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Insider's Take: Christian Djoos has a big night in debut, but Caps fall to Pens, 3-2

Insider's Take: Christian Djoos has a big night in debut, but Caps fall to Pens, 3-2

Rookie defenseman Christian Djoos recorded a goal and a primary assist in his NHL debut on Wednesdaynight. But it wasn’t enough for the Capitals as their previously stellar penalty kill surrendered three goals to the Penguins, who skated away with a 3-2 victory at Capital One Arena.

How it happened

Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist scored power play goals as the Penguins seized a 2-0 midway through the second period.

Djoos’ first career shot—a one-timer—in his first career game gave the Caps hope, cutting the Pittsburgh lead in half with 53 seconds remaining in the middle frame.

The Pens’ potent power play, however, was not done.

Conor Sheary struck on the man advantage just 38 seconds into the third period to give the Pens all they would need.

Alex Ovechkin’s league-leading eighth tally—Djoos set it up with a nifty cross crease pass—pulled the Caps to within 3-2 with 7:09 left to play. But that’s as close as Washington would get, despite a late push.

MORE: WHY YOU SHOULDN'T BE MAD ABOUT THAT CROSBY HIT ON HOLTBY

What it means

Given the history between these rivals, nothing really matters until they meet in the postseason. The loss was, however, Washington’s first in regulation this season.

The Djoos is loose

It was, shall we say, an eventful night for 23-year-old Swede. He was in the box for tripping when Hornqvist scored. But the left shot blue liner atoned for the error by firing a one-timer past Matt Murray (20 saves) from the right side.

“We know he’s a good hockey player,” Trotz said. “He’s got to continue to get stronger and continue to play at this level. You can see the instincts are really good. He’s got a real good sense for the game. His IQ is really good. But it’s a process; it’s one game. We’ll be patient, for sure. But his first game was real good.”

Trotz added: “Whenever he was on the ice, we seemed to have the puck a little bit more.”

Djoos became the second Capitals rookie to score in his debut in just four games, joining Nathan Walker, who tallied against Montreal. Djoos was the third leading scorer among blue liners in the AHL last season, racking up 13 goals and 45 assists in 66 games.  

“I thought he was awesome,” veteran Matt Niskanen said. “A lot of confidence. Wasn’t afraid. Moved the puck really good out of his own zone. And scored his first goal in his first game—pretty unbelievable.”

Other than the loss, Djoos felt his debut went well.

“First game in the NHL and you get a goal and an assist? That wasn’t my plan when I showed up at the rink,” he said. “I wanted to play a good, structured game, detailed game.”

Penalty problem?

The Caps took six minor penalties, marking the third time in four games that they’ve taken at least five. They lost Monday in Tampa because they gave up a power play goal in OT. On Wednesday, Pittsburgh’s first two goals came on the man advantage. Interestingly, the Caps were the most penalized team from Jan. 1 through the end of the regular season last year (180). But they also accumulated more points (71) during that same span.

“Every time we started getting any rhythm we took a penalty,” Trotz said. “The first four games I said to the guys, let’s be real: We got to get our penalties down. …Today they got three power play goals.”

Holtby did what? 

In the first period, Holtby made the gutsy decision to bolt out of his crease and challenge the speedy Carl Hagelin, who had turned on the afterburners and in pursuit of a potential breakaway. Holtby and Hagelin got to the puck around the same time and the Caps’ netminder executed a perfectly soccer-style tackle on Hagelin. Holtby, however, was given a minor penalty for “delay of game—illegal play goalie”. In keeping the puck away from Hagelin, he landed on the puck and, after pulling it from underneath his body, then used his catching glove to pass it to a teammate.

The referee told Trotz “if there wasn’t a Penguin around him, I probably wouldn’t have called it,” Trotz told reporters. Asked what he’s thinking when Holtby is racing out of the net, Trotz cracked, “Get to the puck before them. That’s it.”

RELATED: HOLTBY WAS NOT PLEASED WITH CROSBY'S HIT ON HIM

Welcome to the league, rook

Before Djoos aced his first test on the ice, he came onto the ice alone. The Capitals got the rookie with one of the oldest, but best, and funniest, and easiest, tricks in the book:


What’s ahead

The Caps are slated to practice Thursday at 11:30 a.m. at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. On Friday, Tom Wilson, who sat out the fourth game of a four-game suspension against the Penguins, will be eligible to return to the lineup in New Jersey. The Caps come right back Saturday night in Philly.

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What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

usatsi_10438034.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

The bye week is a good opportunity to evaluate what happened over the course of the first half of the season and start to look forward. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan answer the biggest questions surrounding the team at the bye.

Today's topic: What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

El-Bashir: Through the Caps' first 45 games, there have been some great goals, scintillating saves and thrilling overtime sessions. But the biggest moment, to me, wasn’t really moment at all. It was the day or so after the Caps cratered in Colorado, 6-2, on Nov. 16, because they came back a totally different team vs. Minnesota on Nov. 18.

Following that blowout loss to the Avalanche, Coach Barry Trotz had a “man to man talk with the group” and challenged each individual to look himself in the mirror. When a coach does that, there are typically two ways a season will go—to the top or down the drain. Trotz wasn’t sure which response he’d get, but he didn’t have to wait long for an answer. “The way they came out [against the Wild] told me everything I needed to know,” Trotz said to me and Rob Carlin on the Caps Extra Podcast (11/29).

