It was inevitable that COWID-19 would have an impact on the 2021 NHL season, but the Washington Capitals didn’t think it would affect them so quickly – or so much.
Goalie Ilya Samsonov tested positive for coronavirus after his first trip to Buffalo and Pittsburgh. An investigation of NHL contacts found that four players from the Russian team (captain Alexey Ovechkin, forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and Samsonov) stayed in the same hotel room, violating the NHL’s strict travel rules. The Capitals were fined $100,000 and the players had to be quarantined for at least 10 days.
It was a shock at first, attacker T.J. Oshie said. Speaking of Ovie, he doesn’t miss many games. There aren’t many games that don’t have a number 8. So it made a big difference when one of the best players in the world, the top scorer I’ve ever seen, and our captain at the top, came out. It’s hard. But losing all four was a big surprise. These are the guys you can’t replace.
Ovechkin has missed only 35 of 191 possible games in his career, and only 17 of those due to injury. The captain was frustrated, but he accepted his punishment – the rules are the rules, he said Saturday – and spent his time in solitary confinement working out in my gym and running. (His wife Nastya and his two sons remained in Russia).
Ovechkin was allowed to return Saturday against the Bruins after coach Peter Laviolette limited the 35-year-old’s rest period to 15 minutes. But it was clear that Winger was getting better as the game went on. And then, 28 seconds into the extension, Ovechkin, who has always had a gift for drama, scored with a shot from the top right circle past Tuukka Rask. It was Ovechkin’s 24th. Overtime win, the biggest win in NHL history.
Although the Capitals often travel with their captain, the story of their season so far is not what they have done with him in the squad, but what they have achieved without him. Because of Ovechkin’s absence, Washington picked up seven of a possible eight points to stay on top of the Eastern Division.
This is the story of the arrival of the Caps and how Washington changes its culture to embrace fun as it approaches the urgency of another Cup victory.
Two years after winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2018, the Capitals are stagnant. After an early playoff exit, management decided that Todd Reirden – the first head coach – was not getting the best out of the team. Washington fired Reirden in August, with two years left on his contract. The Capitals have hired Peter Laviolette, who ranks 16th among all coaches in NHL history.
When I got the job, [Ovechkin] said: I feel like I’ve been playing on your teams forever, the 55-year-old Laviolette said. Which is pretty much the truth. I started as a young coach when he first came into the league, and I feel like I’ve always coached against him.
Laviolette was looking forward to working with Ovechkin and the Caps in a new perspective, but he knew it wouldn’t be easy because the COVID-19 protocols make communication with the players much more difficult. Laviolette stayed in Florida during the offseason and had to turn down Ovechkin’s first invitation to dinner in Washington because he was still in quarantine and only left for training camp.
Laviolette began the season by staying true to its coaching philosophy.
I think everyone wants to be inspired, Mr. Laviolette said. Everyone wants to be motivated, everyone wants to participate in something – anything, or you wake up and live in a grey area. I really believe that. And if you can fix that, if you can get the players excited about something, that’s positive.
Laviolette was fired by the Predators in January 2020 and has been unemployed for more than eight months. I had nothing to do, so I looked at everything I could look at, Laviolette said. Cobra Kai came and my wife and I watched every episode. It was about all the characters we know from Karate Kid, and there was a scene where they talk about attacking and staying on the attack, and all you could think about was – I thought it was cool. That’s how you want your team to play. The more I thought about it, the more the story progressed and you walked into two dojos. The Miyagi dojo is a place of protection and patience. And I thought sometimes it’s hard for defenders, hitters and role players to get credit for their importance on the inside.
Laviolette ordered two bandanas online and decided he would give them out to the best offensive and defensive players in the game:
Some of us in the @CobraKai series have a new favorite hockey team. Big love @Capitals for giving Cobra Kai and Miyagi Do a helmet to their offensive and defensive players. #GoodCoaching #CobraKai #Netflix https://t.co/io5UJiwkUl
– John Hurwitz (@jonhurwitz) January 15, 2021
It’s fun, it’s fun, said Oshie, who was awarded a bandana at the season opener as offensive player of the game. And I think that fits our group very well.
It was an easy way for the coach to connect with the players while installing new systems and a new style of play.
Laviolette] has been very open about what he expects and how he expects us to play and why he wants us to play this way, Oshie said. And I think it’s because of some guys who, maybe in the past, didn’t want to play an easier game or end up at the bottom of the shuffleboard. That if we all do that, and there’s nothing else, it’s a way to create more time in the offensive zone and in the offensive zone, and it was really a fun system to play. We’re getting better with every game. It’s starting to become natural and less of a thought process.
