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Stock watch: Sanford impresses in preseason debut

Stock watch: Sanford impresses in preseason debut

The Caps lost their second preseason game on Tuesday night to the Montreal Canadiens, but it's the preseason. The score doesn't matter. What does matter is how the players played. Here's who looked good and who needs to up their game.

3 players who impressed:

Madison Bowey: When Bowey is distributing the puck, it looks like his teammates have magnets on their tape. Every pass from him was crisp and on target. Defensively, he finished the game with a minus-2, but he was hardly the only player to struggle on the defensive end of the ice on Tuesday. He will continue to develop his defensive skills in Hershey, but for now Bowey looks every bit the puck-moving, offensive defenseman the Caps hoped they were getting when they drafted him. In today's NHL, having that type of defenseman on your team is a major plus.

Zach Sanford: The Caps want to keep a 14th forward on the roster this season and in his NHL (preseason) debut, Sanford did everything he could to lay claim to that spot. It took a few minutes for him to settle into the game, but he didn't look out of place at all. He simply looked like a rookie trying to adjust to his first NHL experience. As the game went along, he looked more and more comfortable. What is really impressive about Sanford is his positioning and what he does away from the puck. He always seems to be exactly where he is supposed to be. That positioning ultimately set up his goal late in the third period. Sanford fought off a few hits to maintain his position in front of the net, setting up a perfect screen on Montreal goalie Zachary Fucale. Because of his positioning, he was able to deflect a shot from Connor Hobbs into the net past the helpless netminder. It was not a perfect game for Sanford by any means. Late in the second, he gave up the puck on a bad turnover and compounded the mistake by tripping Michael McCarron, but those kinds of mistakes are to be expected from someone who went straight from college to the NHL preseason. Overall, it was a very impressive performance.

Nathan Walker: When Andrew Shaw boarded Connor Hobbs in the second period, the first player to go after the gritty veteran was Nathan Walker. It didn't matter that Shaw has played in four NHL seasons or has 13 NHL fights on his resume, it didn't matter that he was going to get his butt kicked — he was going to stand up for his teammate. The biggest strike against Walker is his size. He is very generously listed as 5-foot-8. I've seen him in the locker room and let me tell you, there is no way he is that tall. But any fear the team may have had about Walker's ability to handle the size of the NHL has been erased in just two preseason games. Clearly he is not going to let himself be pushed around. At this point, I would be surprised if he does not get his first NHL game at some point this season.

RELATED: PENALTIES DOOM CAPS IN 5-2 LOSS TO MONTREAL

3 players who need to show improvement:

Brett Connolly: Connolly's signing was a surprise move by the Caps in the offseason. He is a former first-round draft pick still trying to live up to his potential. He is going to make the roster, but as a new player, the Caps are still trying to determine just where he fits into the lineup. That means he has more at stake in this preseason than most of his NHL teammates. Connolly registered six hits, but zero shots on net and was completely unable to take advantage of the weaker preseason roster Montreal played. Connolly is a sniper trying to establish his skill and he looked like a fourth-line grinder. If this is how he will play, there's no reason to play him over someone like Stanislav Galiev.

Liam O'Brien: In 2014, Liam O'Brien made the Caps' roster after a strong camp and stuck around for 13 games before getting sent down to the AHL. Two years later, he doesn't look close to that level. O'Brien took an early interference penalty as he slid into goalie Al Montoya. He added a second penalty in the third period as he was upset with a no-call on Nathan Beaulieu and kept trying to draw a fight with him until the referee ultimately sent him to the box. The days when teams could carry enforcers on the fourth line who did little else but fight and take penalties are over. O'Brien has to establish that he has more to offer the Caps and he failed to do so.

Darren Dietz: For the most part, Darren Dietz actually played a decent game on Tuesday. He had six hits and skated well against his former team. There was one major mistake, however, that really stuck out. In the second period, the Caps were about to go on the power play as Jeremy Grégoire slashed Zach Sill in the wrist. At the end of the play, Grégoire really tried to press his luck by giving Sill a little push into the boards. Grégoire is a 21-year-old player trying to make an impression by taking on one of the toughest guys on the ice. Sill is a 28-year-old, 6-foot-1, 202-pound veteran with 32 fights in the last five years in the NHL and AHL. He can take care of himself. Dietz, however, skated in and landed a vicious cross-check to the back of Grégoire and was called for roughing, thus negating the Caps' power play. There was no reason for Dietz to get involved in that scrum. Sill doesn't need him to fight off Grégoire, he could have easily brushed him aside. The referees had already established that they are calling a very tight game so it was no surprise to see Dietz sent to the box. He needs to know better than to lay that kind of hit on the back of an opposing player and risk a penalty in order to protect someone who didn't really need it.

