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Eastern Conference predictions: Are the Caps still contenders?

Eastern Conference predictions: Are the Caps still contenders?

A new NHL season begins on Wednesday. Now it's time to put our experts to the test.

Tarik El-Bashir and J.J. Regan will cover the Capitals all season long for NBC Sports Washington. What do they think the NHL season will hold? It's time to get their season predictions for the Eastern Conference and their picks to win the Stanley Cup.

El-Bashir

Metropolitan
1. Pittsburgh
2. Washington
3. Columbus

Atlantic
1. Tampa Bay
2. Toronto
3. Montreal

Wild card
1. Rangers
2. Boston

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The skinny: The Penguins and Caps remain the class of the Metro and should duke it out for the top spot. I do, however, have some reservations about both teams. Sidney Crosby and the back-to-back champs have played a record 49 playoff games the past two years. That’s some serious wear and tear, and it’s bound to catch up to them at some point. The Caps, meanwhile, have been gutted by Pittsburgh two years in a row and, well, they just didn’t look right while slogging through a 2-5 preseason. Even Coach Barry Trotz has acknowledged that some players seem “stuck” in last spring’s disappointment. The Jackets added 30-goal scorer Artemi Panarin and are backstopped by Vezina-winner Sergei Bobrovsky. But they’re not catching anyone by surprise this year. Kevin Shattenkirk and the Rangers round out my playoff teams in the Metro (assuming 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist rebounds) but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘Canes raise some hell and make a late run.

I don’t have Tampa Bay winning the whole thing like somebody I know, but I do think Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman plus some shrewd offseason additions will make them the team to beat in the Atlantic. Youngsters Auston Matthews, Michael Nylander, Mitch Marner have the speedy Leafs on the upswing and it wouldn’t surprise me if they challenge the Bolts. The Habs, to me, are just a notch below the Lightning and Leafs, but are always a threat to go deep in the playoffs because of Carey Price. With Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak anchoring the B’s top six, I like their chances of squeaking into the tournament. The Senators and Sabres could make things interesting, but I think they ultimately fall short. 

Conference winner: For me, it’s the Penguins until someone knocks them off their perch.

Stanley Cup Final: Anaheim vs. Pittsburgh

Stanley Cup winner: Quack, quack. I’ve got the Ducks winning it all. Despite some early injury woes, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and the rest of the veteran-laden group checks all of the boxes for me.

Regan

Metropolitan
1. Columbus
2. Pittsburgh
3. N.Y. Rangers

Atlantic
1. Tampa Bay
2. Toronto
3. Montreal

Wild card
1. Washington
2. Carolina

The skinny: The best team in the Metropolitan Division is the Penguins, but they now have to deal with the grind of two consecutive Stanley Cup runs. At some point, Pittsburgh will hit the wall. Considering they did not win the division in either of the last two seasons, I also do not believe they will see much incentive in pushing themselves through it to win the division crown. In steps Columbus. The Blue Jackets had the fourth best record in the NHL last season and also added a significant piece in Artemi Panarin.  The Rangers’ lack of center depth is a concern, but I have enough faith in Alain Vigneault and Henrik Lundqvist to at least see them into the postseason. Carolina is an up and coming team that will make a playoff push now that they finally have a netminder in Scott Darling who can provide consistent goaltending. As for Washington, the Caps will take a step back, but they will not collapse. What will hurt them is their health. Washington has unsustainably healthy the past two seasons. Injuries will come and the team will struggle because the roster is not as deep as it has been in recent years.

The Atlantic appears very top heavy with Tampa and Toronto. Toronto is certainly on the rise, but let’s pump the brakes on the contender talk considering their defense is still a question. I certainly would not favor them to beat out the Lightning. If Tampa ever plays up to their potential in the regular season and Steven Stamkos is healthy, they can be one of the most dominant teams in the NHL. If I believed Erik Karlsson was going to return healthy and stay healthy this season, I would have Ottawa in the top three over a Montreal team that is going nowhere fast. But I don’t. Instead, I will go with Carey Price to get the Canadiens in, but not very far. 

Conference winner: Tampa Bay has all the pieces. If they stay healthy, there’s no reason why they can’t win.

