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Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan: 'I think we’re a good team still'

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan: 'I think we’re a good team still'

Brian MacLellan knew this day was coming. He just hoped the Capitals would have a Stanley Cup championship to help ease the pain when it arrived.

“I’m bothered by it,” the Caps general manager said Monday morning. “I mean, it hurts.”

MacLellan, of course, was referring to the flurry of moves that have redefined the Caps’ roster in recent days.

Since the draft, the team has locked up cornerstone players T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov to contracts totaling nearly $140 million dollars. But they've also said goodbye to free agents Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.

Then on Sunday night, MacLellan was forced to deal 26-year-old forward Marcus Johansson to Metro Division foe New Jersey to help shoehorn Kuzy’s massive extension underneath the salary cap ceiling.


“We spent the last three years building that team to where it was last year, both player-wise and salary-wise,” MacLellan said in a conference call with reporters. “And I think we were expecting to run into some issues here going forward. I think it’s no different than the teams that have won in the past. I mean, we have the same kind of hangover, but we haven’t won a championship—and we’re dealing with it now.”

MacLellan added: “We knew that this point was coming in time where we weren’t going to be able to keep everybody, and we were going to lose people that we really liked.”

As the dust settles on the Caps’ messy renovation—MacLellan says he doesn’t envision being forced to shed more salary—it’s difficult to project exactly what the back-to-back regular season champs will look like in October, or where they’ll slot into the Eastern Conference fray as the 2017-18 season unfolds.

Sure, they’ve still got big guns Alex Ovechkin, Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov up front, top pair Matt Niskanen and Orlov on the backend and Braden Holtby in goal. But, for the first time in a few years, Coach Barry Trotz will need to sprinkle multiple unproven players throughout his lineup.

Despite that uncertainty, MacLellan says he remains bullish on the Caps’ immediate future.

“I think we’ve got good young guys coming up,” he said, asked if fans need to temper their expectations. “If I look at our lineup, I think [Andre] Burakovsky is going to play a bigger role. I mean, I liked Burakovsky, Backstrom, Oshie last year near the end. They had a couple of good games and looked good together. Kuzy is going to get better as we go here. We’re going to give [prospect Jakub] Vrana a shot; he has a legitimate ability to play in a top-six level. I think Vrana on his first call-up played really well with Kuznetsov. And on his second, he kinda faded a little bit.

"And our third line, [Lars] Eller, [Brett] Connolly and [Tom] Wilson is a good line. [Jay Beagle will center] the fourth line and we’ll substitute some guys from Hershey in there. [Prospect Nathan] Walker had a great year in Hersey this year. We expect him to have a legitimate shot.”

How about the blue line?

“Our top-three D—Orlov, Niskanen and [John] Carlson are good. Orlov and Niskanen took it to another level last year. And then our goaltending, we got a ‘1’ and a ‘1a’.”


MacLellan said veteran Brooks Orpik will mentor defensive prospects Lucas Johansen, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Aaron Ness, Tyler Lewington and Jonas Siegenthaler, all of whom figure to get a shot next season, with as many as two sticking around full-time.

“I think we’re a good team still,” MacLellan said.

With opening night about three months away, the Caps still have work to do. In the near term, Burakovsky and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer, both restricted free agents, need new contracts. The team also could be in the market for a bargain blue liner at some point this summer.

Indeed, the credit card bill everyone knew was in the mail has finally come due.

“We’re maturing,” MacLellan said. “We’re getting a little more top-heavy as a team, like Chicago, like Pittsburgh, and we’ve got to pay the result for it.”

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Alex Ovechkin's evolution as a player was on full display in Game 6

Alex Ovechkin's evolution as a player was on full display in Game 6

We all know that Alex Ovechkin is a world-class goal scorer. He is the best goal scorer of his generation and perhaps the best of all time. He tallied another two goals Monday in Game 6, but that’s not what really impressed head coach Barry Trotz.

While Ovechkin's career is full of highlight reel goals, it was the ugly plays that really caught Trotz's eye on Monday.

