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Western Conference Predictions: Who's on the Rise?

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Western Conference Predictions: Who's on the Rise?

A new NHL season begins on Wednesday. Now it's time to put our experts to the test.

Tarik El-Bashir and J.J. Regan will cover the Capitals all season long for NBC Sports Washington. What do they think the NHL season will hold? It's time to get their season predictions. First, let's start with the Western Conference.

El-Bashir

Central
1. Dallas
2. Minnesota
3. Chicago

Pacific
1. Anaheim
2. Edmonton
3. San Jose

Wild card

1. Nashville
2. St. Louis

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The skinny: With Ben Bishop steadying a previously shaky situation in net, Alexander Radulov bolstering the O and Ken Hitchock back behind the bench, the Stars are ready to rise in the Central. Bruce Boudreau’s Wild will qualify for the postseason for a sixth straight year, but the question is this: can ‘Gabby’ get them past last year’s first-round flameout? The top-heavy Blackhawks have fizzled in the first round each of the past two seasons, but I’m not ready to write off a core headlined by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. P.K. Subban and the Predators are still a playoff team but before you get all crazy about their 2017-18 prospects remember this: they were the tournament’s 16th seed a year ago. I’ve still got Blues getting in, despite a rash of injuries. Why? They were lights out defensively after Mike Yeo took over behind the bench last February, and I’d expect that trend to continue.    

In the Pacific, Anaheim will be banged up to start the year with Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen and Ryan Kesler sidelined, but they’re still formidable, with a stingy D and enough veteran savvy to hold off Connor McDavid and Oilers. Speaking of, McDavid feels like he’s primed to have another MVP year, doesn’t it? I’m not sure the Sharks have another Cup run left in them, but Brent Burns, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Co. are good enough to make some noise in a weak division that’ll see Calgary and Los Angeles keep things interesting before just missing out. It’ll be fun to track Vegas’ progress, but they won’t be close for a couple of years.

Conference winner: The Ducks, once they’re healthy, will have the skill and experience to win in the West.

Regan

Central
1. Dallas
2. Chicago
3. Nashville

Pacific
1. Edmonton
2. Anaheim
3. Calgary

Wild card
1. Minnesota
2. San Jose

The skinny: The biggest issue holding the Stars back has been their goaltending. Now that they have a legitimate No. 1 in Ben Bishop, the sky's the limit. Nashville looks poised for a big season after their coming out party last year, but keep an eye on Pekka Rinne who turns 35 in November. You should never count out a Bruce Boudreau team in the regular season, but that is an older team and you have to wonder how much confidence there is in the head coach after yet another disappointing postseason. We have seen this story play out with three different teams now and I believe the Wild are due for a major step back. Those four teams make the playoffs over an injury-riddled St. Louis, a dreadful Colorado and a Winnipeg team that is still a goalie short and a year away.

In the Pacific, Edmonton is on the rise. You may be worried about their salary cap situation, but for now Connor McDavid makes them a contender. Anaheim has won six division championships in a row, but they are getting older, have plenty of injuries to deal with already and it will be hard to stifle the momentum of the Oilers. Calgary is on the rise, but I do not think they have addressed their goaltending issues. I understand why they needed to move on from Brian Elliott, but I also do not see Mike Smith as an upgrade. San Jose’s time has passed and I think they will only just squeak into the playoffs as a wild card over Winnipeg and Los Angeles.

Conference winner: The conference looks wide open so I will go with the best player, McDavid, to lead the Oilers to a conference title.

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Tuesday's win shows just how far the Caps have come since the last time they played the Avalanche

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USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday's win shows just how far the Caps have come since the last time they played the Avalanche

The Caps have come a long way in the past month.

On Nov. 16, the Capitals lost 6-2 to the Colorado Avalanche in Colorado. The game was not as close as the score indicated. Not only was it a bad loss, it felt like a significant one.

Over the course of an 82-game season, every team is going to have a lot of losses. Some of those losses are not going to be close. But given the fact that just one night before, the Caps were handed a 6-3 loss at the hands of the Nashville Predators, the loss to the Avalanche did not feel like a blip on the radar. It had all the feelings of a downward trend.

LISTEN TO THE LATEST CAPITALS EXTRA PODCAST BREAKING DOWN THE CAPS' WIN OVER COLORADO

In hindsight, that game was in fact significant, but not because it signaled the unstoppable downward spiral of an aging team in need of a rebuild. Instead, it marked the moment the Caps turned their season around.

Since that loss in Colorado, Washington has gone 9-3-0. Since those ugly back-to-back losses, they have not lost consecutive games since.

And then on Monday, they hosted that same Colorado team that looked as if it had ended the Caps’ season in mid-November. The new-look Caps disposed of Colorado with relative ease by a score of 5-2.

After the game, it did not take long for November’s loss to come up.

“I guess we do better at this altitude than over there,” John Carlson said.

Matt Niskanen said the Caps had “our butts kicked” by the Avalanche and Barry Trotz said that they "handed us our lunch last time" and felt that motivated his team to respond in the rematch.

Considering how Washington looked the last time these two teams met, it would be hard for the Caps to respond much better than what they did on Tuesday.

MORE CAPITALS: 3 REASONS THE CAPS BEAT THE AVALANCHE

In November’s game, Washington had no answer for Colorado's top line. Nathan MacKinnon had a five-point night and Gabriel Landeskog recorded a hat trick. On Tuesday, neither player earned a point. Instead, both players finished with a minus-three rating on the night.

“I think there's a pride factor,” Trotz said of his team’s ability to bounce back. “I think there's a little bit of a cultural factor, DNA factor with this group because we've won a lot of games. We understand that best thing you can do after losing a game is start another streak and don't let the streak go the wrong way.”

Over the course of the last 12 games since the Caps’ first game against Colorado, Washington has been a team decidedly going the right way and, as of Wednesday morning, sit tied for first in the Metropolitan Division.

Who would have thought that’s where they would be after that disastrous two-game road swing in mid-November?

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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.

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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.

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