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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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How Evgeny Kuznetsov could have changed Tuesday's outcome

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How Evgeny Kuznetsov could have changed Tuesday's outcome

With the score tied at 0 in the second period, the Caps had a chance to put the first goal on the board on their second power play of the night. Specifically, Evgeny Kuznetsov had a chance to score the first goal of the game and his first of the season. But with a golden opportunity on his stick, Kuznetsov waited too long to shoot the puck the opportunity was lost. It is an issue that has seemingly plagued Kuznetsov throughout his career and one that may have cost the Caps a chance at two points on Tuesday.

After a scrum in the left corner, the puck was fed over to John Carlson on the right near the blue line. With some room to work with, he advanced to the top of the right circle and then fired a pass cross-ice to Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov had set up shop in Alex Ovechkin’s office in the left faceoff circle and the Leafs evidently forgot about him.

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With the puck on his stick and no one between him and Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen, Kuznetsov waited. He waited so long in fact that forward Connor Brown was able to backcheck and turned what would have been a very good opportunity into a much easier save for Andersen.

“A guy caught him,” Barry Trotz said after the game. “Just get it off quick. Guys close quick on you defensively.”

Would Kuznetsov have scored if he had fired the shot? Would the Caps have won if he had scored? We don’t know, but Kuznetsov would have had a better chance at scoring had he shot the puck quickly and Washington would have been in a better position to win if they had gotten the first goal on the board.

It was just another moment that made fans watching in Capital One Arena and at home yell in unison, “Kuznetsov, shoot the puck!”

MORE CAPITALS: A SHORTHANDED CAPS TEAM SUFFERED AN EARLY INJURY AGAINST TORONTO

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Tarik El-Bashir's three stars from Caps vs. Maple Leafs

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Tarik El-Bashir's three stars from Caps vs. Maple Leafs

In a rematch of last year’s ridiculously entertaining first round playoff matchup, the high-flying Maple Leafs skated away with a 2-0 victory over the Caps on Tuesday night at Capital One Arena. The Caps are now 3-3-1 on the season.

Here are Tarik’s three stars of the game.

1-Connor Brown, Maple Leafs

Most people had Brown scoring the decisive goal, right? The winger started the season on the fourth line but was promoted to the third line ahead of this game—and he made the most of the opportunity. At 5:53 of the third period, Brown fought off Evgeny Kuznetsov, pounced on a rebound and pounded the puck between Braden Holtby’s pads. Interestingly, the Leafs came into the game leading the league in goals per at 5.20.

2-Braden Holtby, Capitals

The Caps’ starter did all he could, turning away 28 of 29 shots he faced. Holts was at his best on the penalty kill, where he stopped all three shots the Leafs put on him. His best save of the game likely came in the opening moments of the game—a right pad stop on James van Riemsdyk, who was looking to finish a 2-on-1.

3-John Carlson, Capitals

With Matt Niskanen week-to-week with an upper body injury, the minutes load has fallen on No. 74’s shoulders. And it did again vs. Toronto. Carlson finished with 27:33 of ice time. He also had a couple of good looks early on but he couldn’t finish.

Do you agree? Give us your thoughts in the comments.

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