Stanley Cup Final: Edmonton vs. Tampa Bay

Stanley Cup winner: Edmonton may have the best player, but Tampa has the better team. Stamkos wins out over Connor McDavid as Tampa wins its second Cup in franchise history.

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Tuesday's win shows just how far the Caps have come since the last time they played the Avalanche

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USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday's win shows just how far the Caps have come since the last time they played the Avalanche

The Caps have come a long way in the past month.

On Nov. 16, the Capitals lost 6-2 to the Colorado Avalanche in Colorado. The game was not as close as the score indicated. Not only was it a bad loss, it felt like a significant one.

Over the course of an 82-game season, every team is going to have a lot of losses. Some of those losses are not going to be close. But given the fact that just one night before, the Caps were handed a 6-3 loss at the hands of the Nashville Predators, the loss to the Avalanche did not feel like a blip on the radar. It had all the feelings of a downward trend.

LISTEN TO THE LATEST CAPITALS EXTRA PODCAST BREAKING DOWN THE CAPS' WIN OVER COLORADO

In hindsight, that game was in fact significant, but not because it signaled the unstoppable downward spiral of an aging team in need of a rebuild. Instead, it marked the moment the Caps turned their season around.

Since that loss in Colorado, Washington has gone 9-3-0. Since those ugly back-to-back losses, they have not lost consecutive games since.

And then on Monday, they hosted that same Colorado team that looked as if it had ended the Caps’ season in mid-November. The new-look Caps disposed of Colorado with relative ease by a score of 5-2.

After the game, it did not take long for November’s loss to come up.

“I guess we do better at this altitude than over there,” John Carlson said.

Matt Niskanen said the Caps had “our butts kicked” by the Avalanche and Barry Trotz said that they "handed us our lunch last time" and felt that motivated his team to respond in the rematch.

Considering how Washington looked the last time these two teams met, it would be hard for the Caps to respond much better than what they did on Tuesday.

MORE CAPITALS: 3 REASONS THE CAPS BEAT THE AVALANCHE

In November’s game, Washington had no answer for Colorado's top line. Nathan MacKinnon had a five-point night and Gabriel Landeskog recorded a hat trick. On Tuesday, neither player earned a point. Instead, both players finished with a minus-three rating on the night.

“I think there's a pride factor,” Trotz said of his team’s ability to bounce back. “I think there's a little bit of a cultural factor, DNA factor with this group because we've won a lot of games. We understand that best thing you can do after losing a game is start another streak and don't let the streak go the wrong way.”

Over the course of the last 12 games since the Caps’ first game against Colorado, Washington has been a team decidedly going the right way and, as of Wednesday morning, sit tied for first in the Metropolitan Division.

Who would have thought that’s where they would be after that disastrous two-game road swing in mid-November?

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3 reasons the Caps beat the Avalanche

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USA TODAY Sports

3 reasons the Caps beat the Avalanche

They picked up right where they left off at home as they returned to Washington and defeated the Colorado Avalanche 5-2. Here is how the Caps were able to put last night's loss behind them and earn the win.

A better start

Against the Islanders on Monday, the Caps lacked energy early on and allowed a goal to Brock Nelson just 2:36 into the contest. Tuesday’s start had a much different feel to it. The Caps were moving their feet, moving the puck and creating sustained zone pressure. This time it was Washington who took the early lead as Jakub Vrana netted a goal just 5:25 in.

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Braden Holtby’s breakaway save on Colin Wilson

With the score tied at one in the second period, Colin Wilson was handed a gift from Brooks Orpik. As Orpik skated up the ice to his left, the rest of his teammates all skated right leaving him no one to pass too. Feeling the forecheck, Orpik tried the cross-ice pass, but it was intercepted by Wilson and there were no Caps in site. Wilson had scored Colorado's first goal and looked like he was about the score the second on the breakaway. Instead, he was denied by Holtby. Just 4:29 later, John Carlson tallied the go-ahead goal for Washington. That is essentially a two-goal swing in five minutes.

The penalty kill

The Caps took four penalties on the night and two of them were from one of their top defenseman in John Carlson. Colorado, however, walked away with nothing to show for it. The Caps took one penalty in the first and two in the second when the game was still in doubt. If they had given up a goal on any of those opportunities, it likely is a very different game. Instead, Washington killed off all four penalties they faced making sure the power play was not a factor for the Avalanche.

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