Santa Bowl 2019

The fifth annual DC Fray Santa Bowl flag football tournament took place at Long Bridge Park in Arlington. Teams had the chance to win two prizes, one for collecting the most donations for Bridges to Independence and one for winning the tournament. Photos: Scott Fields

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 1: Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards handles the ball during a game against the LA Clippers on December 1, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein

Wizards Continue to Surprise as Offensive Powerhouse

The start of the 2019-2020 season seemed like a period of rebuilding for the Wizards, with the seventh youngest roster in the league, a few injuries including an Achilles tear from star point guard John Wall, and the departure of players like Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr.

But, just 15 games into the season and actually performing better than expected, the Wizards have pleasantly surprised many. The team has shown they are a force to be reckoned with on offense.
Shooting guard Bradley Beal is at the front of this force, with power forward Dāvis Bertāns and center Thomas Bryant right there with him. Bertāns is shooting above 40 percent from the 3-point line, and Bryant holds a 55.8 FG percentage.

Currently, Beal puts up almost 30 points and averages 7.1 assists per game. But despite Beal’s unbelievable scoring, his focus is not on averaging a certain amount of points.

“I think [scoring] is more or less expected of myself,” Beal says. “I just do whatever I can to help the team win. Whatever I can do, that’s what I try to accomplish.”

The 6-13 Wizards have some new faces on their roster, including rookie Rui Hachimura. Younger players like Troy Brown Jr., who’s in his second season, and new player Mo Wagner continue to make a name for themselves. Also leading alongside Beal are players who have seen plenty of time in the league like Isaiah Thomas, Ish Smith and C.J. Miles.

Brown Jr. feels having such a young team gives them an edge and the ability to learn from more experienced players.

“It allows us to grow, develop, and bond on and off the court together, but it also allows us to learn from and take advantage of the advice the vets on our team give,” he explains. “Not many guys have the opportunity to learn from a Bradley Beal, C.J. Miles or John Wall at such a young age in their career.”

The saying “defense wins championships” might not apply to this Wizards’ team, but don’t be too hasty in writing them off just yet. Although, head coach Scott Brooks said to NBC recently that having a top-rated offense and low-rated defense does not cut it.

One player who has been playing consistently well on both sides of the ball is Wagner at center.

He has brought intensity to the offense as a playmaker, scorer and rebounder, and is very dominant on defense. His outstanding play is not limited to inside the paint – he is a threat outside the arch also, shooting just below 50 percent from the 3-point line.

If Wagner can keep his fouling to a minimum, he is destined to earn more playing time from Brooks. Wagner says this is the first year he has really been given a big opportunity, and he works every day to take advantage of it.

“I just try to bring an energy and help wherever the team needs me. Run the floor and get rebounds, be solid defensively, take and knock down open shots – that’s all I’m trying to do.”
Thomas, on the other hand, has been in the league for almost 10 years. He knows the type of play that is required to be successful in the NBA, but historically underperforms on defense.

A highly talked about topic among fans is who should start in the point guard position during Wall’s absence: Thomas or Smith. But Thomas says he is primarily focused on becoming known as a leader on the team and doing whatever it takes to help the Wizards obtain wins.

“I’m just looking forward to a really great season and helping in any way possible,” he says. “A leadership role is something that I’ve always done. It just comes naturally: to lead by example, lead vocally.”

What do the Wizards need to do to have the best possible season? Play harder and with a smarter defense. That has become evident to most anyone who has watched them play so far this season. They have shown they can light their opponents up on offense, move the ball well, and favor the pick-and-roll to make plays, create space and find open shots.

If they stray away from having one of the worst-ranked defenses in the league, they would be scary good. Currently, the Wizards average 6.8 steals, 4.1 blocks and 32.2 defensive rebounds per game. With the exception of defensive rebounds, the Los Angeles Lakers – the top-rated defensive team in the league – are almost doubling the Wizards’ numbers on defense.

While unlikely, only time will tell if the Wizards can turn things around enough on defense to earn a playoff spot. Beal says for him, this season is about fostering winning habits on and off the court.

