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First quarter grades: 20 games into the season, how do the Caps look?

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First quarter grades: 20 games into the season, how do the Caps look?

The Capitals have hit the quarter mark of their season with 20 games under their belts. The last two games put a sour taste on the first quarter, but overall how have they looked?

Let's harken back to our school days when the first quarter of the year brought about the first report card and hand out some grades.

(Note: I don't grade coaching. How a team performs in every area is a reflection of the coaching so all of these grades can be considered "coaching" grades)

Offense: C

By the numbers: Washington ranks 21st in the NHL with 2.80 goals per game (one spot ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins interestingly enough)

Consistency is the biggest problem for the Caps offensively. First, they were too top heavy with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie carrying the load by themselves with no secondary scoring. Since then, the top players have struggled to produce, especially Backstrom. Backstrom is being utilized more as a shutdown forward, but the Capitals need him to produce as well in order to be successful, especially when he is playing on a line with Oshie. The Caps need consistent scoring from their top players and consistent secondary production. The good news is that Ovechkin looks as good as ever with 13 goals already. After scoring 33 last season, many wondered if his days of being a top scoring threat were over. That does not appear to be the case. 

I would be remiss if I did not include one note on Kuznetsov: Please, please shoot the puck.

RELATED: 4 REASONS WHY THE CAPS LOST TO COLORADO

Defense: C

By the numbers: Washington ranks 24th in the NHL with 3.25 goals against per game

I can already hear your bewildered screams and angry questions. "How does a team that ranks 24th in the NHL get a C grade?" Let's take a step back and look at the players who have been playing. This is not the same defense from last season. Matt Niskanen, the team's best all-around defenseman, missed 13 games. The 37-year-old Brooks Orpik, who was a third-pair defenseman last season, is third on the team in average time on ice with 22:17 per game. Rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey have played 16 and 14 games respectively. With all of that in mind, it's no surprise that the defense has struggled. All things considered, the defense has not been good, but it has not been terrible either. You cannot allow 3.25 goals per game all season and hope to be a contender which is why they get a C, but with continued improvement from the rookies and Niskanen's return, the blue line should certainly improve throughout the season.

Goaltending: A-

By the numbers:
Braden Holtby:  .918 save percentage, 2.68 GAA ,10-4-0
Philipp Grubauer .876 save percentage, 3.86 GAA, 0-5-1

Holtby has been phenomenal and there is no question that he has stolen a good number of those 10 wins with this performance. He gets high marks for that. Grubauer's numbers are not good, but for anyone who has been watching this team, it is hard to fault him for any of those losses. He is not getting much support from his teammates when he steps into the crease. Starting goalies, however, need to be able to steal some wins. Grubauer wants to be a starter, so the fact that he has been unable to steal a win knocks the grade down to an A-, but overall, you cannot convince me goaltending has been an issue for the Caps this season.

Special Teams: C-

By the numbers:
Power play: Washington ranks 15th in the NHL at 19.4-percent
Penalty kill: Washington ranks 27th in the NHL at 77.8-percent

Let's start with the penalty kill. The bottom line is that it has not been good enough this season. The silver lining is that while the numbers are bad, they play much better in critical moments when the game is on the line. We saw that in the third period of the team's wins over the Islanders and the Coyotes. Overall, the PK has not been good enough, but when it really matters they step up which means there is some hope for improvement. The power play numbers are average, but here are the players who have scored on the power play this season: Oshie, Ovechkin, Carlson, Backstrom, Kuznetsov. See a pattern? They are all top-unit players. Barry Trotz has not been using his top unit for 1:30-1:45 as we've seen in previous years. He is giving much more time to his second unit. If you do that, they have to produce and they just have not been up to the task this season.

First Quarter Team MVP

1. Braden Holtby

As mentioned above, Holtby has 10 wins and he was the team's best player in most of those games. The fact that Washington does not have a single win without him shows just how important he is. He gives the team a measure of confidence that they do not have with Grubauer. Not only has he played great, but the entire team also seems to play better around him.

2. John Carlson

This team asked a lot of Carlson this season when Niskanen went on LTIR and Carlson delivered. He is second in the entire NHL in time on ice with 27:07 per game, just two seconds from the leader Rasmus Ristolainen. His play has not suffered as a result of the increased minutes. In fact, he has gotten better and better and the season progressed.

3. Alex Ovechkin

Whether Ovechkin is declining is a question we seem to ask every year. We should know better by now. The man is inhuman. His 13 goals may not lead the league, but it still puts him among the elite scorers of the NHL. Yes, I am not blind to the fact that he scored seven of those goals in two games and has only six in the last 18, but, call me crazy, I still consider seven goals in two games to be a pretty darn good sign of his scoring abilities.

MORE CAPITALS: LISTEN TO THE CAPITALS EXTRA PODCAST ON THE LOSS TO COLORADO

Overall grade: B-

Let's remember who is under the microscope here. This is not a grade for Washington's 2016-17 roster. If it was, it would be closer to a D or F. That roster was too talented to struggle the way this team has, but that was last year. If I were to tell you before the season that this team with its current roster would be 10-9-1 and in playoff position through 20 games with Niskanen missing 13 games, Andre Burakovsky missing 11, Brett Connolly missing seven and Tom Wilson suspended for four, are you telling me you would not have taken that? I would have. The last two losses are a concern for sure and you could argue that the team is trending downward, but overall they have done well to get to where they are now. They must improve in a number of areas over the course of the next 20 games, but 10-9-1 with the injuries they have faced is not too bad at all.