The Capitals win, which is always nice. AP Photo/Nick Wass
The Capitals have done well without their four Russians, as each has contributed. In four games without Ovechkin, 11 players have scored at least one goal, and none more than two. We had a kind of new generation mentality, Oshie said. And little by little, as a band, we tried to work for each other and play for each other.
This has helped advance the young players, particularly goalkeeper Vitek Wanechka, 25, who has made six consecutive appearances and registered a save percentage of .923 in his last four games. Vanecek was supposed to be the third line keeper this season, but was surprisingly promoted after Henrik Lundqvist was fired with a heart condition and a positive Samsonov case.
Oshie said Witek was very strong for us there. Even when we make mistakes or get beat – we were down three points last night [against the Islanders] – no one bends over. We kept working on our game, found different ways to score and we found ways to win.
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Another key player for the Capitals was Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who was acquired just days before the start of the season. The 43-year-old left Boston because the Bruins gave him a smaller role. In Washington, D.C., Chara skated 20:32 minutes before the game, the third-longest minute of any skater in the Caps.
I know Zdenon, we’ve corresponded from time to time, so I have a little history – not much, but a little, Laviolette said. And our conversation was very honest. We have eight good defenders and I wanted to play with the best six. Again, nothing was guaranteed. I know how he plays, what he has done in his career and what he is capable of. But I didn’t say come here and become a top four defender, play 20 minutes every night, and that’s guaranteed. It’s hard for the boys to sit down now, but Zdeno came and did his duty. He’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for.
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 for all of us to see how this captain [Chara], who is highly respected in the league, arrived, said Oshie, who joined the team in 2015. He handled it so well. And the boys kissed him, we love having him around. I’ve been fighting with him for about 13 years, and it’s cool to see this side of him and how interested he is in guys. He always does a little extra training here and there; for a veteran, he always comes to the rink with a smile on his face.
The coolest thing, according to Oshie, is the way Chara wants to fit in; Big Z wants to fit in even in his 23rd season. The NHL season is still in the learning phase.
He came at me on my bike last night. Honestly, I don’t drive much, Oshie says. And he is: Hey, what are you doing? I told him what I thought, and he said: Yeah, okay. That’s what I’m gonna do. He’s always like this after games: Osh, what do you think? And he will. Of course I lift a little lighter than him, but it was great to see him come around.
Three stars of the week
What we liked this week
What we didn’t like
Best games of the week
Social post of the week
Empty the notebook
Lee Stempniak has always had a mathematical bent. In eighth grade, Stempniak’s teacher took his parents aside and told them that their son should become a mathematician. At Dartmouth, where he played first division ice hockey, Stempniak specialized in economics and established his own regression model for the senior draft.
But his hockey career took off, and Stempniak had a 14-year career in the NHL, mostly as a role player on 10 different teams. The 37-year-old’s career ended 18 months ago. In his final season in the league, he tried to play for the Stanley Cup – after being invited to the 2018-19 training camp, he made a deal to train at home with the Bruins and ride along with injured players while they were away. He eventually signed after his contract expired that season, but only played two games for Boston and finished most of the season with the Bruins’ AHL franchise in Providence.
I knew it was the end, Stempniak said. I have three grandchildren, it’s time to move on.
Stempniak wanted to return to hockey and thought he would like to become a coach for player development. Then, in September, Bill Armstrong was hired as general manager of the Arizona Coyotes. Stempniak had known Armstrong since their stay in St. Louis, and the two men had exchanged emails. Then Stempniak got a call from Brian Daccord at Arizona headquarters.
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He gave me this idea that Bill borrowed from baseball: Drive, says Stempniak. Essentially, there is a disconnect between the analysis department and hockey operations – coaches, players, scouts, etc. In fact, no one connects them. So my job is to filter and understand the huge amount of analysis generated by the analytics department, then translate it, verify it and make sure it meets the objectives.
As far as I know, it’s the first such role in the NHL.
The official title of Stempniak: The hockey strategist says. There are few interesting jobs in hockey in 2021.
There’s a lot of information out there, especially with the players being tracked here, Stempniak said. It doesn’t make any sense. At some point, it’s like trying to drink from a fire hose.
His experience in various NHL organizations allows him to understand how information is processed and passed on to players and how this differs from team to team.
I know the conversation about coaching, I know what they’re looking for, but I also know that sometimes there’s a gap, Stempniak says. Analytica] would say: Oh, this guy is the best passer in the NHL, makes 90% of his passes. Now, when most of these passages are uncontested D-to-D passages in your own area with no prior verification, it’s not exactly a complete picture. That’s where I can help explain what they’re looking for – what Bill Armstrong is looking for, what [coach] Rick Tocchet is looking for, and make sure we really get the information.
