June 7th, 2018 will be a night to remember for our Nation's Capital and it has nothing to do with President Trump. #ALLCAPS was trending on twitter and also served as the motto for this unlikely Stanley Cup run for Washington, which was led by 33 year old Alexander Ovechkin.
Entering the 2018 postseason, when experts thought or talked about Ovechkin, the FIRST thing that came to mind was his lack of success in the playoffs. He's an incredible player they'll say; he's a sensational scorer they'll rave; he's one of the best ever to lace up the skates they'll insist; however, it is easy to argue against Ovi's place in history considering he had yet to make it to a Conference Finals.
In Alex Ovechkin's 14th season, he became a different player. He became a more humbled, more determined player who made a drastic transition from an insanely talented scorer to a leader. He's been the Captain of this Capitals team since 2010 but was less of a leader and more of the most skilled player on his team. When Ovi failed, he would show it with his body language and his willingness to keep to himself.
This year was different. The Washington Capitals started the playoffs in typical fashion.... losing both games at home to the Columbus Blue Jackets. With the series heading back to Columbus, the Caps were on the verge of getting swept in the first round. Ovi stepped up to his team, to the media, and to his fans promising that the Caps would bring the series back to Washington. After winning two straight in Columbus, Ovi fulfilled his promise and the Caps went on to win two more games to advance to play the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pittsburgh has been Washington's Achilles heal for the greater part of a decade so many presumed the same outcome. Once again, overcoming a series deficit and a lot of doubt, the Caps finally prevailed against the two-time defending champs. Now it was on to Ovi's first Conference Finals. A very talented Tampa Bay team was standing in the way and Washington didn't want to let the momentum from the last series diminish. They jumped out to an early 2-0 lead taking both games on the road. Getting comfortable, the "old Washington" team resurfaced and squandered the next three games in a row. Realizing the dream is not to reach career highs but to win a Cup, Ovechkin turned up his leadership. Ovi was phenomenal throughout the entire playoffs but he had a couple of frustrating games, particularly in the TB series, where he played a great game but had nothing to show for it on the score sheet. As I said, in the past Ovi would've resorted to self-frustration and seclusion but this was not the same man. He was on the bench, patting teammates on the back, cheering guys on, and getting his players to smile. His players responded and took Game 6 and Game 7 to win the series and advance to the last hurdle in this 14 year dream for Ovechkin.
The final test was the most improbable of them all. The Vegas Golden Knights, yes the 2018 expansion team, is the group of guys awarded the opportunity to stop one of the greatest of all-time from smooching a giant silver trophy that hundreds of proud men have kissed over and over in prior years.
The moral of this 2018 Stanley Cup finals is an age-old adage... "Who wants it more?".
The answer is three letters: O.V.I.
A unbelievable season for the Golden Knights but with all the premature success and thrills of the ride of an expansion team, they did not want the ultimate prize enough. It's not because there was not a lack of effort but more or less, a lack of thirst and starvation. They have not been deprived of anything other than a fairy-tale ending. Most of the players on the Golden Knights had never experienced success like that and in turn, they didn't know how bad you have to want the Stanley Cup in order to win it.
44 years ago, the Washington Capitals were born and in all that time, they only made it to one Stanley Cup Finals in '98 and got swept by Detroit. Ovi was not even on the team at that point. Since then, no conference final appearances and as a result, no cups. That story-line has been re-written.
Alex Ovechkin is a 3-time Hart trophy winner (meaning he was the best player in the league for 3 years), a 7-time Maurice "Rocket" Richard trophy winner (meaning he scored the most goals in the NHL in 50% of the seasons he's played), and an Art Ross trophy winner, which is awarded to the player with the most points in a season. A long list of team and league records and other smaller accolades supports an easy first-ballot H.O.F career but there's only one number Ovi was concerned with. 0. The number of Stanley Cups he's won. The ultimate prize and he's never even seen the fish to catch it. That was until he finally caught a glimpse.
He had the most determination in the league and it was evident by his play on and off the ice. This is a guy who disregarded superstition and history by picking up the Prince of Whales Trophy (Eastern Conference Championship Trophy) and then didn't let it out of his grasp. He would not be denied the Granddaddy of all sports trophies, the Stanley Cup. He wasn't. After dropping the first game in Vegas, the Capitals swept Cinderella's shoe underneath the rug and celebrated like there's no tomorrow. In fact, they are still celebrating. It's a non-stop "frat party" train that has invited all of the D.C. area to join.
