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Caps hold high hopes: 'We expect to be playing for the Stanley Cup'


Caps hold high hopes: 'We expect to be playing for the Stanley Cup'

When  you’ve clinched a playoff berth with 13 games to go in the regular season and no team in the NHL is within 14 points of you, well, motivation could be in short supply.

But only if you allow it.

“It’s a long road to travel to get where we want to be,” Capitals right wing and three-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams said. “I think that’s the feeling in this dressing room. It’s ho-hum. Yes, it’s been a great season so far, but we have much bigger goals and bigger aspirations. We expect to be playing for the Stanley Cup.”

Freeze frame those last nine words.

But before the Capitals get can get to June, there are 13 relatively meaningless games to navigate, beginning with Friday night’s visit by the Nashville Predators, who currently hold the first wild card spot in the Western Conference standings.     

“Clinching doesn’t really mean anything. It’s the first step,” said Capitals left wing Jason Chimera, who skated on a third line with Williams and Marcus Johansson on Thursday at Kettler. “We have to be playing good going into the playoffs. We have a lot to work on, a lot to improve on.

“Games will only get ramped up from here. A lot of teams are fighting for their lives and trying to fight to get in, so you can’t wade into games. You’ve got to go hard and go after teams.”

If the regular season ended today, the top-seeded Caps would be facing the eighth-seeded Flyers in the first round of the playoffs. The Flyers have won eight of their last 10 games to climb one point ahead of the Red Wings and into the second wild card spot, two points behind the Penguins.

The Flyers and Penguins have 13 games remaining, while the Red Wings, who have been to the Stanley Cup playoffs 24 straight seasons, have 12.   

“We were playing Detroit (in Round 1) the other day and a couple days before that we were playing Pittsburgh,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “Now, if it started today we’re playing Philadelphia.

“You have to start thinking about the possibilities and start your preparation if you haven’t already. It could be three different teams, and a week from now it might be four different teams. It’s exciting.”

Trotz said he has no plans of resting his players and spent Thursday speaking with some of his leaders – he had a long on-ice chat with Alex Ovechkin – about keeping their collective foot on the gas pedal.  

“If our players (think) they're going to just float through this part (of the season) then they're absolutely wrong,” Trotz said, “and setting themselves up to fail.”

Caps center Jay Beagle, who was promoted from the fourth line to the top line on Tuesday and skated there again on Thursday, said he sees no signs of complacency in the Caps.  

“We’re preparing for the playoffs,” he said. “Our goal all year has been to make it to the playoffs. It’s the first step, but it’s not the end goal. It’s pretty easy to stay motivated. Thirteen games isn’t that many. If you have a little lull or let up a little bit that’s how you go into the playoff. You want to make sure you’re going in in top form.”

Trotz said he believes the Capitals are now out of the little rut they experienced from Feb. 24 to March 12 when they lost five of 10 games.

“I think we went through a tough phase when the dog days kicked in and that light at the end of the tunnel was not to be seen,” Trotz said. “I think that light at the end of the tunnel is being seen.

“Usually when those cherry blossoms come out the light is around the corner. I woke up this morning and there was lots of cherry blossoms in the back of my house -- a sign of spring.”

[RELATED: Which Caps would you protect in expansion draft?]

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Kuznetsov to be evaluated Saturday after leaving Islanders game with "upper body" issue

Kuznetsov to be evaluated Saturday after leaving Islanders game with "upper body" issue

The Capitals may have won the game Friday against the New York Islanders, but now they will wait to see if they also suffered a significant loss.

Kuznetsov left the game in the third period after taking a slash from Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey which sent him sliding head-first into the boards. The team labeled the issue as “upper body” when it was announced he would not return to the game.

Head coach Barry Trotz was tight-lipped afterward on Kuznetsov’s status.

“They're going to re-evaluate him tomorrow and we'll have some clarity hopefully tomorrow,” he said.


You can see the play here:

When Kuznetsov is first slashed he immediately reacts. His feet then catch the stick of goalie Jaroslav Halak which sends him tripping and sliding hard into the boards. He sat on the ice for several minutes afterward and was looked at by the trainer before getting to his feet and slowly making his way to the locker room.

When asked after the game what he felt about the slash, Trotz said only, “Hockey play.”

One of the Capitals’ biggest strengths as a team is their depth down the middle. Any injury to a center, considering it is arguably the most important skating position on the ice, would be significant. An injury to the team’s top-line center would be even more costly.

Kuznetsov leads the team with 28 assists and ranks second in both goals (21) and points (69).

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3 stars of the game: Caps win brutal rematch to sweep home-and-home with Islanders

3 stars of the game: Caps win brutal rematch to sweep home-and-home with Islanders

The Caps rocked the green in warmups, the red for the game and left a bit black and blue after a brutal 6-3 win over the New York Islanders.

Based on how things went in Brooklyn on Thursday, odds were that there would be some bad blood when the two teams met Washington on Friday. One night after giving up seven goals, the Islanders gave up another six in Washington and frustrations over a rough season boiled over all game long.

Ross Johnston was ejected for continuing to fight Tom Wilson even after the referees intervened, both teams combined for 56 PIMs and Evgeny Kuznetsov left the game in the second period after a slash from Thomas Hickey as he went headfirst into the boards.

The sting of the rough night was mitigated somewhat, however, by the 6-3 score as the Caps won their fourth straight.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Alex Chiasson: Playing in his first game since March 8, Chiasson made the most of his opportunity with a three-point night. Jakub Vrana did the legwork as he drove the net with the puck. Jaroslav Halak stuck out his stick catching Vrana which spun the netminder around and out of the crease. Chiasson came up behind for the easy layup.

He would repay the favor with an assist for Vrana's goal later in the third. Chiasson's first assist on the night came in the second period as his initial shot was saved, but he stayed in the face of Halak long enough to prevent him from making the save on Matt Niskanen's goal.

2. Nicklas Backstrom: When things were getting ugly, Backstrom made the Islanders pay with a power play goal on the two-man advantage.

After Johnston lost his marbles and Cal Clutterbuck was called for interference on Oshie, the Capitals needed to take advantage and put the Islanders away or watch New York build momentum. That was the critical juncture of the game. Backstrom also added an assist on the two-point night.

3. Braden Holtby: The recent struggles of Holtby have been well documented. After yielding the crease to Philipp Grubauer the last four games, Holtby got the start on Friday and played very well in the winning effort. The defense in front of him certainly helped allowing only 13 shots in the first two periods, but the Islanders were buzzing in the third period. New York battled back to make it 5-3 and Mathew Barzal had a breakaway opportunity with a chance to cut the deficit to one. Holtby made the save to deny Barzal and shut the door on the comeback attempt.

In all, Holtby turned aside 22 of the 25 shots he faced.