“I’ve told myself that this year is about having patience. We have a lot of new faces, a new system and young players that are developing. [We’re] just putting in the work, getting better every day and learning from the mistakes we make.”

The Wizards play at Capital One Arena four more times this month. For tickets and more info on the team, visit www.nba.com/wizards.

Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; 202-628-3200; www.nba.com/wizards

Coach Paul Assaiante // Photo by David B. Newman

Squash on the Rise: Men’s World Team Squash Championship in DC

Squash, it seems, is finally having its moment in the United States.

This past summer at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, the U.S. men’s team won its first-ever gold medals in both doubles and team play. And this month, for the first time in its over 50-year history, the World Squash Federation (WSF) Men’s World Team Squash Championship is being held in the U.S. – right here in DC – on December 15-21.

The tournament will take place at Squash on Fire, a state-of-the-art facility that opened on M Street two-and-a-half years ago. Built on the site of one of DC’s oldest fire stations (hence the “on fire” part), Squash on Fire features eight squash courts, a café and a pro shop in its downtown location.

With no membership required, Squash on Fire is just the kind of place to help popularize the sport across the country.

“The game in the United States is exploding,” says Paul Assaiante, the legendary coach of the U.S. men’s squash team. “Junior squash is up something like 500 percent in the last decade, and it’s one of the few countries in the world where squash is, in fact, growing. Squash had always been something of a private school/private club activity. Now, with clubs like Squash on Fire, we’re seeing this game go much more public in the U.S.”

Assaiante knows what he’s talking about, with 44 years of coaching squash under his belt.

“I’m as old as dirt,” he laughingly puts it.

He’s been with the U.S. squash team for 20 years, and at Trinity College for 26. He holds the record for longest consecutive winning streak of any college sport and led the Trinity team to 17 national titles.

On the U.S. men’s team, he has help from assistant coach Thierry Lincou, another squash notable who was formerly the top player in the world and currently coaches the MIT squash team. The current U.S. men’s team players are some of the best in the world as well, including Andrew Douglas (ranked 119), Christopher Gordon (ranked 94), Chris Hanson (ranked 67), and Todd Harrity (ranked 48 in the world and number one in the U.S.)

Harrity, who was sidelined by injuries earlier this season, is back on the court and ready for the tournament, he says.

“It has been a nightmare season for me so far as I have been hampered with injuries,” Harrity says. “I had torn ligaments in the wrist and ankle. But thankfully, I am healthy now and it feels great to finally be fit to compete again.”

Harrity says he looks forward to the team aspect of the upcoming championship since it’s a change from the usual solo matches in squash.

“Squash is an individual sport and as a professional squash player, you spend a lot of time focusing on yourself. So being part of a team for once is very special and requires a slightly different mindset.”

Assaiante has nothing but praise for Harrity, who started playing squash as a young child and went on to be the number one varsity player during his four years at Princeton.

“He had a storied college career and he’s having a great pro career,” Assaiante says. “He’s such a deep, thoughtful and introspective guy, but really fun to be around.”

For his part, Harrity is thrilled about the fact that the world championship is finally being played in his home country.

“It is very exciting for us that the event will be hosted in the U.S. The home team always gets a little extra attention, and it will be quite invigorating to have our families and friends come watch us compete. Perhaps there is a little more pressure, but I try not to think about that.”

Assaiante says the players know they can’t rest on their laurels after winning gold at the Pan American Games. They’re fully aware that the world competition is even tougher.

“We know the mountain is much steeper,” he says. “The good news is, the team has experienced this together. They have a higher level of confidence and belief in each other. They know anything’s possible.”

He says they are super excited about the upcoming tournament, and after all, why shouldn’t they be? This is the moment for squash and its top U.S. players to shine, according to the coach.

“If you can’t get excited for this, then you’re in the wrong sport.”

Catch the 2019 WSF Men’s World Team Squash Championship on Sunday, December 15 through Saturday, December 21. General admission tickets start at $25. Learn more about the championship at www.worldteamsquashdc.com.

