Capitals

Quick Links

Thumbs up, thumbs down: Nathan Walker impresses in preseason opener

ap_17262004959117.jpg
AP Images

Thumbs up, thumbs down: Nathan Walker impresses in preseason opener

The Capitals struck first Monday, but were shutdown the rest of the game in a 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Here are the players who stood out for Washington.

Thumbs up

Nathan Walker:
The young Aussie made the most of his opportunity on Monday with the Capitals’ lone goal on the night. Walker streaked up the ice along the boards, passed it to Lars Eller then crossed to the front of the net. He was in good position for the rebound and showed quick hands to get the puck and shoot it past goalie Keith Kinkaid for the shorthanded goal. It was a pure effort play and showed the exact type of spark the team is looking for in a fourth line winger. There were various times throughout the game when a Devil would try to muscle Walker out of the play and he would respond with a few shoves and slashes of his own. He did not back down from any challenge.

Braden Holtby: If you were worried Holtby’s rough postseason would follow him to the fall, that does not appear to be the case. The Caps netminder looked smooth as he turned aside 18 of 19 shots. The only goal came on a long distance slap shot through a screen. Granted, it’s a preseason game against a quasi NHL roster, but a solid performance for Holtby nonetheless.

Alex Chiasson: A player on a PTO cannot afford to have a quiet night. The team has every reason to want to play their prospects or other players already signed to a contract. Chiasson had a solid game, was in good position throughout the night and used his body well. His lone penalty of the night was a goal-saving slash on Kyle Palmieri so you can’t really hold it against him. He played like a dependable veteran player who the team could rely on as a bottom-six forward.

RELATED: WHY NESS' SKATING ABILITY GIVES HIM A LEG UP

Thumbs down

The refs: I understand that the NHL wants to emphasize slashing penalties and faceoff violations, but this game was absurd. I cannot remember if I have ever seen a penalty called for a faceoff violation ever. There were three in this game alone. Add in another six slashing penalties and you’ve got yourself a long night. In total, there were 20 penalties called. No one is expecting that to carry over into the regular season, but this felt unnecessary and made all the more frustrating by the multiple times in which play was whistled prematurely when the wrong team had possession of the puck.

Lars Eller: Eller assisted on the Capitals’ lone goal of the game, but he also had an unnecessary boarding penalty in the first period that brought the ire of the Devils players. He took two penalties for the game and, while the refs were certainly trigger happy with the whistles, considering the penalty issues he had at the beginning of last season this is not a pattern the team will want to see again.

Chandler Stephenson: Stephenson has 13 games of NHL experience under his belt meaning he should have a leg up over some of the younger players competing for a roster spot. And yet, Stephenson was essentially a non-factor on the night. He took two penalties in the first period and finished without a single shot attempt.

Christian Djoos: Djoos is in a battle to make the roster and he had essentially no impact on this game. He established himself as a playmaker in Hershey, but finished with a very pedestrian night in which he managed only one shot on goal despite over five minutes of power play time. He will need to do better than that to make the roster.

MORE CAPITALS: NATIONALS SLUGGER DANIEL MURPHY VISITS CAPS PRACTICE

Quick Links

What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

usatsi_10482872.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

The bye week is a good opportunity to evaluate what happened over the course of the first half of the season and look forward to the rest of the season. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan answer the biggest questions surrounding the team at the bye.

Today's topic: What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

El-Bashir: While seeing the Caps sit atop the deep and difficult Metro Division is a bit unexpected, my biggest surprise at the bye is Alex Ovechkin’s return to world-class form. For the record, I wasn’t among those—and there were plenty—who were ready to write off No. 8, saying he was poised for a precipitous plunge in production following a disappointing 33 goal performance a year ago. I thought he’d bounce back…a bit, anyway. After all, we had seen him do it a couple of times before. Instead, what we appear to witnessing is a rebirth of sorts. Ovechkin, at 32, leads the NHL with 28 goals and is on pace to hit 50 for the eighth time in his career. (Last season, the top-10 goal getters were all under 30 and Sidney Crosby’s 44 led everyone.) Ovechkin is also on pace for his highest point total—89—since he posted 109 way back in 2009-10. The three-time MVP is also leading the league in shots.

RELATED: WHERE DO THE CAPS SIT IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS?

Sure, Ovechkin is playing 1:20 more per game than he did last year. But it’s not all about an extra couple of shifts. Ovechkin put in the work this offseason, and it’s showing. He’s got a gear, a burst we haven’t seen in a couple of years and, as a result, he’s getting to pucks—and creating opportunities—he couldn’t a season ago.

For Ovechkin’s legion of fans, the second half of the regular season figures to be even more fun that the first because of the milestones that are within his reach. At some point, assuming he stays healthy, Ovechkin will hit 500 assists (he’s two away), 600 goals (he’s 14 back) and 1,000 games (he needs 34 more).

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again Caps fans: savor every moment because Ovi’s on top of his game again.

MORE CAPITALS: BRIAN MACLELLAN ISN'T PLAYING COY, HE WANTS TO RE-SIGN JOHN CARLSON

Regan: My biggest surprise is the Caps’ 28-14-3 record. Given the number of players the team lost in the offseason, it was clear they were not the same team that won the Presidents’ Trophy the past two years. But how much of a step back would they take? No one was really sure what to expect. With a six-point lead over the Metropolitan Division 45 games into the season, Washington is surpassing even the most optimistic of expectations.

Not only are the Caps exceeding expectations, they are doing it in the face of obstacles that should be holding them back.

The Caps have not had the same remarkable luck with injuries as they have the past few years. T.J. Oshie, Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky and Matt Niskanen have all missed time due to injuries this season. Those are significant losses, especially Niskanen given the team’s thin depth on the blue line. But Alex Ovechkin’s defiance of Father Time, the emergence of Jakub Vrana and key contributions from role players like Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly have bolstered the team’s offense. Defensively, John Carlson’s career season helped mitigate the loss of Niskanen.

When you consider the players the Caps lost, the injuries the team has dealt with, that they rank dead last in shots per game, that they have two rookies playing on the blue line and their best player is 32 years old, the fact the team not only sits in first place of the tough Metropolitan Division but by a sizable six-point margin is absolutely remarkable.

RELATED: CAPS' IMPROBABLE WIN

Quick Links

NHL Power Rankings: Riding high into the bye

usatsi_10539791.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

NHL Power Rankings: Riding high into the bye

For a Capitals team that has won 14 of its last 19 games, perhaps the bye week did not come at the best time. But, the mandated bye week is here none the less. Now the task for the Caps will be to relax, get healthy and get ready for the second half grind.

All that, plus they need to figure out how to return from the bye.

The benefits of a bye week are obvious. But there are also some less obvious disadvantages.

SEE THIS WEEK’S UPDATED NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

The bye week does not just mean no games, it means no practices too. The team is not allowed to practice until Wednesday afternoon, the day before they return to action, on the road. When it comes to the finely tuned machine of a professional hockey team, it doesn’t take long for rust to set in.

Last year, the Capitals entered the bye week on a six-game winning streak. They returned with back-to-back games on the road and lost both. They would go on to lose eight of 14 before they finally pulled together. This year, given how the Metropolitan has looked, a stretch like that could end up costing them the division.

The team also needs to be especially cognizant of injuries. Washington comes back from the bye week with three games in four days. To go from no practice or games to three games in four days seems like a dangerous proposition for the players.

But these are things the Caps don’t have to worry about until Thursday. For now, they are riding into the bye week on a high note. Just how high? Find out here in this week’s NHL Power Rankings.