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Young Capital may get first taste of playoff hockey in Game 3

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Young Capital may get first taste of playoff hockey in Game 3

Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt is expected to get his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs tonight when he takes warmups for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Rangers at what promises to be a very electric Verizon Center.

Whether he makes his Stanley Cup playoff debut will depend on the health of veteran Caps defenseman Tim Gleason.

“I would say he’s a probable,” Trotz said of Gleason, who blocked three shots by the Rangers in Game 2. “You will see Nate Schmidt out there for warmup but that is just on an emergency basis, making sure we’re good to go.”

Gleason, 32, has no points and is a minus-2 in nine playoff games on a third defense pairing with Mike Green. Trotz said that if Gleason can play tonight, Schmidt, 23, will return to Hershey for Game 1 of the Bears’ second-round series against the Rangers’ AHL affiliate Hartford Wolf Pack.

“There are two purposes,” Trotz said of Schmidt’s recall. “If someone were to go down, Schmitty would be the natural recall from Hershey if we don’t go the [Dmitry] Orlov route.

“It gives him a chance to get in the fold a little bit and recognize he could very easily go from Game 2 or Game 3 in an American League series to Game 7 within 24 hours. That’s something we want to prepare him for.”

The Caps also may be recognizing that while Gleason’s physicality was required in a hard-hitting first-round against the New York Islanders, Schmidt’s speed may be required against the Rangers in Round 2.

“They’re a real quick team and I played against them a couple times this year and I feel like I match up pretty well against a really good skating team,” Schmidt said. “If they call my number I’ll be ready. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to and if it happens it happens.”

MORE CAPITALS: WHY CAPS CAN'T AFFORD TO BE A ONE-MAN SHOW

Schmidt played in 39 games for the Capitals this season, including a pair of losses to the Rangers. On Dec. 23 Schmidt logged 9:45 of ice time and was even in a 4-2 loss in New York, and on March 11 Schmidt was a minus-2 in 14:54 of ice time in a 3-1 loss at home.

In the Bears’ four-game elimination of the Worcester Sharks, Schmidt recorded one goal and three assists while averaging around 20 minutes a night.

He said that if he is pressed into duty tonight against the Rangers his familiarity with Green will be helpful as he navigates through his first Stanley Cup playoff game.

“He’s such a calming factor back there,” Schmidt said. “Even yesterday [at practice] we hit it off again getting back to old times. It’s great to have him there to help. This would be a new experience for me and I imagine the energy and the intensity are a lot higher [than in the regular season], but I think having all those veteran guys back there will help me to be calm.”

No Orlov: The fact the Caps recalled Schmidt is a strong indication they do not see Dmitry Orlov as their first option if a defenseman is injured during the playoffs. Orlov has not played a game for the Capitals this season and has played just three games, all for the Bears, all season. He could be an option if the Capitals have two injuries to their blue line.

“It’s always on the table,” Trotz said of Orlov’s availability.

On the rebound: The Caps have followed every playoff loss with a victory in the post-season and they are hoping that trend continues in Game 3.

“Desperation,” Caps right wing Troy Brouwer said when asked for an explanation on the caps’ ability to bounce back. “Not wanting to lose two games in a row. If you do that you’re always in the series.”

In each of his two starts following losses this post-season, Caps goaltender Braden Holtby has led his team to 2-1 victories, stopping 46 of 48 shots in Games 4 and 7.

Dating back to his rookie season, Holtby is 8-2 in playoff games following a loss and has allowed two or fewer goals in all eighr victories.  

“I think it brings us back into focus a little bit,” Holtby said. “We’ve had a lot of close games and we’re used to having tough losses and having to bounce back and it’s made us mentally tougher. We want to get better at both areas, after a win and after a loss.”

Getting the lead: In these playoffs the Caps are 3-0 when scoring first and 2-4 when allowing their opponent to score first.

“Whenever you play a good team like the Rangers you want to get out to a lead and dictate how the game will be played,” Brouwer said.