Squash on Fire: 2233 M St. NW, DC; 202-241-2233; www.squashonfire.com

Safe At Home Kickball Tournament

Long Bridge Park hosted this year’s 14th Annual Safe at Home Kickball Tournament on November 16 to benefit Bridges to Independence. Teams played round-robin style morning games, and competed in the afternoon rounds for a chance to win the Safe at Home Championship trophy. Photos: Scott Fields

Photo: courtesy of the Washington Fusion

Global Mixed-Gender Basketball Washington Fusion Hits the Court

Duan Somers, co-owner of the Washington Fusion, is energized about the team’s matchup happening this month right here in the District.

“November 16 will exhibit the epitome of gender equality,” Somers says. “The future of basketball is now!”

The future of basketball that Somers is talking about is one in which male and female players are competing together in one league, and this future is not just a dream. It’s a reality, as the Global Mixed Gender Basketball league (GMGB) comes to the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast DC later this month.

Warren Morris, head publicist for the Fusion, says that the league’s CEO James Scott hatched the idea for the league after wondering why pro basketball leagues were always separated by gender.

“James Scott had the vision a few years ago: seeing men and women playing together on the same team, on the same court and at the same time,” Morris says. “This had never been done before. That imagination took on reality and birthed the first original coed basketball league.”

Morris says that when fans come to see GMGB games, they’ll notice that the league has some new rules that differ from standard NBA and WNBA regulations.

“In GMGB,” he says, “there are three females and two males in the first and third quarters. In the second and fourth quarters, there are three males and two females. Additionally, each three-point shot made by a female counts for four points.”

The league tries to extend the concept of men and women competing together to all aspects of the game, featuring both male and female referees as well as coaching staff. Coaches include WNBA icon Lisa Leslie with the New Orleans Gators and NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins with the Atlanta Heirs.

It’s fitting that the Fusion will be playing at the Entertainment and Sports Arena – the home arena of DC’s WNBA team, the Washington Mystics – since the team has many links to the WNBA.

The Fusion has featured Natasha Cloud, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Tiffany Bias, all players with experience playing in the WNBA. Coach Nikki Teasley played college hoops at UNC, and then went on to win a WNBA championship with the LA Sparks.

As part of the GMGB league, the Fusion has its share of male players as well – including many former college and NBA standouts. They include Andre Barrett, who played for Seton Hall and several NBA teams including the Chicago Bulls and the LA Clippers; Khalid El-Amin, who played for UConn and the Chicago Bulls; and Michael Sweetney, who played for Georgetown and the New York Knicks.

The Fusion is one of six teams in the league right now, with an eye on expanding to a total of eight in the near future. Morris says that in addition to featuring top former college and pro players on the court, each team has celebrities on the ownership side as well.

These include actress and reality star Laura Govan with the Chicago Vikings; singer-songwriter Tameka “Tiny” Harris with the Atlanta Heirs; rapper Trick Daddy with the Miami Ballers; rapper, actor and businessman Percy “Master P” Miller with the New Orleans Gators; rapper and actor Ice-T with the New York Nights; and rapper and actor Anwan “Big G” Glover with DC’s very own Fusion.

Fusion co-owner Glover, who played Slim Charles in HBO’s critically acclaimed series The Wire, is also a founding member of the Backyard Band – a DC go-go mainstay performing at the halftime show for the upcoming Fusion game.

Beyond its robust celebrity roster, the GMGB league has made helping local communities a key component of each matchup. Morris says that in the past, they have made diabetes awareness the cause, providing free health screenings along with free tickets to the games. Another recent initiative put the spotlight on the issue of domestic violence.

The bottom line – from both the league side and those who have attended previous GMGB games – is that the energy, passion and excitement of the games must be seen in person to truly be understood. DC fans are lucky to have just that chance this month.

Watch the Washington Fusion take on the Chicago Vikings on Saturday, November 16 at 6 p.m. at the Entertainment and Sports Arena. Tickets start at $10. Learn more about the Fusion at www.globalmixedgenderbasketball.com and follow the team on social media @washingtonfusion.