For now, Stempniak will stay with his family in Boston, as it’s certainly easier than ever to keep in touch virtually. He could not be more excited about this new achievement. He says it’s about everything I care about in hockey.
Three star week
Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers.
The best player in the world has moved up to the next level with three weeks to go until the end of the season. McDavid scored four goals and eight assists in four games this week, including the win in overtime and that beauty. McDavid scored 22 points in just 11 games.
The end. For. The end.
If you haven’t seen Connor McDavid’s (@cmcdavid97) REAL goal last night…. You’re better now! pic.twitter.com/3twdj3R6bJ
– NHL (@NHL) 31. January 2021
Thatcher Demco, G, Vancouver Canucks.
The 25-year-old is tired of talking about his performance on the bubble. It was a fun little race for me there, but this year I want to continue and focus, he said. But Bubble Demko could come back after shooting 100 of 103 (a save percentage of 0.971) in three games this week, all winners.
Charlie McAvoy, Dee, Boston Bruins…
The 23-year-old has been accumulating plenty of minutes for Boston, but recently said he would like to get involved in more offensive action. He scored a goal and five assists in three games this week – including a third that earned him 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 over the Senators – he scored three goals and nine assists in four games in a week – Draisaitl came within a hair’s breadth of the exclusive company :
Leon Draisaitl is one pass away from breaking the record passing in a seven-man game. These are the players who got 7.
I know this Gretzky pic.twitter.com/ZAF4MgtZ9N pretty well.
– Masi Wine (@VinMasi) February 1, 2021
What we liked this week..
1. Saturday night, the stars lined up in the NHL. Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Connor McDavid scored in the 12th. Overtime minute for his team. For the first time in NHL history, three #1’s were selected on the same day by the EO. The NHL and its historic reluctance to tinker with the start of games could offer fans a red zone solution when the NFL returns for halftime.
Five games of overtime in the last half hour. Ovechkin, Crosby and McDavid are all EO winners. You can’t get a better half hour than what we just had. It’s crazy.
– Bucci Mane (@Buccigross) January 31, 2021
2. When I was covering the NFL, there were scouts in advertising talking about quarterbacks: If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t get just one. That’s how I felt about the Chicago Blackhawks’ goalie situation when they decided not to reinstate franchise legend Corey Crawford and instead opted for a trio of youngsters (Malcolm Subban, Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen) who combined for a 76-game career.
We have three young goalies who are about the same age as Corey when he came into the league. General Manager Stan Bowman told me in October that he thought one of the young goalies just needed a chance to become the new number one. Three weeks into the season, Lankinen seems like the number one option. The 25-year-old Finn has been in the starting lineup in six of his last seven games, including his 41st career appearance against the Predators last week. In his last five games, he has stopped 153 of 160 shots (0.956%) and has a record of 3-1-2 with an average of 1.97 goals against and a save percentage of .937.
Check out this chart from Sean Tierney from Thursday, which shows Lankinen’s incredible development as a youth player:
Achievement of objectives in relation to the manager’s expectations
Kevin Lankinen #BellLetsTalk pic.twitter.com/1nJ6UbZ9RY
– Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) January 28, 2021
3. I like this goal from Alexandre Texier as much as I like the live reaction from NHL Network analysts Kevin Weeks and Brian Lawton :
BlueJacketsNHL @KevinWeekes @brianlawton9 @NHLTonight pic.twitter.com/Xq8IovQHOp
– NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) January 29, 2021
4. Congratulations to Jimmy Howard, long-time goalie of the Detroit Red Wings, who announced he was retiring from hockey after 14 seasons. He ranks third in Red Wings history in the number of games played by a goalie (543) and the number of wins (246). His save percentage of .912 is the third-best of any Red Wings goalie who has seen at least 50 appearances.
The 36-year-old graduate of Syracuse, New York, and the University of Maine wrote in an Instagram post: Becoming an NHL goaltender was an NHL dream….. In this new phase of my life, I am looking forward to spending more time with my family, coaching my son’s hockey team and taking advantage of new opportunities.
5. As reported in the Anchorage Daily News, the Seattle Kraken is donating $100,000 to save Seawolf Hockey, a fundraiser to save the University of Alaska Anchorage ice hockey program from bankruptcy. Donors are expected to raise $3 million by next month – that would cover the cost of two years of operation.
