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Prospect report: Does Zach Sanford or Jakub Vrana replace Andre Burakovsky?

Prospect report: Does Zach Sanford or Jakub Vrana replace Andre Burakovsky?

Hershey update: 25-14-8-3, 5th in the Atlantic Division. Last week: 1-1-1-0

It was a weekend Zach Sanford is not likely to forget. Not only did he score the game-winning goal against the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday, his first NHL goal, he also scored twice for Hershey against Bridgeport the very next day.

Sanford was recalled by the Caps earlier in the week but was not expected to play. An injury to Andre Burakovsky, however, got Sanford into the lineup on Saturday. With Washington starting their bye wee, Sanford was sent back down to Hershey following Saturday's game.

With Burakovsky expected to be out until March, the Caps will likely call up a player to replace him in the lineup as well as a rotating player to scratch for road games. Sanford and Jakub Vrana are the most likely candidates to replace Burakovsky. I assumed it would be Vrana considering the similar skill set of the two players. The Caps could plug Vrana into the third line without having to change too much in terms of the line’s makeup.

Vrana, however, had a tough day on Friday.

In overtime against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Vrana gave up a turnover that ended up costing the Bears the game. Vrana pounced on a loose puck in the neutral zone and tried to turn it up ice himself with his teammates headed to the bench for a line change, Vrana has the puck poked away to another Penguins player who passes up ice to set up a breakaway goal. Vrana has to be aware that there is nothing but open ice behind him with his teammates headed to the bench. He can’t get overly aggressive with the puck in such a critical moment..

You can see the play here.

The turnover earned Vrana a seat in the press box on Saturday.

Via Capitals Outsider, Hershey head coach Troy Mann described Vrana’s play of late as “inconsistent, especially without the puck” since his return from a four-week stint with the Caps.

Is this a huge cause for concern? Not really. When players are on the verge of moving up to the NHL full-time, their play often becomes inconsistent. Sometimes players lose focus after their first prolonged taste of the big leagues when they go back down to the AHL. Friday’s bad game likely will have no bearing on whether Barry Trotz decides to call up him or Sanford for the next few weeks.

Riley Barber made his triumphant return to the lineup over the weekend after a 35-game absence. Barber played Saturday and Sunday and scored three goals in those two games.

Christian Thomas is a newcomer to the Caps’ organization this season and currently leads the Bears in goals with 17. In a feature on Thomas published by Penn Live, Thomas talks about the grind of the AHL and how tough it is to make it to the big league. Coach Mann also provides some interesting notes on Thomas saying, “He's a dynamic scorer at the AHL level. He's got an NHL shot, a great release. When he's moving his feet he has some real good quickness to him from a skating perspective.”

Defenseman Darren Dietz is also in his first season with the Bears. In an article for the Lebanon Daily News, Dietz talks at length about his AHL career. Here’s what he has to say about signing with Washington:

“The end of last season my contract expired and I became an unrestricted free agent. On July 1 I made the decision to sign with Washington and Hershey to come here. There were some other options available but I didn’t waste any time jumping on this opportunity to be involved with this organization.

“To be brutally honest, it was getting the opportunity to win and be in a playoff situation because I hadn’t been in the playoffs as a pro so that made the decision an easy one. The group here, and the long run they made last year, I knew it was something good here and I wanted to be part of it. I had played in Giant Center a couple times with either Hamilton or St. John’s and I remember it was not a fun place to play.

You can read the full article here.

RELATED: Bye week grades: Special teams

Other prospect notes:

Both Ilya Samsonov and Damien Riat walked away champions over the week after playing in small international tournaments for their respective nations.

Samsanov played in the third and final game for Team Russia in the Sweden Hockey Games tournament, helping lead Russia to a 4-2 win over the Czech Republic to clinch the tournament. You can watch the highlights here in Russian.

Samsonov said in an interview that his focus right now is to play for the national team and finish his KHL contract, but he did give a subtle nod to the Caps (as translated by RMNB):

“Everyone dreams about playing in the NHL, but for right now I’ve got a lot of work to do to find a roster spot [on the National Team], and I still have to finish my contract. ... The guys and I sometimes play soccer or hockey video games. I play as Washington, but just because there’s no Magnitogorsk [in the game].”

Riat scored two goals in two games to help lead Switzerland to a win in the Slovakia Cup. Switzerland opened the tournament with a 4-2 win over Belarus on Friday and won in the final 4-3 against host Slovakia on Saturday. You can see the highlights of Saturday’s game here in German.

Coincidentally enough, Rait opened the scoring in both games with a goal in the second minute.

Tim McGauley scored two goals in South Carolina’s game on Feb. 9 to lead the Stingrays to the 5-4 win over Reading. It was the first two-goal game of his professional career.

In the WHL, Connor Hobbs recorded two goals and three assists in four games for the Regina Pats. Lucas Johansen scored one goal and three assists in three games for the Kelowna Rockets, earning third-star honors on Saturday. Beck Malenstyn of the Calgary Hitmen was named the second star of the game on Sunday after scoring a goal in his team’s overtime loss.

In the college ranks, Brian Pinho enjoyed a big game against UConn on Friday, scoring a goal and two assists in the win. You can see the highlights here:

Defenseman Chase Priskie scored in Quinnipiac’s 4-2 loss to Clarkson on Friday. He was also featured in the Bobcats Weekly video as the “Bobcat of the Week.” In the video, he talks about his role on the team’s power play and team chemistry. You can also see a few highlights of Priskie as well as a super enthusiastic anchor.

MORE CAPITALS: 5 things to know about Tom Gilbert

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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.