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Was Evgeny Kuznetsov even trying to shoot on his game-tying goal?

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Was Evgeny Kuznetsov even trying to shoot on his game-tying goal?

What is the one knock on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game?

You know what it is. Everybody say it with me now: He needs to shoot the puck more.

It’s no secret what fans want the talented Russian forward to do.

They yell it from the stands of Capital One Arena or when they watching the TV braodcast at home.

Heck, Barry Trotz has talked about it to the media before.

That’s what made Saturday’s win over the Anaheim Ducks so refreshing.

With Washington down 2-1 in the third, Jakub Vrana found Kuznetsov in the slot and he buried it into the net behind Ducks goalie John Gibson. He even had Tom Wilson on the back door to pass to, but he chose instead to shoot the puck. That shows that he…wait, what’s that?

“I think Kuzy was, on his goal, I think he was trying to make one more pass,” Trotz said after the game.

No way. This is just the head coach being tongue-in-cheek, right?

Watch the replay and see for yourself:

RELATED: 5 REASONS THE CAPS BEAT THE DUCKS

Oh. Yeah, that was definitely a pass.

Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano reaches in to try and get his stick in the way of the shot and the puck deflects off his stick and into the net. If you watch, however, the puck was never intended to go on net. Instead, Kuznetsov was trying to get it to Wilson on the back door.

CAPS EXTRA PODCAST: GAME 34 VS. DUCKS

At this moment, Kuznetsov still has the puck on his stick, but the blade of the stick is not facing the goal. It is facing Wilson.

The fact that he has not yet released the puck at this point means he’s not aiming for the goal.

While aiming at Wilson, Cogliano’s stick gets in the way and deflects it on net.

Could Kuznetsov have gotten that puck to Wilson? Defenseman Kevin Bieksa is in the passing lane, but if anyone could thread that needle, it’s Kuznetsov. The point , however, is that passing here is the wrong decision.

Kuznetsov has the opportunity to shoot from a high-danger area. Wilson would have had a layup if Kuznetsov had gotten him the puck, but trying to pass through Bieksa is a much more difficult play. If you already have the puck in a high-danger area with an opportunity to shoot, you need to take that opportunity.

The bad news is Kuznetsov was trying to pass up a scoring chance for a more difficult play to set up a teammate. The good news is that it didn't matter. Cogliano’s effort to try to defend the shot ended up putting the puck into the back of the net thus saving Kuznetsov from making the wrong decision.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but there’s still a lesson here for Kuznetsov on why shooting the puck is the better option.

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5 reasons the Caps beat the Ducks

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5 reasons the Caps beat the Ducks

This game was not going the Caps' way through two periods. Everything changed in the final frame, however, as the Capitals rallied from a 2-0 deficit to force overtime. Alex Ovechkin did the rest in a 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks.

Here's how the Caps were able to rally for the win.

Braden Holtby  holding the goal line late in the second (about 4:10 left)

Washington trailed 2-0 in the second and the Ducks were looking for more late. A shot from Derek Grant on the left went wide and hit off the backboards right to Dennis Rasmussen who tried to stuff the puck on Holtby's right. Holtby dove to cover the goal line. Critically, his goal stick stuck out past the post and neither Rasmussen nor Logan Shaw could get the puck past the stick to get the puck to the front and stuff it in. Once the puck finally did squirt free into the crease, Hotlby gloved it. A 3-0 deficit may have been lights out for Washington.

RELATED: SEE TARIK'S 3 STARS OF THE GAME FOR CAPS-DUCKS

Nicklas Backstrom's early third period goal

Trying to overcome a two-goal deficit in one period is a daunting task. Every second that ticks by makes your comeback bid harder. The fact that Nicklas Backstrom was able to strike just over three minutes into the third period was absolutely critical. Backstrom was able to net a rebound off of an Alex Ovechkin shot just over three minutes into the third period. The Caps went from a two-goal deficit to trailing by one with 17 minutes remaining. Suddenly, that mountain they had to climb did not seem so high.

A lucky tip or a veteran call?

If you've been yelling for Evgeny Kuznetsov to shoot the puck more, you were probably pleased with his third period goal to tie the game at two. With Tom Wilson open on the backdoor, Kuznetsov chose to call his own number and fired a shot past Gibson. Or did he? Was Kuznetsov trying to pass that puck? Take a look at the replay.

Just at the last second, Andrew Cogliano hits either the puck or the stick of Kuznetsov. Whether he meant to pass and it was a lucky break or he was thinking shot the whole way, it worked out for the Caps.

WATCH: ALEX OVECHKIN'S OVERTIME WINNER OVER ANAHEIM

Braden Holtby's two early saves on Rickard Rakell in overtime

Rakell wanted the Ducks to win this game. Less than a minute into overtime, he had a lane to shoot on Holtby. Holtby made the initial save, but the rebound bounced to the faceoff circle. Both of the trailing players in red skated past. Holtby took a step forward to try to clear the puck from danger, but then saw Rakell had a step on him to collect his own rebound. He stopped, then kicked out the pad to make an incredible save to deny Rakell again about 10 feet out of the crease.

Alex Ovechkin's bullet

Sometimes when you play against a player like Ovechkin, there's nothing you can do. At the end of his shift, Ovechkin elected to carry the puck into the offensive zone rather than passing it off to change up. He was forced to the boards by Brandon Montour and decided just to tee-up the mini slap shot. When you're the greatest goal scorer of a generation, however, even a shot from the top of the faceoff circle near the boards is a dangerous shot.