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End of season review: Matt Niskanen


End of season review: Matt Niskanen

Throughout the coming weeks, Capitals Insider Chuck Gormley will evaluate the 2014-15 performance of each player on the Caps roster. One breakdown will occur every day in alphabetical order. Today: Matt Niskanen

Position: Defense

Shoots: Right

Age: 28 [turns 29 Dec. 6]

Ht/Wt: 6-2, 200

Games: 82

Goals: 4

Assists: 27

Points: 31

Penalty minutes: 47

Plus-Minus: Plus-7

Average Ice Time: 22:21

Playoff games: 14

Goals: 0

Assists: 4

Points: 4

Penalty minutes: 0

Plus-Minus: Minus-2

Average Ice Time: 23:47

Contract Status: 6 years remaining on 7-year, $40.25 million contract [2015-16 salary: $5.75 million; cap hit: $5.75 million]

Strengths: Entering this season many wondered if Niskanen could duplicate the career-high numbers he put up in Pittsburgh the year before, especially with the Capitals investing seven years and more than $40 million in him. Niskanen fell short from a statistical standpoint [from 10 goals, 36 assists in 2013-14 to 4 goals, 27 assists this season] but under Barry Trotz and Todd Reirden he was used in a different capacity, logging more shorthanded minutes [187:37] than at any point in his career while logging fewer power-play minutes [87:17] than he received in Pittsburgh. That scenario could change next season if power-play specialist Mike Green does not return, but Niskanen made a significant impact on the Caps’ blue line this season, logging more minutes [1,833:01] than everyone on the club but John Carlson [1,891:58].  “My role was different this year than in the past,” Niskanen said. “A lot more responsibility playing against tougher opponents, more minutes. It was a real challenge [playing on the penalty kill] and I thought I grew a lot. I’m glad I paid attention to all those meetings the last seven years. It was nice to get some reps there.”

Room for improvement: Overall, Niskanen said he thought he had a “pretty successful” season, but acknowledged there are areas he can be better.  “Like always, I try to be realistic with myself with how things went,” he said. “There were moments where I thought I was really good and a few moments when I had some real blunders. That’s part of the growth, recognizing your mistakes and where to be better. It’s a constant process.” Niskanen said he had an ankle issue that “bugged” him for some time and had an X-ray on his hand, but said neither injury prevented him from playing in all 82 games for the first time in his career, along with all 14 playoff games. Niskanen’s defensive play seemed to dip in the post-season, reflected in his minus-2 rating. Interestingly, Niskanen said he lost 10 pounds from the start of the season to its end and noted the importance of beefing up this summer and maintaining his weight through an entire season. “I’d like to improve on everything I do, my strengths and my weaknesses,” he said. “Physically, this is a big summer for me. I’d like to get stronger. That’s always going to be a battle for me. I’m probably an average sized defenseman in the league now. If I can be a little bit stronger and be a little heavier in the corners and in front of the net that’s going to be beneficial to my overall game and handling bigger forwards. I lost quite a bit of muscle and I’m hoping with a good training routine and nutrition I can keep my strength up at end of the season.”

Memorable Moment: Niskanen’s clean but ferocious hit on Flyers rookie forward Scott Laughton on Jan. 14 was one of the best in the NHL this season. Niskanen saw Laughton with his head down and flattened him with a shoulder to the chest and chin of Laughton, who did not return for the third period. A few weeks later, on Feb. 8,  Niskanen honored the hockey code by agreeing to fight Laughton, who wanted a payback for the hit. “He got a chance to feel better about himself,” Niskanen said.