What we didn’t like this week
1. It’s a dramatic and incredible start to the Rangers’ season. The latest cut came on Sunday when New York defensive end Tony DeAngelo gave up after the 25-year-old signed a two-year, $9.6 million contract in October. DeAngelo has struggled this season since his breakthrough in 2019-20, and I can confirm the report from The Athletic that he had an altercation with a teammate after Saturday’s 5-4 overtime loss against the Penguins (in which he was on the ice and scored four goals for Pittsburgh).
Recently I wrote about the Rangers’ slow start and analyzed what went wrong – from goaltending to lineup chemistry – and my biggest discovery was this quote from MSG analyst Dave Maloney : Expectations did not quite match reality. DeAngel’s sudden fall reminded us that while last season was a pleasant surprise, Rangers are still a team with fundamental weaknesses. It’s also a team that management doesn’t expect to win at this point. This means that the timing of the franchise is still malleable. Any player who does not fit the Rangers’ objectives – or who threatens to derail them in any way – is deemed expendable.
2. It should be remembered that the COVID protocol list not only keeps players off the ice, but also isolates them from others, which can be a problem from both a mental health and logistical standpoint. Curtis McElhinney of the Tampa Bay Lightning was recently fired, but he said it would be a tough two weeks: I don’t have a big house. There aren’t many places to hide.
Some players are slightly better equipped than others. For example, Dmitry Orlov has synthetic ice in his basement, which allowed him to keep his game shape during his isolation. But even Orlov admitted it wasn’t easy. Don’t get mad, don’t commit suicide in the house, Orlov said as he recounted how he survived over ten days. It’s hard because my family isn’t here. No matter where I did it, it’s still hard. They miss the team. You’re missing the matches. It was difficult.
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3. It’s always unsettling to read a sentence like this: Due to complications related to VIDOC-19, 19-year-old Marco Rossi has returned to Austria to rest with his family. Michael Russo of The Athletic was the first to announce the news, and the Wilds did not disclose the nature of Rossi’s complications, invoking doctor-patient confidentiality. Rossi, the ninth pick in the 2020 draft, is an important part of Minnesota’s future – and, hopefully, the No. 1 center the franchise so lacks.
According to Russo, Rossi was exhausted throughout the World Junior Tournament (of which he was captain in Austria), but he didn’t know anything was wrong with him until Wild’s doctors allowed him to begin training camp after undergoing physical therapy. I hope for a full and speedy recovery.
4. Kevin Fiala is a great player, but the Wild’s forward played very bad hockey this week against the Los Angeles Kings when he tackled and injured defenseman Matt Roy. Fiala was suspended for three games – not ideal for the already decimated Wild – and had to surrender $77,586.21 in salary (an amount based on his salary), which will go to the Player Emergency Aid Fund.
It will be featured on different videos, instructional videos for young players, older players, juniors, professional players on what they should basically not do, Kings coach Todd McLellan said of the success. I’m sorry about Roissy. I don’t even know if there is a program for Fiala, it just happened. But we have to know that we can’t do that.
The best games of the week
Message: All Eastern Times
Monday the 1st. February: Pittsburgh Penguins versus the New York Rangers, 7:00 p.m.
These two teams have had a week, to say the least. Pittsburgh was stunned when General Manager Jim Rutherford resigned for personal reasons, and now hopes to start the season with a shaky 5-3-1. The Rangers are worse off in the standings, and as previously mentioned, they gave up Tony DeAngelo on Sunday, who signed a two-year, $9.6 million contract for this season.
Tuesday the second. February: Dallas Stars versus the Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:00 p.m.
Last week, Patrick Lane was arranging a visa in Canada and on Friday, the Blue Jackets sent a private jet to pick him up. After about forty-eight hours, Lane was able to make his Columbus debut in the game against the Stars. This could be a good time for a first impression, as Lane scored 18 goals in 17 career games against Dallas.
Sunday the 7th. February: Colorado Avalanche at St. Louis Blues, 3 p.m. (ESPN+).
There’s no better way to escape a few hours before the Super Bowl than to witness this clash between the Western Division heavyweights. The Blues took their revenge in this series after being defeated 8-0 by the Avs in the second game of the season. It’s also interesting to keep an eye on the situation of St. Louis defenseman Vince Dunn, who appears to be on the trading block.
Social media of the week
Ouch! Posted by #LAKings photo game Sean Walker after being hit in the face by a puck. #GoKingsGo #NHL #MNWild pic.twitter.com/J6I2s10oQg
– Augie (@AugieLens) January 29, 2021
A hockey player. Unfortunately, Kings defenseman Sean Walker will be absent for an extended period of time, according to coach Todd McLellan. I send you thoughts for a speedy recovery.
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