D.C is a city that itself is deprived of championships, with the last win coming back in 1992 when the Redskins defeated the Bills. The sea of red has been thirsty for the view on top and now that they are there, they are soaking it in. Speaking of soaking it in, the Caps are celebrating in many ways including diving in the Georgetown Fountain and making "water angels". It's like watching kids or a dog when they first experience snow.
The Washington Capitals are first experiencing being on top of the world and they are milking it for all that it's worth. And rightfully so. They deserve it and certainly earned it. And now you can add the coveted Stanley Cup and a Conn-Smythe Trophy to Ovi's shelf of hardware along with NHL's biggest party animal award!
As for the rest of the NHL teams, they salute the Caps and their tremendous season and look to next year to experience that elation and glory. It was a tremendous season overall as so many story lines developed and so many unpredictable events occurred. While there were less Game 7's than in previous years, the Stanley Cup playoffs as a whole were intriguing and exciting. Many new faces and teams were in the final 16 to compete for a chance to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup. Along with the Golden Knights, Winnipeg has a young exciting team; Nashville will be back; San Jose should have another good year; Colorado will look to expand on a very successful season; Edmonton will look to turn around a bad year because they can't stay down for too long with Connor McDavid or as some call him Connor McJesus. In the Eastern Conference, Tampa Bay will be a force to contend with for quite some time; Boston will look to add some pieces to enhance their stellar young core; New Jersey will look to continue their moment after a big turnaround year; the Toronto Maple Leafs will be players in the postseason for a long time and they will be a team looking to get over the hump and break a drought; Pittsburgh will obviously be a contender again along with your defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Washington Capitals. And sorry Ben Darnell but the Buffalo Sabres will most likely stink again next year but if you learned anything from Vegas, you'll know that anything is possible. The state of hockey is in good standing and an addition of a team to a city like Seattle will only continue to grow the NHL.
As for our guys close to home, the CT born hockey players, they'll look to continue the solid representation of our Nutmeg State. There are 9 active players in the NHL that were born in CT: Max Pacioretty, Colin Wilson, Cam Atkinson, Nick Bonino, Jonathan Quick, Kevin Shattenkirk, Ron Hainsey, Adam Erne, and Keegan Lowe. Out of those players, 4 of them made the playoffs in 2018 and 3 of them are already Stanley Cup Champions. I expect to see a greater number of CT born players in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Guys like Wilson and Bonino will return with Nashville; Quick should be able to make a run as long as the Kings give him some scoring help up front; Cam will be back with Columbus; Ron Hainsey will return to the postseason as well if he remains on the Toronto Maple Leafs; Pacioretty and Shattenkirk will be battling once again for a playoff spot on Montreal and NY Rangers respectively, but this time, one of those teams should prevail.
On top of that, former Yale goaltender, Alex Lyon made his NHL debut last season and had a strong showing for the Flyers. He started 7 games on the year posting a 4-2-1 record with a 2.75 GAA and a .905 Save %. For what it's worth, at one point during the season I even had him on my fantasy hockey team because he was getting starts and performing well. He will have to battle for ice-time as Philly traded for Petr Mrazek mid season and became the regular starter to finish out the year.
Finally, bringing this even closer to home, there's young netminder from Hartford who should be on everyone's radar. His name is Steve Michalek and he plays for the Iowa Wild, the Minnesota Wild AHL affiliate. He was called up a number of times to serve as the backup goalie on the bench but has yet to taste his first NHL start. I grew up close to the Michalek family and knew his sister very well. Steve is a very talented goalie and I am excited to see what he can do when he finally does get a chance. His play for the Iowa Wild has been tremendous as he finished the year with a 12-7-6-2 record with a 3.08 GAA and a .906 Save %. This is also a guy who posted a 32 save win in a 5-1 game while also recording a fight as he out-dueled Charlotte's goalie in his AHL debut. He's a guy I'm keeping my eye on and if continues to play well and fight for a spot, he will be making his NHL debut very soon.
For now, it's baseball time and for the hockey guys, enjoy GOLF SEASON BOYS!!! Talk to you next fall!