The last two Stanley Cup winners met twice in preseason to give fans – and competing NHL players – a taste of what it takes to be an elite team. The matchup was a huge measuring stick for the Washington Capitals, and all their players came to play against the St. Louis Blues. Even the newcomer talents nicely measured up to the reigning champions. Several veterans recently imported from other teams led the Capitals to a 3-2 victory on Sept. 18 and a 4-3 loss on Sept. 27.
Capitals Crush Champs, 3-2
The past two Stanley Cup winners met at Capital One Arena on Sept. 18 where the home team took a 3-2 preseason victory from the reigning champions. A pair of newcomers impacted the score sheet: Radko Gudas and Richard Pánik. Gudas scored at 7:15 in the second period with assists to Alexander Ovechkin and Brett Leason. Pánik scored at 19:00 in the third period with assists to John Carlson and Nicklas Bäckström. Bäckström carried the torch over the finish line, scoring from the blue line with 6.9 seconds left in the contest. Ovechkin and Gudas garnered helpers.
Backstoppers for the Hershey Bears, Vítek Vaněček and Ilya Samsonov, split netminding duties for their parent organization. Vaněček stopped 13 shots with a .929 save percentage (SV%) in 30:38 time on ice (TOI). Samsonov stopped 11 with a .923 SV% in 28:39 TOI. He even weathered a five-on-three storm.
Notably absent from the lineup was Tom Wilson, who made it clear last season that he no longer suits up against the Blues before the official puck drops due to three suspensions in previous preseasons. During the 2017-18 preseason, Wilson was awarded a two-game reprimand for a hit on Robert Thomas. A mere eight days later, a hit on Samuel Blais resulted in a four-game suspension. However, the most devastating incident occurred off a hit on Oskar Sundqvist where Wilson was given 20 games. The sentence was later reduced to 14 games. Although superstitions are often overblown in sports, we think Wilson’s decision was a wise one.
Blues Strike Back, 4-3
Opening puck drop neared as Washington took one step closer to the official 2019-20 season. After a half-dozen goals levied against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Capitals continued their road trip to test their luck against the defending champions in St. Louis. The 34 players who made the trek to the Midwest remained the last undefeated team in preseason at game’s inception. They left with their first loss.
The Blues entered their second preseason match with the Caps on Sept. 27 with a 3-2-0 record. They improved by one win at night’s conclusion. St. Louis stepped on the ice with one addition: Justin Faulk, who was traded from the Carolina Hurricanes last week. That helped the home team. Washington was without Radko Gudas because he flew home for the birth of his third child. That did not help the visiting team.
Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko and Tyler Bozak (power play) scored for the Blues, while Ville Husso made 24 saves. The match’s trajectory proved the resiliency of the team, mirroring the vault from last place to taking home the trophy during their Cup run last season. Although the Capitals scored the game’s first two goals, the four forwards in blue teamed up together to produce four unanswered goals. Schwartz finished the night with four points.
No individual player for the Capitals recorded more than a one-point performance. Travis Boyd, Carl Hagelin and Chandler Stephenson were the lamp lighters. Braden Holtby made 21 saves. The end results – much like the performances of different veterans and freshmen – were mixed. Individually, last-season acquisition Hagelin had some nice plays, while Liam O’Brien, product of the Hershey Bears (AHL), tried to make momentum in a fight with Jordan Nolan, product of the San Antonio Rampage (AHL). Collectively, the Capitals could not convert on five power plays and did not exceed the 10-hit threshold. If the team wants to go the distance, consistency needs to be the name of the game.
“I Play for the Capitals!”
Yes, we got the quote wrong. The actual quote from freshly-obtained Richard Pánik was “I play for the Coyotes” during his 2018 arrest.
Did we throw you into the deep end too fast? Was the water cold?
We only bring up the incident because there was public police video of the ordeal. While under the influence, Pánik was arrested for trespassing on April 8, 2018. At the time, he played forward for the Arizona Coyotes. He walked away with a criminal citation. But people change. The waters are warming.
The Washington Capitals certainly agree, signing the forward to a four-year deal in July 2019. While some are tepid about the trade, Pánik is certainly warming to his new team: “I’m very happy I signed with Washington, they are a great team, great organization and they are already a playoff team, so it’s a really good opportunity for me and hopefully I can help this team to the best of my abilities.” If the Blues game on Sept. 18 is any indication, the Slovak’s specialty will be special teams as he slides into a third-line role. He served as a shorthanded agent for 4:16 and took the role as sixth attacker with the goalie pulled during the final period. He even drew a holding call from Blues center Tyler Bozak thanks to crafty puck possession. That is a good way to prove the critics wrong.
Now, contrast that with last season. Pánik, who wore the same number with the Coyotes, becomes the 15th player in Washington history to wear number 14. That is the number of goals he scored last season. We hope that is a daft comparison, and he certainly concurs. His hopes for the future are high: “I would like to get back on track on that 20-goal mark, but I think with Washington’s playing style I can do it easily, but it’s going to be up to me how I produce. I think I have a chance here to do it.” The new trade should produce a successful season with increased goal production. If not, it will be a long four years with the cost of $11 million. But, right now, there is no reason to panic. Both Pánik and the Capitals have performed well in preseason.