The Entertainment and Sports Arena: 1100 Oak St. SE, DC; www.esaontherise.com

Bradley Beal // Photo: Ned Dishman

Four Wizards to Watch this Season

Like a snap of the finger from the almighty titan Thanos, rebuilds in sports are, as he’d growl, inevitable. There comes a time when every franchise must reshuffle their deck and begin planning for the future. And folks, the Washington Wizards’ time to tank is now. Does that mean losing games on purpose? No. That would be a violation of NBA rules and no team would ever tank blatantly and openly. However, it might mean letting center Thomas Bryant shoot 15 threes per game. It could mean allotting newly signed guard Isaiah Thomas the same number of field goal attempts he enjoyed before a rash of injuries depleted some of his athleticism. Despite this truth, the season doesn’t have to be an auto-skip for fans. Unlike the pre-Joel Embiid Philadelphia 76ers or the year-in, year-out rotating door that forms the New York Knicks, this DC team actually has some entertaining NBA players worth watching. So while I’d love to throw a book’s worth of stats at you to try and convince you the Wizards will triumph and bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy this season, I’m too much of a realist. And as a realist and DC area resident, I’ll be keeping an eye on the following four players.

Bradley Beal
The Real Deal Beal himself, the team’s best player from last season returns to build off his breakout campaign from 2018-2019. The team’s shooting guard was the subject of a tremendous amount of trade speculation throughout the offseason, but instead of pushing his weight around and forcing his way out of town, he re-upped with the Wizards by signing a two-year contract extension through the 2022-2023 season worth $72 million. Coming off a scintillating season where he averaged almost 26 points per game, Beal is a bright spot for the team and a genuine source of optimism among fans. For Beal, outside of the max contract obviously, this season represents a chance for him to prove he can lead a team to unexpected heights. All of Beal’s playoff appearances occurred in seasons where he played second banana to the now-injured John Wall, and while he’s achieved individual accolades like All-Star appearances, he hasn’t shown the ability to elevate an average roster to the playoffs a la James Harden or LeBron James to this point. Beal is undoubtedly a tremendous talent, but is he an MVP-level player? This season, we could find out.

Thomas Bryant
Ladies and gentlemen, the Wizards starting center. After missing out on Kevin Durant in the 2016 offseason, the Wizards front office, then led by Ernie Grunfield, signed center Ian Mahinmi as their center of the future at a questionably high price point. That turned out to be a catastrophe as the Frenchman has failed to live up to the contract. Instead, the Wizards relied on veteran Marcin Gortat for a number of seasons, before bringing in future Hall of Famer Dwight Howard to start last season. Due to a butt injury, Howard’s reign never transpired and Bryant took the early opportunity for playing time and produced a career-best season average about 10 points and 7 rebounds per outing. At 22 years old, Bryant has showcased a ton of potential proving a solid defender with more shooting range than a typical five. Losing in the NBA isn’t fun for anyone, but low expectations provide ample opportunities for players looking to prove themselves and Bryant fits the bill.

Rui Hachimura
When NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced his name, a lot of people were skeptical of the Wizards’ most recent NBA Draft lottery pick, but Rui Hachimura has so far silenced his doubters. While it’s undeniably early in his career, three games at time of writing, he’s been incredibly impressive averaging 16 points per game. As with Bryant, bad teams provide young players the opportunity to step onto the court and experience a litany of game scenarios. So far, Hachimura has made the most of his reps, whether a young international prospect at Gonzaga, the leader of the Japanese national team or as a rookie for the Wizards, and he’ll only continue to make strides as a scorer.

Isaiah Thomas
Unlike the players above him on this admittedly shortlist, Isaiah Thomas’ time with the Wizards is likely a temporary marriage. The diminutive guard has had a strange career journey, peaking during his time in Celtic green and bottoming out last season with a not-so-successful stint for the Denver Nuggets. This doesn’t mean that Thomas’ days won’t provide some of the “wow” from yesteryear, but it’s likely his best days are ahead of him. Despite this, Thomas, who stands at about 5’9,” is one of the most entertaining players to watch when he has it going. The point guard may not be long for the District, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy him while he’s here.

For more information about the Washington Wizards, visit www.nba.com/wizards.

