By Michelle R. Martinelli
ARLINGTON, VA. – If there’s one thing Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby took away from the team’s seven preseason games, it’s that the players’ perfectly timed chemistry from last season is still going strong.
Washington was 4-3 in the preseason – with two losses ending in overtime and a shootout – and finished with a commanding 4-0 win over the New York Islanders on Sunday.
“It doesn’t seem like we’ve missed a beat really, especially the last game,” Holtby said Tuesday. “The first period of the last game against the Islanders, we were moving the puck like when we were at our best last year, and that’s a good sign.
“We still have that chemistry, and to have that in preseason, it’s very valuable moving forward to work on fine-tuning our team because we have some of the basics down already.”
What’s helped the Caps maintain the same presence on the ice that led to last season’s Presidents’ Trophy-winning season?
The team is nearly identical.
Most notably, they lost left winger Jason Chimera, who signed a two-year deal as a free agent with the Islanders in July. But they brought in three promising forwards to fill in the gaps: Lars Eller from the Montreal Canadiens, Brett Connelly from the Boston Bruins and rookie Zach Sanford – who spent the last two years playing for Boston College before going pro.
“I think with [general manager Brian MacLellan] doing what he did sends a clear message to not only the coaching staff but the players that he believes in the team,” coach Barry Trotz said. “He believes in what we’ve got going here, and we just have to tweak it.”
While Sanford is taking any pointers he can get as a newcomer, Eller and Connelly said the players have helped make their transition to a new team smooth, contributing to the team’s preseason chemistry. The pair agreed that although coming to a new team is part of the business, feeling comfortable from the beginning has helped.
“They fit really well and just give us that little extra edge that we need to win,” left wing Marcus Johansson said. “I think we have made some really good additions, and we’re all excited about it.”
But just because the Caps are clicking early doesn’t mean they have forgotten last season’s disappointing end.
Despite setting a franchise record for most wins in a season (56-18-8), the team’s early exit from the playoffs in the Eastern Conference Second Round at the hands of the Pittsburg Penguins – the ultimate Stanley Cup Champions – is still fresh in their minds. It still hurts.
“We have the same expectations every single year, and that’s to win a Stanley Cup,” Holtby said. “What it takes to win one – we’re still trying to figure that out, and hopefully we’ve had enough experiences and grown enough as a group to put it to good use so we can [be] successful this year.”
Although right winger TJ Oshie noted it often takes a couple games out of the summer to start clicking – like back-to-back preseason losses to the Carolina Hurricanes and the Canadiens – he’s among the returning Caps who are impressed with how many players are on the same page.
With veterans clicking and newcomers bringing a fresh perspective, could this team finally bring home Lord Stanley?
“When you play like that, the game feels easier,” Oshie said. “You feel like there’s more space, and so if we can start the regular season like that and keep building on that and play within ourselves and everyone get on the same page, it’s going to be tough to beat us.”
The Caps open the season on the road against the Penguins at 8 p.m. on Thursday.