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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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Blackhawks fans tossed after directing racist remarks at Washington's Smith-Pelly

Blackhawks fans tossed after directing racist remarks at Washington's Smith-Pelly

CHICAGO—Four fans were ejected from United Center on Saturday night for taunting Devante Smith-Pelly as the Capitals’ winger sat in the penalty box.

The fans, according to a team spokesman, yelled “basketball, basketball, basketball” at Smith-Pelly, who is black. Smith-Pelly was in the box for fighting in the third period of an eventual 7-1 loss to the Blackhawks.

The taunts were confirmed by an off-ice official, the spokesman said, and the fans were subsequently removed from the arena.

Smith-Pelly did not speak with reporters after the game but is expected to address the incident at the team’s next media availability. The team is scheduled to practice Sunday at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

Caps Coach Barry Trotz did not hold back when asked about the fans' comments.

“There’s absolutely no place in the game of hockey or our country for racism,” Trotz said. “I think it’s disgusting, and there’s no place for it. …It just shows ignorance.”

The Blackhawks responded on Twitter with an apology to Smith-Pelly, who is one of roughly 30 black players in the NHL.

February is Hockey is For Everyone month in the NHL.

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3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

Just about everything that could go wrong did for the Capitals on Saturday in a 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Caps were coming off a strong 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, but none of that carried over in the trip to Chicago. The Caps took on a Blackhawks team that had lost eight in a row, but Chicago quickly took control in the first period and never looked back.

Washington gave up 21 shots on goal in the first period and found themselves down 3-1 after the opening frame. Things did not get much better from there as they gave up another three goals in the final four minutes of the second.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Jonathan Toews: Toews opened up the scoring in the first period with a quick shot from the corner that caught Braden Holtby by surprise.

Later in the first, he recorded an assist as his pass sparked a breakout that led to Brandon Saad's deal that gave Chicago back the lead. The Caps tried to make a game of it in the second period, but Toews intercepted a pass from Brooks Orpik that led to a 2-on-0 with himself and Patrick Kane that Kane netted to give the Blackhawks a 4-1 lead and signaled to everyone that the rout was on. Saturday was only the second three-point night of the season for Toews.

2. Patrick Kane: Toews helped the Blackhawks take control early, but Kane helped provide the knockout punches in the second period. A bad pass from Orpik was intercepted by Toews that led to a 2-on-0 with Kane. Holtby made the initial save on Toews, but Kane was able to knock in the rebound for the goal.

Kane also added an assist on Artem Anisimov's power play goal which extended Chicago's lead to 6-1.

3. Tom Wilson: Before this one got out of hand, it looked like Wilson had erased the tough start for the Caps as he deflected a shot from Matt Niskanen into the net to get Washington on the board.

Saturday's tally was his third goal in two games and his 10th of the season, marking the first time in his career he has reached double digits in goals.