Nick Jensen // Photo: Washington Capitals Photography

Caps Aim to Keep Fresh, Maintain Fast Start

A hockey season is an odyssey that starts in September with training camp and concludes in June when the Stanley Cup is hoisted by the last team standing. It’s a grind that chews up every player, to a certain degree, along the way.

The Washington Capitals had the distinct pleasure of raising the Cup in June 2018 after besting the Vegas Golden Knights four games to one. For an encore, the Caps were unfortunately bounced out of the first round in the 2019 playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes.

But the team realizes the importance of being prepared come playoff time and is determined to pace themselves accordingly while at the same time not snoozing on early regular season games.
“At the end of the day, it’s what you do in the playoffs that matters,” says Scott Arniel, who is in his second year as an assistant coach for the Capitals. “You have to play your best hockey come April, May and June.”

Ideally, teams want home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. That means winning as many early regular season games as possible to create distance between opponents. To achieve that, the players need to be ready coming out of the gate.

Teams that start slowly often have a tough time catching up with the rest of the league. For example, the Dallas Stars started 1-7-1 and now have to play catch-up.

“You can be knocked out of the playoffs by December 1 if you’re not up and running,” continues Arniel, whose primary duties include working with the wingers and the penalty kill.

The Capitals feels they are better prepared to start this year compared to last, when they had a short summer while the city gorged on Cup mania. If there was a silver lining to the early exit last playoffs, it was that players had more time to train and prepare for this season.

Early preparation involves consistency and focus – not only on hockey skills but also on everyday activities such as eating habits, gym and lifting schedules, and rest and rehabilitation during the players’ off hours. Defenseman Nick Jensen notes the importance of getting off to a good start, and how players’ personal habits play a big role in their performance.

“Exhibition games definitely help, but there’s nothing that can replicate the speed and skill of the game when the regular season starts,” he says. “It’s a long season, but these games at the beginning of the season are very important.”

To keep loose on game days, Jensen says he follows a light morning skate with a cold tub treatment, soft tissue massage and stretching. Players will often stick with the same routine, mainly out of comfort and sometimes out of superstition.

“The majority of players, if not all, will follow a pretty similar routine on game days,” Jensen adds.

The defenseman, who was traded to the Capitals from the Detroit Red Wings this February, has logged key minutes on the backline for Washington. His strong defensive play is a valued commodity.

“Whatever makes me feel good for that game, I tend to repeat over and over. It’s all about getting into that mindset on game day. We’re creatures of habit.”

Arniel, head coach Todd Reirden, and the rest of the coaching and training staff take great pains to ensure each player is individually cared for. During practices, Arniel will often work with the wingers at a separate part of the rink away from the centers and defensemen.

“We want to make sure our players are at their max,” he says.

A hockey lifer, Arniel knows the game just about as well as anyone. He played 11 seasons in the National Hockey League, mostly with the Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres, and continued playing for several seasons after that in other pro leagues. He switched to coaching and served as the head coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets for a year-and-a-half, and also as an assistant for five years with the New York Rangers under head coach Alain Vigneault.

The Capitals were a well-oiled machine when Arniel joined them after the Cup season, and he believes the team is geared for similar success this year. The Caps are off to a fast start, posting an 8-2-3 record and sitting in first place at of the end of October.

“We changed our team a bit and have some new pieces,” Arniel says. “We had the opportunity to build our strength back up, and the coaching staff is a lot more familiar with one another.”
Jensen says the team is hoping to treat fans to another long playoff run.

“The fans are amazing,” he says. “We have a lot of support from them. There are adjustment periods here and there, but it feels like I’ve been here for a while.”
Don’t miss nine home games this month, starting on November 1 against the Buffalo Sabres. For more information on the Washington Capitals’ current season, go to www.nhl.com/capitals.

Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC;, 202-628-3200; www.nhl.com/capitals

World Series Game 2 Watch Party at Nationals Park

Nationals Park hosted a crowd of several thousand people for Game 2 of the World Series in Houston, TX on Wednesday, October 23. Nationals won Game 2 of the Fall Classic 12-3, giving them a 2-0 lead to start off the series. Photos: Mark Raker Photography

8 Top Spots to Watch the Nats Play During the World Series

When your favorite team makes the World Series for the first time since 1933, it’s a pretty big deal. Back then they were called the Senators, now you know and love them as the Nationals. To celebrate the big games, DC bars, hotels and more are rooting red and bringing special drinks and activities to fans. Go Nats!

