- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs, Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been asked and asked again: Why is this year different?

Why was this team able to vanquish rival Pittsburgh? Why is this team one win away from the Stanley Cup Final if it isn’t the most talented group of players of Trotz’s tenure in Washington?

He has spoken about staying the course and growing together, about buying into the system and believing in teammates. The usual fare. But after the Capitals beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-0 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, the coach revealed just how confident he is in this year’s team.

“Going into Game 7, I don’t think I would want another — and I’ve been doing this for a while — I don’t think there’s a team I’ve ever had that I’d want to go into a Game 7 with,” Trotz said. “This team has done a lot of special things this year.”

Yes, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby are having excellent postseasons. That’s nothing new. They’ve needed some help across all lines and defensive pairings so the team could take that next step.

They’ve needed players like these five, players who have never been a part of failed playoff runs of years past. These are the Capitals’ newest difference-makers who don’t always make the headlines. These are “The Other Guys.”

Chandler Stephenson: The Swiss Army Knife

“I use the term Swiss Army knife because he’s played almost every position except goaltender for us,” Trotz said after Stephenson made an assist on the fourth line in Game 6. He’s at center, then slides to winger in the blink of an eye. He’s on the fourth line — then the top.

Stephenson spent most of last year with the AHL Hershey Bears, and it can be hard to remember he’s an NHL rookie. He had a plus-13 rating in the regular season and won 54.1 percent of faceoffs, among the best marks on the team.

Devante Smith-Pelly: Devo

The band Devo rocked on stage. This Devo rocks opponents on the ice, a physical forward on the lower lines. Only Tom Wilson has more hits among all playoff players than Smith-Pelly’s 66. Devo also scores in the big moments, including four playoff goals this year.

Smith-Pelly signed a two-way contract with Washington last offseason after stops in Anaheim, Montreal and New Jersey. On his first two teams, he proved his playoff mettle, and Trotz’s staff knew he was the kind of player who would rise to the occasion in April and May.

“There are certain guys, their game translates more in the heavier games, the tight spaces,” Trotz said. “When we look for guys that fill our roster, you’re looking for guys who have had some success. When Devo came in we talked about building his brand, and I think he’s done a real good job.”

Michal Kempny: Body Czech

Washington’s defense needed something more than John Carlson and a handful of rookies. This Czech native was overlooked in Chicago. A February trade made both sides happy. Kempny has played every playoff game alongside Carlson, blocked 30 shots and helped shut down Evgeni Malkin’s line in the Penguin series. Talk about an origin story.

“He’s a high quality pro,” Trotz said earlier this month. “He’s very learned in terms of changing his style from the way Chicago plays in certain situations to how we play him. … How he trains, rests, eats, carries himself, he’s as good as anybody we’ve ever had.”

Jakub Vrana: Flying V

Remember last season, when people questioned if the Capitals had enough speed to keep up with the modern NHL? Jakub Vrana has put those doubts to rest. Known as just “V” to teammates, the 22-year-old flies up and down the ice.

Flying V was also in Hershey for much of last year, but he’s already played the superhero role in his first Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s tallied six points, including a three-point performance with a game-winning goal in Game 4 against the Penguins.

Brett Connolly: Conno

Revenge has been sweet for Conno. The winger was traded from the Lightning to the Boston Bruins months before Tampa Bay’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. Connolly joined Washington ahead of the 2016-17 season, but he has made his biggest impact during these playoffs. He has four goals — with two of them coming against his former team. Not bad for a guy who was a healthy scratch for half of last postseason.

As a bonus: Don’t forget Conno’s role in making sure the now-famous young Capitals fan Keelan Moxley received a puck before a game against Columbus. That’s what a hero would do.


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