in goal. Braden Holtby was lost in free agency to Vancouver and veteran Henrik Lundqvist, who won 459 games in 15 seasons with the Rangers, was signed to stabilize the position and mentor the Capitals’ young goaltenders.
Unfortunately, because of a heart condition, Lundqvist is unable to play this season. He recently underwent open heart surgery.
Ilya Samsonov will be the Capitals’ number one goaltender with Vitek Vanecek serving as his backup. Samsonov appeared in 26 games last season in relief of Holtby and was 16-6 with a 2.55 goals against average. The 26 games are the sum total of Samsonov’s NHL experience. Vanecek, a second-round draft pick by the Capitals in 2014, has yet to play in an NHL game.
“For Ilya to use a football analogy, he has been elevated to starting quarterback and it is his turn now,” said Walton.
“Physically, Samsonov is gifted with the height and agility, but there is a big mental shift now that he knows he is the guy. When the backup is someone that doesn’t have any games of NHL experience that only drives home the point you are the guy.”
If Samsonov and Vanecek can provide steady goaltending, it is reasonable to assume that the Capitals have what it takes to compete for a Stanley Cup. The Capitals have skill and experience at every other position, and in the offseason strengthened their defense with the addition by free agency of Zdeno Chara from Boston.
“Chara is a Hall of Fame defenseman when he retires,” said Walton. “At 43 years of age, he still feels he has a lot to give, and for a guy that battled Alex Ovechkin for years whenever the Bruins and the Capitals met, it will be really fun to see them together.”
Which bring us to Alex Ovechkin.
The 2021 campaign will be his 16th season with the Capitals and with 706 career goals he is showing no signs of slowing down. Wayne Gretzky is on record as saying he believes Ovechkin will break his NHL all-time goals record of 894.
It won’t happen this season, but Gretzky’s endorsement is a testament to Ovechkin’s durability and determination.
“It’s interesting because going back to March in 10 months’ time, he’s only played in eight hockey games,” said Walton. “So the one thing that you think about going into this season is that he’s fresh, and that should terrify the rest of the NHL — for him to be able to come out flying we’ve seen it before, when he is in a groove early on, good things happen.”