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Five storylines to monitor as Capitals training camp begins Friday

Five storylines to monitor as Capitals training camp begins Friday

A 135-day offseason officially came to an end Thursday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where Capitals veterans and prospects reported for physicals and off-ice testing. The first day will conclude with a player and staff meeting led by associate coach Todd Reirden, who’ll address a team that’s missing its head coach, captain, Vezina Trophy winning goalie and six other players who are competing in the World Cup of Hockey.

So, yeah, the first few days of camp figure to look and feel a bit different due those high profile absences. A sense of normalcy, though, won’t be far off; players on eliminated teams could begin trickling back into town as soon as Friday, though they may not join the on-ice sessions immediately.

Although there will be some initial weirdness, it’s still a critical three week stretch and there are still plenty of storylines to follow. Here are five that our team at CSN will be monitoring:   

1-No vacancy. A quick glance at www.generalfanager.com underscores the fact that there’s not much wiggle room, if any at all, with 21 players signed to one-way deals. And when you throw in Andre Burakovsky, there are 22 players who are virtual locks to make the roster. Which means the challenge for coaching staff will primarily be integrating newcomers Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, while simultaneously seeking to establish chemistry and balance. The only question, it seems, is which youngster grabs the 14th forward spot. I’d expect Zach Sanford, Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker to be in that mix.

RELATED: Orlov excited to ink new deal with Capitals

2-Rare opportunity. Although full-time jobs may not be available, it’s always important for young players show GM Brian MacLellan and Co. how much progress they’ve made. And with a handful of veterans at the World Cup, prospects are going to get more reps alongside NHL regulars—in practice and in preseason games—than they would in a normal camp. How they perform could go a long way toward helping MacLellan establish an early pecking order for the call-up list.

3- Tough enough? When I spoke to Justin Williams a few weeks ago, he said his primary focus in camp will be practicing with a high level of intensity so that when the World Cup players return there’s no “playing catch-up.” After all, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer, Matt Niskanen, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson have been practicing with, and competing against, the best of the best for more than two weeks. The others have not.

4-Infirmary report. It appears that the players who headed into the offseason nursing injuries have healed up over the summer. Marcus Johansson told reporters a few weeks ago that he’s 100-percent after being dogged by an undisclosed injury late last season. Similarly, Holtby said he’s completely recovered from the knee injury that he was coping with in the playoffs. The one player I’m curious about is defenseman Karl Alzner, who is returning from sports hernia and groin muscle injuries. He told me last month that he was around 85-percent and he expected to be 100-percent by opening night. I suspect we’ll get an update on Friday.   

5-Mixing and matching. The real work of getting this team ready to face the Penguins on Oct. 13 can't begin in earnest until everyone has returned from the World Cup. So we probably won’t get a clear picture of Barry Trotz’s forward combinations and Reirden’s defensive pairings until the final few preseason games. When the whole group is finally back together, here are some of the questions we’ll be asking: Who does newly re-signing defenseman Orlov play with? Trotz has said he wants him to take on a top-4 role this season, perhaps alongside Carlson or Niskanen. If that’s the case, what does that mean for Brooks Orpik? Where does Tom Wilson fit in? Management has said it wants to see more from him, too. How about Connolly? He’s a 24-year-old former No. 6 overall pick who hasn’t lived up to his draft status. At 6-2, 193-pounds, though, he certainly possesses intriguing potential. Who skates on the third line with Eller? Will Trotz stack his top two lines or spread out the talent a little more evenly? By the preseason finale against the Islanders on Oct. 9, there will be much more clarity.

The Capitals’ mantra for 2016-17 will be ‘Will Over Skill’, the slogan that’s emblazoned on their training camp t-shirts. Indeed, the Caps, once again, have skill to spare. The question has always been whether they possess enough will power to persevere through a grueling 82-game regular season and then push their game to the next level when the games really matter.