Quotable: “It hurts the way it ended. That sucks. There’s no sugar-coating that. But team-wide we got a lot better this year. We grew a lot. I think all of us truly believe this was maybe going to be our year. That’s what hurts. What really sucks is you gotta go through that whole 82-game process again before you get another crack at it. You have to wait a whole calendar year before you get another chance. That hurts.” – Niskanen on breakup day

2015-16 Expectations: With some work in the weight room this summer Niskanen should be better prepared to handle some of the NHL’s bigger forwards next season, when he likely will be reunited with Karl Alzner on the Caps’ second pairing. He said he’s encouraged by the growth he saw in the club this season and the potential of going farther next spring. “It was good to see a lot of guys really commit to being better,” he said. “I tried to come in here with a clean slate and fresh mind and not judge people before I really got to know them for myself. There were some perceptions about the group here with work habits and consistency and I thought as a group we really committed to getting better and I think we grew a lot in that department, just being better professionals. That’s a good base to have, that work ethic and commitment to finding ways to get better. More specifically, defensively it was the best year for this organization for a while and that’s more than just a player or two. Without the puck we had guys that were really, really committed and that’s good to see. … When things got really tough we played better. We had our moments when we weren’t sharp all the time, but when we really needed to win and we got challenged we seemed to  play our best game, That’s a good sign and a good trait for a team to have that kind of culture and attitude.”

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3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

The Caps could not shake Buffalo for two periods, but a dominant finish on Saturday helped them pull away for a 5-1 win. Here's how they finally put away the Sabres.

A quick start

Strong starts go a long way towards helping a team in the middle of a slump. It's a confidence boost for a group in desperate need of one and the Caps got that boost on Saturday from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov used his wheels to zip in behind the defense and score just 50 seconds into the game. Washington led 1-0 at the end of the first, just the second time in 19 games they have held a lead after the opening 20 minutes.


Andre Burakovsky snapping a second period slump

It looked in the second period like the Caps were caught trying to protect the lead again, but Andre Burakovsky woke the team back up with his incredible highlight end-to-end goal. It really looked like Buffalo was going to tie the game at one, but instead, Burakovsky extended the lead to two. Going end to end the way he did shows a player who is starting to play with some confidence, something Burakovsky has lacked for much of the season.

Ovechkin's two-goal third period

Buffalo would not go away. Sam Reinhart got the Sabres on the board just 14 seconds into the third period and suddenly the Caps found themselves in a one-goal game again. But Ovechkin ended any hopes for the comeback as he struck in the top corner of the net on the power play from the office. He would later add a deflection goal to extend the lead to 5-1, giving a scuffling Washington team the dominant win they so sorely needed.

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3 stars of the game: Caps erupt in 3rd for dominant win over Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps erupt in 3rd for dominant win over Sabres

The Capitals needed a win in the worst way and they got one, dispatching the Buffalo Sabres in dominating fashion with a 5-1 win.

Washington was locked in a tight game leading 2-0 heading into the third period when Sam Reinhart scored just 14 seconds into the period to pull Buffalo to within one. The Caps then slammed the door shut, scoring three unanswered goals to put away the Sabres.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Alex Ovechkin: This was career game No. 983 for Ovechkin, tying him for the franchise record for most games played with Calle Johansson. Ovechkin very fittingly celebrated the occasion with two goals. The first came on a power play goal from the office, but there was no need for a one-timer on this one. The Sabres gave him all the time he needed to aim up the shot and wrist it into the top corner.

He added a second goal late off a deflection from a John Carlson shot.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov: To say the Caps have struggled at the start of games would be an understatement. In the last 18 games, Washington has held the lead after the first period only once. Kuznetsov made sure this game started off on the right foot as he scored just 50 seconds into the game. He turned on the jets in the neutral zone to turn the edge on Jason Pominville then easily skated around a weak, ill-advised challenge from Robin Lehner before flinging the puck into the yawning net.

It was the fastest goal to start a game by the Caps this season. It was just the start of what would be a four-point night for the Caps' center as he added three assists.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky had the highlight of the game with his end-to-end goal in the second period to put Washington up 2-0. He looked like he was shot out of a cannon as he launched himself from the defensive zone, streaked down the center of the ice and in on net to slide the puck through the Lehner's five-hole.

Look how Burakovsky was able to slice through the Sabres' defense. Buffalo had him surrounded, but his speed caught the Sabres off-guard and they were not able to recover in time to actually slow him down.