ARLINGTON, Va. — Alex Ovechkin has spent most of his career battling Zdeno Chara in the corners and trying to shoot the puck past Henrik Lundqvist, so naturally he didn’t see this coming.
“If somebody gonna tell me like two or three years ago I’m gonna play with a Lundqvist on one team and a Chara on another team,” Ovechkin wondered, “I would say, ‘Are you guys crazy?’”
A heart condition prevented Lundqvist from joining forces with Ovechkin on the Washington Capitals, but the Russian superstar will have Chara on his side as the two veterans chase down a second Stanley Cup championship. The Capitals are the oldest team in the NHL, Ovechkin has one year remaining on his contract, Chara signed for just this season and the window is wide open to win it all again under new coach Peter Laviolette.
“We’ve added some really good players, and I think the drive is there,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “I don’t like that ‘window’ thing because no one believed that we would win in 2018, and we won. So anything can happen out there.”
Especially in a 56-game season with all divisional play that’ll lead to Chara and the Capitals facing his old team, the Boston Bruins, as well as the archrival Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, eight times apiece. And while the towering 43-year-old defenseman pulled off hockey’s version of Tom Brady to Tampa Bay, Chara believes Washington can win it all.
“I just want to have a fair chance and compete with the guys for the Stanley Cup,” Chara said. “This is Alex’s team and Peter’s team, so I’m very much looking forward to trying to help them as much as I can with my experiences on and off the ice.”
Laviolette is Ovechkin’s seventh head coach in 16 seasons but the first to bring a Stanley Cup ring with him to Washington. He won with Carolina in 2006 and has taken three different teams to the final, including Philadelphia in 2010 and Nashville in 2017.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with some good teams, some good players along the way, and there has been some success early on in the places that I’ve been,” Laviolette said. “It would be great if that could happen here.”
With several core players signed long term, the Capitals’ championship window isn’t shutting after this season, and it’s likely Ovechkin re-signs to continue playing alongside Backstrom. He enters the season with 706 career goals, 188 shy of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record, and he’d need to play a few more years to catch the Great One.
“We understand everything what’s happening right now,” Ovechkin said. “I think for me most important thing is just to play the game right now.”
With starter Braden Holtby leaving for Vancouver in free agency and Lundqvist being unable to play, the net belongs to Ilya Samsonov. He turns 24 in February and has never played more than 37 games in a season at any level.
“I never been first goalie, but I’m ready for next level right now,” said Samsonov, who’s fully recovered from a neck and shoulder injury that kept him from playing in the bubble postseason. “This is important season for me.”
Samsonov started strong in his first NHL action last season and finished with a 2.55 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. Laviolette said the Capitals are “hoping he can build off that.”
Prospect Vitek Vanecek and 39-year-old Craig Anderson, who signed a training camp tryout agreement, are competing for the backup role.
Chara and Laviolette are the headliners but are not the only new additions. Washington signed defensemen Justin Schultz and Trevor van Riemsdyk and winger Connor Sheary as free agents and brought back Brenden Dillon for some bulk on the blue line.
Sheary, who won the Cup twice with Pittsburgh, is the frontrunner to take Ilya Kovalchuk’s spot among the top nine forwards.
“He’s had success in the past, and he brings speed to the lineup,” Laviolette said. “He’s produced offense before. Responsible player, reliable player.”
After opening up at Buffalo on Jan. 14 and 15 with a back-to-back, the Capitals visit the Penguins for two before their home debut (sans fans) against the Sabres on Jan. 22. Because the temporarily realigned East Division is so compact, Washington can face multiple opponents on the road during at trip without leaving one hotel, like playing at the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils twice each in a span of six days.