The answer to that question, obviously, won't be known for quite a while. But we know this much now: laying the foundation for success begins Friday, when the first of three groups hits the ice at 9:30 a.m.

MORE CAPITALS: Caps officially re-sign Orlov

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3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

You may think this was an ugly four-game road trip for the Caps, but with a 3-2 win in Buffalo on Monday, Washington managed to earn five out of a possible eight points.

Here is why the Caps beat the Sabres and managed to save the road swing.

A missed high-stick (maybe) from Ovechkin

Ovechkin scored the first goal of the game in the second period as he deflected a high-shot from Christian Djoos down past goalie Chad Johnson. But did the deflection come on a high stick? The play was reviewed and the goal was ultimately upheld. According to the NHL, it was determined that "video review supported the Referee's call on the ice that Alex Ovechkin's stick was at or below the height of the crossbar when he tipped the puck into the Buffalo net."

NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May broke the play down during the second intermission and made his case for why the NHL actually got the call wrong.

Was that a high stick? I don't know. As compelling an argument as May made, it still looks inconclusive which means the review made the right call. What surprises me is that the referee did not disallow the goal on the initial call.

Whether the review is truly inconclusive or flat out wrong, Washington was fortunate to walk away from this sequence with the goal.

MORE CAPITALS: BIZARRE SEQUENCE LEADS TO CAPS SCORING AND GETTING PENALIZED AT THE SAME TIME

A centimeter of ice

Hockey is a game of inches and it took less than an inch to put Washington up 2-0. When an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot hit off the boards and bounced back to the front of the net, it sparked a scrum next to goalie Chad Johnson. Eventually, John Carlson was able to get a swipe on the puck sending it trickling to the goal line, but Kyle Okposo was there waiting and appeared to kick it out to safety just before it crossed. A review triggered by the Situation Room, however, revealed that the puck had just barely managed to cross the goal line before Okposo got to it.

Here's the view the NHL released after the review:

Philipp Grubauer's third period

After dominating the first 40 minutes of the game and taking a 2-0 lead, Buffalo predictably made a late push in the third period with two goals to pull within one. Washington outshot the Sabres in the first and second periods, but Buffalo reversed that trend in a big way in the third as they outshot the Caps 17-6. Grubauer turned aside 15 of those shots and was impressive after barely being tested in the first two periods.

RELATED: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS OF THE GAME FROM CAPS-SABRE

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3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

Coming off an ugly 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a Buffalo Sabres team missing star Jack Eichel was just what the doctor ordered for the Caps to get back on track. Washington dominated the first two periods and then survived a late surge from Buffalo for the 3-2 win.

After battling to a scoreless first, Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson spotted Washington a 2-0 lead in the second. They then held on in the third period as Buffalo began to tilt the ice in their favor, with Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the empty-netter to put this game out of reach. Evander Kane would pull Buffalo within one, but with only three seconds left it was too little, too late.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Alex Ovechkin: Ovechkin opened up the scoring in the second period as he deflected down an innocent shot from Christian Djoos past Chad Johnson.

Ovechkin also set a physical tone as he battled with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen all game long. After taking a high elbow from Ristolainen early in the game Ovechkin skated up to Ristolainen prior to the faceoff on his next shift and let him know that it was on. 

2. John Carlson: Carlson had a hand in both of Washington's first two goals. He recorded a secondary assist on Ovechkin's goal as he made a blue line pass to Djoos which Djoos fired on net and Ovechkin deflected. Carlson then managed to hit the puck past the goal line in a scrum next to Johnson. It looked initially like Kyle Okposo had managed to kick out the puck just before it crossed, but Carlson was awarded the goal as a review showed the puck had completely crossed the line.

3. Philipp Grubauer: A Sabres team that ranks last in the NHL in scoring and that was also without its leading scorer did not test Grubauer much in the first two periods. Facing a 2-0 deficit, however, Buffalo made a third period push to try to tie the game, but Grubauer was up to the task as he turned aside 15 of the 17 shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. He finished with 32 total saves on the night.