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

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USA TODAY Sports

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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4 reasons why the Caps lost to the Avalanche

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4 reasons why the Caps lost to the Avalanche

The Caps were handed an ugly 6-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday and Washington will now return home with zero points on their two-game road swing. Here's why they lost to Colorado.

Another early goal

The Capitals had a rough start to their game Tuesday against Nashville. The Predators hit the post with their first shot and scored their first goal at 11:48. Their start on Thursday was worse. Washington did not get any help from the post and Gabriel Landeskog made Colorado’s first shot count just 17 seconds in. That set the tone for the entire game.

RELATED: BARRY TROTZ ON THURSDAY'S GAME, 'IT WAS ALL JUNK'

The late first period goal

Despite the bad start, the Caps kept it 1-0 through the first and looked like they would have a chance to regroup in the locker room before the second…but they allowed a Nathan MacKinnon goal with just seven seconds left in the first. That is a backbreaker.

Mistakes with the puck

For years, the Capitals were criticized for being “too cute,” for not making the simple plays. As a highly skilled team, they could pull off some of those beautiful plays. They are not that team anymore. Washington made a lot of mistakes on Thursday and a lot of them came because they would not make the simple, easy play.

You can read more about Washington’s mistakes with the puck here.

The Caps frequently turned the puck over because they would not make easy passes electing instead to go for the home runs. They could not get sustained offense because they kept turning the puck over in the neutral zone.

MORE CAPITALS: WHO WERE THE 3 STARS OF CAPS-AVALANCHE

Missed third period power play opportunity

It looked like the Caps would trail 4-1 heading into the third period, but Washington somehow won a coach’s challenge on a goal by Nikita Zadorov for goalie interference. With a second chance at life and down by only two heading into the third period, the Caps had a golden opportunity less than three minutes into the final frame when they were given a power play opportunity. They did not take advantage. A goal in that situation would have pulled Washington within one with a lot of time left to play. T.J. Oshie came close as he hit the post, but the Caps ultimately failed to score and gave up a fourth goal on a penalty shot just 16 seconds after Colorado returned to full strength.