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Six bold predictions for the Caps' season

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Six bold predictions for the Caps' season

The quest for the Stanley Cup begins anew for Washington on Thursday as the Caps open their season on the road against the Ottawa Senators. There are 82 games ahead for Washington that will determine the fate of their season. After a tumultuous summer, just what will the new season hold? We have a few thoughts on that.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan will cover the Capitals through the course of the season for NBC Sports Washington. Here’s a few predictions for what they think may happen.

El-Bashir

Alex Ovechkin tops the 33 goals he scored last season: As I’ve said many times, I suspect No. 8’s 50 goal campaigns are behind him. But at 32 he’s still one of the game’s most dangerous players, particularly on the power play. He introduced more speed and endurance training to his offseason routine this summer. He’s going to open the season on a line with a couple of young, speedy players in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana. If Ovi can increase his goal production at even strength, I could see the Caps’ captain hit the 40-goal plateau that the team so desperately needs him to reach.

Washington’s power play will top last year’s 23.1-percent: Last season, the power play was the third most effective unit in the NHL at 23.1-percent. It’s going to be a bit better than that this year with the addition of Evgeny Kuznetsov to the top group, which figures to see the lion's share of the two minutes. Just look at that collection of talent…Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson, who is in a contract year. Just be glad you’re not a penalty killer on one of the other 30 teams.

Nathan Walker will have a breakout season and earn a full-time role: Due to an influx of young players—and players looking to capitalize on a second chance—there are more than a few candidates for Breakout Player of the Year. Tyler Graovav, Devante Smith-Pelly, Alex Chiasson all come to mind. But I think it’s going to be feisty rookie from Australia—Nathan Walker—who’s going to carve out a niche for himself in DC. I don’t know how much he’s going to play early on. But I’m willing to bet he’s a full-timer (and a fan favorite) by the end of the year.

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Regan

Philipp Grubauer will not finish the season as a Cap: With a .926 save percentage and 2.04 goals against average in 24 appearances last season, Grubauer looks ready to take on a leading role. Having a backup as dependable as Grubauer is a luxury that Washington would love to hold on to, but with Pheonix Copley’s strong play in the preseason and a roster not nearly as deep as in years past especially on the blue line, someone is going to make the Caps an offer they cannot refuse. All it takes is one injury to a starting goalie or one goalie not performing at the level the team expected and then Brian MacLellan’s phone will start to ring.

Jakub Vrana will score 20 goals: After a disappointing end to the 2016-17 season, this was a big camp for Vrana and he delivered. He looked just as skilled and as fast as advertised and looked every bit the NHL player. Any questions about whether he is ready to be a full-time NHLer are gone. He is going to start the season playing on a line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Playing alongside a skilled setup man like Kuznetsov will definitely boost Vrana’s production as will the usage. I am going to go out on a limb and say that an Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Vrana line is not going to get too many defensive zone starts. A heavy dose of offensive playing time will get Vrana to the 20-goal mark for the season.

Braden Holtby will not be a Vezina Finalist this season: Don’t get me wrong, Braden Holtby is one of the top goalies in the NHL and should be referred to with the same reverence people have for Montreal’s Carey Price. These two are the best goalies in the world, period. Having said that, Holtby has also benefited from a strong defense in recent years. He does not have that anymore as Washington’s biggest question mark this season is on the blue line. Last year, Brooks Orpik was on the third pair and Taylor Chorney was the team’s No. 7. This year, at least to start the season, the 37-year-old Orpik is in the top-four playing alongside John Carlson and Chorney is on the third pair. Those promotions came out of necessity, not because they had a dazzling camp. The Caps will lean more on Holtby to bail them out when the defense breaks down and he will be up to the task, but his numbers will take a dip because of it and he will not be among the NHL’s finalists for the Vezina for the first time in three years.

RELATED: ARE CAPS STILL CONTENDERS IN EASTERN CONFERENCE?

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3 reasons the Caps beat the Avalanche

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3 reasons the Caps beat the Avalanche

They picked up right where they left off at home as they returned to Washington and defeated the Colorado Avalanche 5-2. Here is how the Caps were able to put last night's loss behind them and earn the win.

A better start

Against the Islanders on Monday, the Caps lacked energy early on and allowed a goal to Brock Nelson just 2:36 into the contest. Tuesday’s start had a much different feel to it. The Caps were moving their feet, moving the puck and creating sustained zone pressure. This time it was Washington who took the early lead as Jakub Vrana netted a goal just 5:25 in.

RELATED: SEE TARIK'S 3 STARS OF THE GAME FOR CAPS-AVS

Braden Holtby’s breakaway save on Colin Wilson

With the score tied at one in the second period, Colin Wilson was handed a gift from Brooks Orpik. As Orpik skated up the ice to his left, the rest of his teammates all skated right leaving him no one to pass too. Feeling the forecheck, Orpik tried the cross-ice pass, but it was intercepted by Wilson and there were no Caps in site. Wilson had scored Colorado's first goal and looked like he was about the score the second on the breakaway. Instead, he was denied by Holtby. Just 4:29 later, John Carlson tallied the go-ahead goal for Washington. That is essentially a two-goal swing in five minutes.

The penalty kill

The Caps took four penalties on the night and two of them were from one of their top defenseman in John Carlson. Colorado, however, walked away with nothing to show for it. The Caps took one penalty in the first and two in the second when the game was still in doubt. If they had given up a goal on any of those opportunities, it likely is a very different game. Instead, Washington killed off all four penalties they faced making sure the power play was not a factor for the Avalanche.

MORE CAPITALS: A TIMELINE FOR OSHIE'S RETURN TO THE CAPS IS COMING INTO FOCUS

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Tarik's Three Stars of Capitals-Avalanche: That's more like it

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Tarik's Three Stars of Capitals-Avalanche: That's more like it

WASHINGTON — One night after struggling in Brooklyn, Evgeny Kuznetsov and the Caps rebounded with a solid 5-2 victory over Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche at Capital One Arena.

The last 10 games for the Caps? How about 8-2-0?

In fact, it’s now been a month since Washington has lost back-to-back games. 

Here are Tarik El-Bashir's 3 stars of the game.

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No. 1 Brett Connolly, Capitals:

Since getting scratched late last month, Connolly has been one of the Caps’ most productive players.

And that did not change against the Avs. No. 10 put the game out of reach, 3-1, early in the third period, firing a pass from Madison Bowey past Semyon Varlamov and into a yawning net on a delayed penalty.

The goal was Connolly’s fourth goal in six games…all since getting scratched by Coach Barry Trotz for ineffectiveness. Bowey, meantime, recorded a pair of assists for his second multi-point game.  

No. 2 Jakub Vrana, Capitals:

The speedy winger put the Caps up 1-0 early in the first period with a perfectly-placed snipe over Varlamov’s blocker.

The goal was Vrana’s ninth of the season and fifth in the last 10 games. The rookie is now on pace for 24 goals—the number Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams each hit a year ago. 

No. 3  Evgeny Kuznetsov, Capitals:

Kuznetsov finished the game with a couple of primary assists and a secondary helper. It marked his fourth performance this season with at least three points. And while big nights from No. 92 have become almost commonplace, they're still something to savor. Sorta like that pass to Matt Niskanen on the Caps' fourth goal.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.