"[Ovechkin's] evolved in areas of his game," Trotz said after the game. "He’s not just at that dot. He’ll go to the front of the net, he’s not scared to do that. It’s just adding layers to his game."

Ovechkin's first goal of the game was not pretty. It won't make any Top 10 lists, it won't be shown throughout the U.S. and Canada. It was an ugly rebound goal...and it was beautiful.

Just four minutes after Nick Foligno tied the game, Ovechkin put the Caps back ahead with a rebound goal. He had parked himself in front of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and was in perfect position when Bobrovsky made a kick out save to backhand the rebound into the empty net.

Those are the type of plays we did not always see from the Great 8 and it didn't stop there.

As Washington tried to close out the game, Ovechkin went all out trying to help his team preserve the lead as he blocked a shot from Ryan Murray with less than three minutes to go.

"I’m probably as proud of him right at the end of the game blocking shots and doing that type of thing," Trotz said. "That’s full commitment. When that was necessary, that’s where you get your street cred with your teammates. You’ve got to block a shot when it’s necessary and get a puck out when it’s necessary. I’d probably give him more props on that than even scoring goals because that’s what you really expect of him."

Few expected a 32-year-old Ovechkin to rebound from a 33-goal season, but he did just that with 49 goals in 2017-18 to win his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy as the league-leader. The reason why was on full display on Monday. It is because he has evolved his game. Instead of relying just on the quick rushes, pretty one-timers and incredible dekes, he has committed more to getting to the contested areas and scoring those dirty goals.

That commitment on offense seemed to translate to the defense as well as he was there blocking shots with the rest of his teammates.

"Those are the necessary things, those necessary details that allow you to win," Trotz said. "If you don’t have them, then you’re not going to win."

MORE CAPITALS: Pens again: Capitals to face Penguins in NHL Playoffs for third consecutive year

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Capitals to face Penguins in NHL Playoffs for third consecutive year

Capitals to face Penguins in NHL Playoffs for third consecutive year

The Caps are headed to the 2018 NHL Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins… again.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.

Yes, for the third time in three years, the Capitals will play the Penguins, hoping to take down the defending Stanley Cup champions and advance out of the second round of the playoffs and to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the 1998 season, when the team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Capitals are riding momentum from their first-round series win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, where they fought back from an 0-2 series hole to win the series thanks to a 6-3 victory in Game 6 Monday night in Columbus.

That momentum coupled with home-ice advantage — should they choose to capitalize on that this time around — could create an ideal atmosphere for the Caps to take a 2-0 series lead before heading to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4.

A perennial problem, Sidney Crosby enters this series playing some of his best playoff hockey. In their 4-2 series win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pens’ captain scored six goals in six games, including a hat trick in the opening matchup.

But he’s not the only one creating havoc for goalies. Center Jake Guentzel is tied with Crosby at the top of the league in goals and points in the playoffs. The pair each had six goals and seven assists against the Flyers, as well as 17 shots on goal apiece.

Is it possible they’ll get stonewalled by Braden Holtby, who — despite not starting initially in the first two games for the Caps against the Blue Jackets — is rocking a 93.6 save percentage and ranks fourth in the league with a 1.66 goals against average among goaltenders who have played more than one postseason game.

If the Caps can find a spark in their offense with Holtby staying strong in goal, perhaps this could be the year they finally slide past the Pens.

However, history isn’t exactly on Washington’s side. In the second-round series from the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, the Pens hold an 8-5 record over the Caps, eliminating them both years on their way to back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Pittsburgh leads the Caps in the overall playoff game record, 38-24, and they’ve met for 10 series in the postseason, dating back to 1990-91. Four times the series was pushed to a Game 7, but the Caps never came out on top.

The one and only time the Caps have ever eliminated the Pens from the playoffs was in the 1993-94 season, when they beat Pittsburgh 4-2 in the first round before losing to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

But hey, this year could become the second time in franchise history the Caps take down the Pens.

The NHL has yet to announce when Game 1 of the Capitals vs. Penguins series will take place, but with the Wizards playing Game 6 of their NBA Playoff series at home on Friday, the likliest start date is either Thursday, April 26 or Saturday, April 28.