1. Nationals Park 

For the first two games of the world series, the best place to watch the Nats is at  Nationals Park of course. Head to the stadium to watch your favorite team on the scoreboard. Gates open at 7 p.m. On October 22, the game starts at 8:08 p.m., October 23 at 8:07 p.m. Free to attend but must have a ticket. 1500 S Capitol St. SE, DC; www.mlb.com 

2. The Bullpen

The Bullpen is steps away from Nats Park. This outdoor venue opens early so there’s plenty of time to pregame before the Nats come on the big screen. The jumbotron provides a great view for everyone. With fellow fans and drink specials, win or lose, it will be a great time. 1201 Half St. SE, DC; www.thebullpendc.com

3. Walter’s Sports Bar

It’s been a good year for Walter’s Sports Bar. They opened and the Nats are playing in the World Series. Check out the games on one of their 30+ TVs. With over 24 beers on tap, it’s the perfect place to celebrate Juan Soto’s 21st birthday. Join the pregame on October 25th at 4 p.m. for Calma dance parties with baby shark party hats. 10 N St. SE, DC; www.waltersdc.com      

4. Homewood Suites Navy Yard

On Friday and Saturday, if you’re looking to spend the World Series outside, check out The Homewood Suites in Navy Yard. They’re close to the stadium and the rooftop bar will be open. With the game on, drinks being served and plenty of outdoor seating, it’s a chill way to cheer on the Nats. 50 M St. SE, DC; www.hilton.com  

5. Culture House

On Tuesday, October 22 and Wednesday, October 23 at 5-12 p.m., head to Culture house for a pop-up shop featuring special edition World Series T-shirt for each game created by local artist Naturel. With several screens playing the game, Nats fans of all ages can be a part of Nationals History. The bar will be open and &pizza will be serving bites. 700 Delaware Ave. SW, DC; www.culturehousedc.org

6. The St. Gregory Hotel

Sit fireside and watch the games in the lobby of the St. Gregory. The entry will be lit up- Nationals red of course. Snack on ballpark classics like cracker jacks and hot dogs. World Series Drink Specials include: The 1933 Mint Julep, The Scherzer Slider,  The Juan Soto (Mocktail) and The Rendon Special (hot Cheetos and a Corona.) 2033 M St. NW; DC; www.stgregoryhotelwdc.com

7. Capitol Hill Hotel

Be close to Nats Park while treating yourself to a night in. The Capitol Hill Hotel is treating guests to a viewing party in the hotel library. Ballpark snacks will be provided. If you feel like going out, head to Valor Brew Pub or Ugly Mug and show your room key to receive 10% off your purchase. 200 C St. SE, DC; www.capitolhillhotel-dc.com

8. Roy Boys

With $5 beer cans, $10 loaded base cocktail and $5 Natitude Red shots by Frank Mills, Roy Boys in Navy Yard Park has got every World Series game covered. Get there early enough to reserve your seat and take advantage of their 4-7 p.m. happy hour shrimp and chicken biscuits. The Nats and fried chicken, what could be better? 2108 8th St. NW, DC; www.royboysdc.com 

Let us know you’re pulling on the home team by using the hashtag #FrayLife while watching the Nats!

Looking for other October activities? Check out our list of the best things to do this month!

Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Gudas and Vrana Look to Help Lead Caps Back to the Cup

Last year’s Washington Capitals squad had a tough act to follow. The season prior, the team secured its first Stanley Cup championship under the tutelage of coach Barry Trotz. A glorious summer-long party ensued as the city embraced the festive atmosphere that came with ending a long-enduring drought.

Trotz’s contract was up though, and when an extension couldn’t be reached, Todd Reirden was promoted to take his place. As the team started slowly last year, several pundits blamed the effects of a Cup hangover, a phenomenon that sometimes plagues a team that had played grueling matches deep into the summer. It wasn’t a terrible start, but when the expectations are sky-high, people notice.

