For six years, Jay Beagle had the same flip phone. For Beags, it represented the core of his personality: simple, concise, and rugged. Beagle is not like Alex Ovechkin. He does not need to wear two pairs of competing pants or a Mercedes that has an illegal tint and no front plates. Instead, Beagle turns up to Kettler in a Chevy pickup. He wears camo hunting shirts. He wins faceoffs. Sometimes, usually accidentally, he scores a goal.
But in October, Beagle gave up on part of that life. “Flipper,” as his flip phone was known, died. In its, place, he got an iPhone. For years, Beagle looked down upon a hyper-connected life. But these days, he’s a father. On the road for much of the year, Beagle wanted to be able to watch his son, who was born last summer, grow up through pictures and videos taken by his wife and videochat with them using FaceTime. So he got an iPhone. He doesn’t know which model.
Braden Holtby is that good. He has been the best goalie of the playoffs, posting a .951 save percentage through 11 games. But on Sunday night, the New York Rangers offense finally broke through. They jumped out to a 4-1 lead before the Capitals almost pulled off an unbelievable comeback. For the first time this postseason, we saw Holtby crack. Washington’s faith in him, however, is unshaken. They were not interested in talking about Henrik Lundqvist, who turned aside 42 shots in Washington’s one-goal defeat.
“Our goalie’s better,” Evgeny Kuznetsov, defiant in his postgame media scrum, said. “I don’t know what you want to listen from my mouth, but our goalie’s better.”
After taking a 3-1 lead in their second round series against the Rangers, the Caps lost game six 4-3 in front of their home fans on Sunday night and now must play in another excruciating game seven on Wednesday.
Despite the Caps’ history of choking in the playoffs– they have blown 3-1 series leads four times, the most in NHL history– Alex Ovechkin believes this Caps team is different. Despite winning only three of their last 14 series-clinching games, he believes they can return to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998. And he’s not considering any other friggin’ result.
For about an hour on Friday night, Curtis Glencrosswas a playoff hero. His breakaway goal with 10:54 left in the third period looked like it was going to send the Capitals to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in 17 years.
The Rangers, however, tied the game late. In overtime, Glencross attempted a cross-ice pass to spring Brooks Laich. It was a bad one. The trade deadline acquisition stopped and flipped the puck lazily into the hands of Rangers forward Jesper Fast. Within a few seconds, the game was over. Glencross fell to his knees as the Rangers celebrated their comeback victory.
Speaking to the media after the game, Glencross was shellshocked — and perhaps headed for a benching. But instead, he will play tonight, skating once more with Laich and Tom Wilson on the fourth line as the Caps look to close out the series in game six at Verizon Center.
For the Rangers, the winners of the Presidents’ Trophy this year, a few inches here and there had put them on the verge being eliminated from the postseason in early May. In their last eight periods coming into Friday’s game, they had scored two goals. After every loss to the Capitals, three of them heading into game five, they insisted they were about to break through. Every night, the Rangers showered Capitals goalie Braden Holtby with pucks. Though his teammates prevented many of those shots from reaching him, most made it through towards the net. Holtby, as he has all season, stopped nearly all of them.
In a series with some of the most spectacular goals imaginable, Holtby, 25 and a restricted free agent at the end of season, has been Washington’s most remarkable player. In the regular season, Capitals coach Barry Trotz played him more than any other goalie in the league, 73 games total. Through game four of this round, he had given up just 15 goals in 10 postseason games. His 1.48 goals against average and .950 save percentage topped all goalies still playing in the postseason.
But the Rangers offense, which netted 248 goals in the regular season, never disappeared. As their head coach Alain Vigneault reiterated after every game, they were knocking on the door. In the opening three games of the series, they put 94 shots on net. They added another 35 the first 58 minutes of game five. But their chances were running into the league’s hottest goalie, a guy who had been benched for weeks on end just a year ago.
But finally, 101 seconds before New York’s season was set to expire, Chris Kreider beat Holtby on the Rangers’ 36th shot of the night, a one-timer from the near circle.
“I just didn’t see it,” Holtby told reporters after the game.
One year ago, Evgeny Kuznetsov came to North America. On a spring morning, he took the ice for the first time in a Washington uniform after signing a two-year entry level contract. Save for Capitals coaches, Kuznetsov was alone. Still, cameras followed him incessantly down the ice.
Soon after, RMNB spoke to Kuznetsov for the first time. Last Sunday, we did it again. There was a fair bit to discuss. For Kuznetsov, it’s hard to imagine a more dramatic shift in just one season. So far, he’s been a fourth liner, a second-line second, a healthy scratch, and finally, a playoff hero. Off the ice, Kuznetsov endeared himself to his teammates and became a media darling.
Naturally, we had both asinine and serious questions for Kuzy. He happily obliged.
Over the past season, we’ve seen Marcus Johansson go from a talented set-up man into the Caps third leading goal scorer. Andre Burakovsky has gone from an 19-year-old babyfaced rookie into, for a while, the team’s top-line right wing. In the past two weeks, those two have added more facets to their game. In the 2015 playoffs, Johansson and Burakovsky have become physical forces on the ice. But instead of going for needless checks that only put them out of position as so many players do, Marcus and Andre pick their spots, using their bodies to bump opponents off the puck or maintain possession.
“You never want to approach a game looking for hits,” Brooks Orpik, who was third in the league in that stat during the regular season, told me Wednesday. “If you do that you’re gonna be out of position.”
“We can’t try to be a skill team all the time,” he added. “If you are a big team, you have to use that to your advantage.”
Once an afterthought in the Filip Forsberg deal, Michael Latta has since carved for himself a full-time roster spot in Washington. An underrated, rugged center, Latta’s adept at killing penalties, forechecking, punching faces, and being literal sandpaper on the ice. Off the ice, he’s something of a social media all-star and a player to whom fans have really gravitated.
Latta, who almost has 20k Twitter followers, has co-created new nicknames for Evgeny Kuznetsov, Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom. He’s live-tweeted what it’s like to be roommates with Tom Wilson and Andre Burakovsky. He was the single funniest moment of EPIX’s Road To The Winter Classic. He was one of the first players to send out a well wish to the #Pray4Bman hashtag.
Simply put, Latta is a delight. On Sunday, I stuck a camera in his face after a bag skate at KCI. This turned out to be a good idea.
Since ostensibly hurting his right shoulder over two weeks ago, Eric Fehr has only taken to the ice delicately, keeping his legs fresh while engaging in light movements with his upper body. Today, he joined practice for the first time since getting injured by Kyle Okposo of the New York Islanders, participating in a noontime optional skate. Capitals head coach Barry Trotz has perpetually and apocryphally insisted Fehr’s return could be imminent since the aliment occurred, but F-16 reported Tuesday that he was unsure when he would rejoin to the lineup.
“I don’t have any idea about any of those things,” he told reporters.
When it comes to handing out cool nicknames to their teammates, we think hockey players are second to none. The current crop of Capitals are certainly doing their fair share of creative nicknaming. When the NHL mic’d up Tom Wilson for a first round game against the Islanders, we learned that Alex Ovechkin’s moniker is Destroyer – or at least that’s what Willy Baby calls him. And who can forget the “Big Cheese” Joel Ward; I mean, how can it possibly get any cooler than Big Cheese!?
In my opinion, it just did, courtesy of the two Caps players, who, as The Washington Post recently discovered, developed a strong and somewhat surprising friendship during the course of this season: Russian rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov and grizzled American veteran Brooks Orpik.