They have a great goalie in Braden Holtby. They have a great coach in Barry Trotz (Trotz Trotz Trotz! As Tony Kornheiser is fond of saying). They have one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of hockey in Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals are the class of the NHL’s Eastern Conference and should be the the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, if not win it, yet in the Ovechkin Era, they have never gotten out of the second round. It’s at the point where you have to ask about the Caps: if they can’t do it this year, will they ever?
This has been the history of the Washington Capitals for some 40 years. They are often good, occasionally great in the regular season, but that greatness almost never translates for more than a round in the playoffs, with the exception of the 1997-98 season when they made the Final, but lost to the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. They are the “choking dogs,” as Kornheiser likes to call them, of the NHL. Some of it is bad luck, some of it in recent years has been running into Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington’s personal kryptonite.
Jokes are often made that the San Jose Sharks are the Capitals of the Western Conference, or that the Caps are the Sharks of the East, but even San Jose broke through and made the Final last season. If the last 12 months have taught us nothing else, we have certainly learned that the unexpected can and will happen, and sports curses are made to be broken. The Sharks broke through the same year as the Cubs, and the Caps could be next.
That is why they are one of the biggest winners of the NHL trade deadline, acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues without having to give up anyone from their NHL roster. Shattenkirk not only bolsters their strength at the blue line, he is perhaps better prepared for what the Washington Capitals need than anyone on the trade market. Shattenkirk made a name for himself as a power-play quarterback in St. Louis, being the guy to set up Russian-born sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, so it should be an easy transition dishing the puck to Russian-born sniper Alex Ovechkin in D.C.
Best of all for the Capitals, Kevin Shattenkirk is the opposite of a choking dog: he is a prevailing Terrier. Shattenkirk was a member of the Boston University Terriers team that won the NCAA National Championship in 2009, and he assisted Colby Cohen on the overtime game-winner in the National Championship Game against Miami University. That game, it should be noted, was played at Verizon Center in Washington D.C., so Shattenkirk may have experienced better postseason success at Verizon Center, albeit in college, than anyone on the Capitals’ roster.
Nothing is guaranteed in hockey. Nothing is guaranteed in any sport, but that is especially true in hockey because it is on ice, and everything that happens is based on another mistake. That being said, on paper, the Caps should be the best team at the end, and that was true before adding Shattenkirk. Bur history also tells us the team that should win and the team that does win are often not the same. This trade helps their chances of a better outcome, though. We will see how it plays out.
Hockey fans love their sport. They love the fast pace, the hard hits, the balance of skill and toughness, and they love when players drop the gloves to fight. Hitting and fighting are two polarizing issues that turn many away from the sport, and many within the sport want it taken out. I am personally a fan of hitting and fighting, and I feel they have a place in the game, but not every hit and every fight is necessary. It’s an issue that’s been talked about a lot lately as Bruins legend Bobby Orr has been promoting his new book and Orr was a good fighter and a staunch defender of fighting in hockey. The rules should be rewritten to keep the good hits and good fights in the game, but take out that which is detrimental to the game. That’s easier said than done, as evidenced by the confusion around the league’s “instigator penalty” that always seems to punish the wrong player more severely, but it would be a better solution than removing such a great aspect of the game entirely, and better for player safety than a completely laissez-faire system as well.
Two recent incidents provide the anti-violence faction with a lot of ammunition. On October 23rd, in a game between the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres, Buffalo enforcer John Scott delivered a brutal open-ice hit to Bruins forward Loui Eriksson well after Eriksson dumped the puck into the offensive zone. Scott, who stands six feet and eight inches off the ground without skates, elbowed Eriksson in the head, concussing him. Scott is listed on Wikipedia as a defenseman/winger, but he only really only on the ice to hurt people, as evidenced by the one career goal he has scored since making his NHL debut in 2008. Last season, he fought Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton (who is capable of a lot more than just fighting), and gabe him a concussion. The only player bigger than Scott in the NHL is Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, but Big Z means too much to the Bruins to waste his time and risk injury standing up to Scott. He made the hit at a time when the defending Eastern Conference Champion Bruins were leading the Sabres, maybe the worst team in the NHL, by two goals, and took an integral part of the Bruins roster out of the game with him on that hit. Loui started skating with the team again a couple days ago, but has not yet been cleared for contact and his return date is uncertain. For the hit, Scott was only suspended seven games by the NHL.
Even more recently, on Friday November 1st, the Washington Capitals held a 7-0 lead over another terrible team, the Philadelphia Flyers. Philly forward Wayne Simmonds started the action with Washington forward Tom Wilson. It wasn’t a necessary fight. He wasn’t avenging foul play or anything, but Simmonds was trying to do something to get his team fired up. That would have been all well and good for proponents of hockey fights, but Flyers netminder Ray Emery had to cross the line. Emery, who did not start the game but was on in relief (nor did he start a single game in the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run last year despite getting his name etched on the Cup), skated across the red line and both blue lines to pick a fight with Caps’ goalie Braden Holtby, who had no interest in joining him. Holtby was pitching a shutout. Why would he want to drop the gloves and risk injury. Emery didn’t care. He was going to Holtby whether Holtby wanted to or not. Emery gave Holt by a few munches to the back of the head, which is illegal in MMA fighting, and the game escalated into a line brawl. The Flyers are going nowhere this season, especially after firing head coach Peter Laviolette last month, and Ray Emery decided to take out his frustration by trying to hurt a good goalie on a team that expects to be in the playoffs. The NHL announced that Emery would not be suspended for the incident.
I think most hits in hockey are clean, and most fights are defensible, but the ones that cross the line, like John Scott and Ray Emery, give hockey a bad name. When you try to defend fighting in hockey or the game of hockey itself, people will point to these incidents, as well as Todd Bertuzzi, Matt Cooke, Raffi Torres, Dale Hunter and others, as the faces of the game and the reason the NHL does not belong with the NBA, NFL, and MLB as a major sports league that sports fans should care about. It’s too bad. The NHL has exciting games, a great playoff tournament, athletes regular people can relate to, and the greatest trophy in all of sports, but all casual fans see is the goon show put on by these fringe players.