Reirden eventually righted the ship and guided the Capitals to a first-place finish in the competitive Metro division, but the team fell to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games in the first round. What do Reirden and his staff have in store for an encore? With a full season under his belt as head coach and a competitive squad returning, it’s expected Reirden will guide the Caps to another first-place finish – but this time, go deep in the playoffs.

All the ingredients are there for the Capitals to have a big year. While there were some changes in the offseason, particularly on defense and among the bottom six forwards, the core team returns. One returning player who figures to play a prominent role this season is forward Jakub Vrana, who racked up an impressive 47 points (24 goals, 23 assists) and played in all 82 games in his second full season with the club. Vrana, who is expected to exceed those figures and play a bigger role this season, credits the coaching staff with accelerating his development.

“The coaches were very helpful, and we worked on a lot of things,” Vrana says. “I’ve been getting chances and more ice time. You need to earn that and give it back to your team and coaches.”

Vrana, a native of the Czech Republic and a former Caps first-round draft choice, says the team is motivated to get back to Cup finals after experiencing the championship in 2018. Since they were bounced in the first round this past season, the players had more time during the offseason to rest up and train.

“The longer summer will help us be better prepared to get back to the Stanley Cup this year,” he continues. “Obviously with winning the Cup, we know how special it is – especially with the city waiting so long. And last year was kind of disappointing, [but] it gets us motivated to get out there and win again.”

Among the new additions this year is defenseman Radko Gudas, who came to DC from Philadelphia over the summer, with Washington sending Matt Niskanen to the Flyers in return. The team will miss Niskanen, a top-pair defenseman who played five years in the District and chewed up a lot of ice time while putting up meaningful points. But the Capitals save $3.4 million in cap space with the trade, as Niskanen makes a higher salary than Gudas. It also gives the team some needed snarl, as the physical Gudas can be a menacing presence on the backline.

Among the league’s hit leaders, Gudas brings a wild card element to the Capitals. Though ejected and suspended multiple times by the league for what has been deemed questionable hits, a player of his notoriety can benefit the Capitals as it provides them a fiercer edge that will keep opposing teams on their toes. The defenseman, whose affability during interviews belies his intense nature on the ice, looks to continue his spirited play in DC.

“It’s definitely my game,” he says. “I’m a physical guy out there. I’m trying to be a physical defenseman who always protects his teammates and makes sure nobody is touching our goalie.”

The trade was a bit of an anomaly as it involved division rivals, but Gudas says he quickly moved past the initial surprise of the news and settled in.

“I want to focus on myself and be ready for the season. This group wants to go deep in the playoffs, and I want to have that as my number one goal going into the season. It’s a new chapter for me, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”

Gudas, who is also from the Czech Republic, says he is familiar with Vrana and fellow countryman Michal Kempny, a key defenseman who is expected to miss some time due to a torn hamstring. Gudas previously played on the Tampa Bay Lightning with Richard Panik, a forward whom the Capitals signed as a free agent. Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic were all brought in over the summer to add speed and grit to the third and fourth lines.

The Capitals lost another vital defenseman when Brooks Orpik announced his retirement after 15 years in the NHL, including five in Washington. Orpik played 81 games during the Caps’ Stanley Cup season and was a respected player in the locker room. It’s expected that players like Gudas, Nick Jensen, Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler will step up to play key minutes and support top defensemen John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov.

The top forward lines are once again buoyed by superstar captain Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie, with veterans Tom Wilson, Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin rounding out the group. Number one goalie Braden Holtby will once again be counted on as a workhorse between the pipes. With not a lot of change and new, proven faces filling key positions, the Capitals are once again expected to be among the NHL’s best.

“We had some big losses during the summer,” Vrana says. “We lost some guys we have some history and some memories with. It wasn’t really easy to say goodbye, but sometimes that’s part of the business. You just have to look forward. We have a great upcoming year in front of us with this group now and we’re very excited for the season.”

Don’t miss five home games this month, starting on October 5. For more information on the Washington Capitals’ current season, go to www.nhl.com/capitals.

Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; 202-628-3200; www.nhl.com/capitals