MORE CAPITALS: MARCUS JOHANSSON SCORES FROM STRAIGHT ON VS. CANADIENS

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Will the Caps be able to take advantage of home ice in Game 5?

Will the Caps be able to take advantage of home ice in Game 5?

There's a saying in sports that goes, "A series doesn't start until a team loses at home." For the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, their series won't start until someone wins at home.

Four games into the series, the road team has won every game. Columbus took Game 1 and Game 2 from Capital One Arena and the Caps answered back by winning Game 3 and Game 4 in Ohio.

"We came [to Columbus] to try to get the first one," Barry Trotz said after Thursday's win. "Did that. We came here to get the second one. Did that. All we've done is just got on even terms."

Now the series is a best of three with two of those final three games in Washington, but how much of an advantage does that really give the Caps?

"We've got to make sure that we're ready to go," Trotz said. "I think we have been since we got here. We've just got to do it at home."

The various playoff struggles the Caps have suffered in the Alex Ovechkin era have been well-documented to this point. One particularly maddening issue is the team's struggles to win at home. Since 2008, the first year the Ovechkin-led Caps made the playoffs, the team is just 28-25 in home playoff games. Since 2015, Trotz's first season as head coach, the Caps are 12-10 in Washington.

Part of that is just the nature of hockey. Upsets are prevalent in the playoffs in the NHL and home-ice advantage does not mean as much as it does in other sports. But it should mean more than 28-25.

Besides having the crowd on your side, home ice also provides matchup advantages. The home team gets the second line change at home, meaning during a stoppage in play the home coach gets the opportunity to see who the opponent puts on the ice before making his own change. For the Caps, this means getting Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen on the ice against Artemi Panarin.

Trotz has matched his top shutdown pair against Columbus' top line all series long. According to Natural Stat Trick, when Niskanen was on the ice in Game 4 he held Panarin's Corsi For percentage to 36.36. When Niskanen was not on the ice, Panarin's percentage shot up to 71.43. 

Theoretically, it should be much easier for Trotz to get those favorable matchups at home. Now all the Caps have to do is take advantage.

"Our home record hasn't been really great in the last little stretch at the end of the season here and obviously the first two games of the playoffs," Trotz said. "We owe it to our fans, we owe it to ourselves to take advantage of that."

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John Tortorella has no answers, walks out of postgame press conference after Game 4

John Tortorella has no answers, walks out of postgame press conference after Game 4

In each of the first three games of the series, the Columbus Blue Jackets always had an answer for the Washington Capitals.

The Caps built a two-goal lead in each game and Columbus was able to battle back and tie it each time.

In Game 4 on Thursday, however. the Blue Jackets had no answer in a 4-1 loss to Washington and that includes head coach John Tortorella.

"We weren't good," Tortorella said to the media after the game. "There's no sense asking me things about the game. I'm telling you, we laid an egg. I'm not going to break it down for you. We sucked. We sucked."

Tortorella is known for having some fiery interactions with the media. By his standard, Thursday's postgame presser was fairly tame.

The Capitals may have won Game 3, but Columbus certainly looked like the better team for most of the night. That was not the case in Game 4 as Washington dominated from start to finish. That led to the contentious postgame presser.

"We laid an egg," Tortorella said. "That's all I have to say, guys. I'm sorry, I'm not going to break it down for you. Nothing went well for us. It's on us, we have to figure it out and we will."

Reporters continued to press the head coach until he finally walked out.

Before you laugh too hard at this, it is important to consider that this may be a calculated move by Tortorella.

Sure, there have been times in which he has lost his temper in the past, but these outbursts may be more premeditated than we think.

Consider this. After their worst game of the series, a game in which the Blue Jackets only scored once and saw a 2-0 series lead evaporate in two games at home, we're talking about the head coach. We're not talking about the loss or the performance of the players. Instead, we are talking about Tortorella walking out on reporters.

Even if Tortorella was not willing to give any answers on Thursday, he will need to find some soon. The series now shifts back to Washington for Game 5 on Saturday with all the momentum on the Caps' side.

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