RELATED: WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST SURPRISE OF THE SEASON SO FAR?

The really good stuff begins around 13:00, and it’s definitely worth a listen if you haven’t heard it:

    

Including that 3-1 win over the Wild, the Caps are 18-5-2 in their last 25 games and have shot straight to the top of the Metropolitan Division standings. Their 38 points are tied with the Golden Knights and Bruins for most in that time frame. 

Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin has accrued 15 goals and 15 assists in those 25 games. Only four players—John Tavares, Nathan MacKinnon, Claude Giroux and Sidney Crosby—have more points during that time period.

Indeed, every season has a turning point. For the Caps, it happened, collectively, after bottoming out in the thin air of the Mile High city.

Regan: There have been several moments that have stood out from the first 45 games of the season, such as Nathan Walker becoming the first Australian to play in the NHL and scoring in his first game on a night in which Alex Ovechkin also scored four times. Jay Beagle’s buzzer-beater against the Carolina Hurricanes will also stand as one of the best moments of the season when it is all said and done.

But I will go a bit more sentimental with my pick and choose Ovechkin’s hat-trick performance in Toronto for Alex Luey.

That night could not have been any more special. Ovechkin invited Luey, a 13-year-old cancer survivor, to attend the game with his family after he heard his story. Luey and Ovechkin were virtually inseparable for the night as Luey was on the bench for warmups and then was with Ovechkin for all of his postgame interviews.

That alone would have been a touching story, but it got so much better.

MORE CAPITALS: CHECK OUT THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS!

Ovechkin promised Luey he would score for him before the game. He more than delivered with a hat-trick performance in a 4-2 win over Toronto in what was a magical night for both him and the Luey family.

You couldn’t write a story so perfect and if you did everyone would think it too unbelievable. Yet it happened and it was by far the best moment of the season.

We may be only 45 games in, but this one will be hard to top.

Quick Links

What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

usatsi_10482872.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

The bye week is a good opportunity to evaluate what happened over the course of the first half of the season and look forward to the rest of the season. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan answer the biggest questions surrounding the team at the bye.

Today's topic: What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

El-Bashir: While seeing the Caps sit atop the deep and difficult Metro Division is a bit unexpected, my biggest surprise at the bye is Alex Ovechkin’s return to world-class form. For the record, I wasn’t among those—and there were plenty—who were ready to write off No. 8, saying he was poised for a precipitous plunge in production following a disappointing 33 goal performance a year ago. I thought he’d bounce back…a bit, anyway. After all, we had seen him do it a couple of times before. Instead, what we appear to witnessing is a rebirth of sorts. Ovechkin, at 32, leads the NHL with 28 goals and is on pace to hit 50 for the eighth time in his career. (Last season, the top-10 goal getters were all under 30 and Sidney Crosby’s 44 led everyone.) Ovechkin is also on pace for his highest point total—89—since he posted 109 way back in 2009-10. The three-time MVP is also leading the league in shots.

RELATED: WHERE DO THE CAPS SIT IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS?

Sure, Ovechkin is playing 1:20 more per game than he did last year. But it’s not all about an extra couple of shifts. Ovechkin put in the work this offseason, and it’s showing. He’s got a gear, a burst we haven’t seen in a couple of years and, as a result, he’s getting to pucks—and creating opportunities—he couldn’t a season ago.

For Ovechkin’s legion of fans, the second half of the regular season figures to be even more fun that the first because of the milestones that are within his reach. At some point, assuming he stays healthy, Ovechkin will hit 500 assists (he’s two away), 600 goals (he’s 14 back) and 1,000 games (he needs 34 more).

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again Caps fans: savor every moment because Ovi’s on top of his game again.

MORE CAPITALS: BRIAN MACLELLAN ISN'T PLAYING COY, HE WANTS TO RE-SIGN JOHN CARLSON

Regan: My biggest surprise is the Caps’ 28-14-3 record. Given the number of players the team lost in the offseason, it was clear they were not the same team that won the Presidents’ Trophy the past two years. But how much of a step back would they take? No one was really sure what to expect. With a six-point lead over the Metropolitan Division 45 games into the season, Washington is surpassing even the most optimistic of expectations.

Not only are the Caps exceeding expectations, they are doing it in the face of obstacles that should be holding them back.

The Caps have not had the same remarkable luck with injuries as they have the past few years. T.J. Oshie, Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky and Matt Niskanen have all missed time due to injuries this season. Those are significant losses, especially Niskanen given the team’s thin depth on the blue line. But Alex Ovechkin’s defiance of Father Time, the emergence of Jakub Vrana and key contributions from role players like Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly have bolstered the team’s offense. Defensively, John Carlson’s career season helped mitigate the loss of Niskanen.

When you consider the players the Caps lost, the injuries the team has dealt with, that they rank dead last in shots per game, that they have two rookies playing on the blue line and their best player is 32 years old, the fact the team not only sits in first place of the tough Metropolitan Division but by a sizable six-point margin is absolutely remarkable.

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