Here are projected lineups for Game 3:

CAPITALS

Forward lines

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Joel Ward

Marcus Johnasson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Jason Chimera

Andre Burakovsky – Jay Beagle – Troy Brouwer

Curtis Glencross – Brooks Laich – Tom Wilson

Defense pairings

Brooks Orpik – John Carlson

Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen

Tim Gleason – Mike Green

Goaltenders

Braden Holtby – Justin Peters

Scratches: C Michael Latta, D Dmitry Orlov

Injuries: Eric Fehr [upper body, day-to-day]

RANGERS

Forward lines

Rick Nash – Derrick Brassard – Marty St. Louis

Chris Kreider – Derek Stepan – J.T. Miller

Carl Hagelin – Kevin Hayes – Jesper Fast

James Sheppard – Dominic Moore – Tanner Glass

Defense pairings

Ryan McDonagh – Dan Girardi

Marc Staal – Dan Boyle

Keith Yandle – Kevin Klein

Goaltenders

Henrik Lundqvist – Cam Talbot

Scratches: D Matt Hunwick, D Chris Summers

Injuries: Mats Zuccarello [head, indefinite]

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How the Capitals have limited Columbus' top offensive threat

How the Capitals have limited Columbus' top offensive threat

The Capitals boast a roster full of superstar forwards including players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The Columbus Blue Jackets do not.

As a team, Columbus’ offensive output is more spread out among the team, except for one offensive focal point: Artemi Panarin.

Traded in the offseason to Columbus from the Chicago Blackhawks, Panarin has proven this season to be a star in his own right rather than just someone hanging on to the coattails of his former linemate in Chicago, Patrick Kane.

Defensively, shutting down Panarin was priority No. 1 for Barry Trotz and company heading into their best-of-seven first-round playoff series

“We went into the series knowing fully well how good of a player Panarin is,” the Capitals head coach told the media via a conference call on Sunday. “He's a leader for them. It's no different than what they would do with Kuznetsov, Backstrom or [Ovechkin]. It's got to be a team game.”

Initially, things did not go well for the Capitals, as Panarin tallied two goals and five assists in the first three games. In Game 4 and Game 5, however, he was held off the scoresheet and finished with a plus/minus rating of -3.

For the series as a whole, Washington has actually done a good job of shutting Panarin down. Four of his seven points came on power play opportunities, meaning the Caps limited Columbus’ top forward to only three even-strength points in five games.

Washington’s strategy coming into the series was to give Panarin a healthy dose of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen. At 5-on-5 play, no two defensemen have been on the ice against Panarin anywhere near as much as the Orlov-Niskanen pairing. That’s been true all series. The offensive line Panarin has been matched against, however, has changed.

In Game 1, the Caps’ second line of Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky and T.J. Oshie matched primarily against Panarin’s line. That changed in Game 2. Since then, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson have been on Panarin duty.

There are several ways to approach matching lines against an opponent. Backstrom is one of the best shutdown forwards in the NHL. It makes sense for Trotz to want him out against Columbus’ most dangerous line. The problem there, however, is that Trotz was taking his team’s second line and putting it in a primarily defensive role.

In Game 1, Backstrom was on the ice for seven defensive zone faceoffs, 12 in the neutral zone and only two in the offensive zone.

The Capitals have an edge over Columbus in offensive depth, but you mitigate that edge if you force Burakovsky, Backstrom and Oshie, three of your best offensive players, to focus on shutting down Panarin.

Let’s not forget, Washington scored only one 5-on-5 goal in Game 1 and it came from Devante Smith-Pelly. They needed the second line to produce offensively so Trotz switched tactics and go best on best, top line vs. top line in a possession driven match up.

The strategy here is basically to make the opposing team's best players exhaust themselves on defense.

You can tell this strategy was effective, and not just because Panarin's offensive dried up. In Game 4, when the Blue Jackets could more easily dictate the matchups, Columbus placed Panarin away from the Caps’ top line, whether intentional or not.

Kuznetsov logged 7:27 of 5-on-5 icetime against Panarin in Game 4. Wilson (6:52), Oshie (6:46), Ovechkin (6:42) and Backstrom (6:01) all got a few cracks at Panarin, but nothing major. Those minutes are far more even than in Game 5 in Washington in which Ovechkin matched against Panarin for 12:45. Kuznetsov (12:42) and Wilson (12:30) also got plenty of opportunities against Panarin as opposed to Chandler Stephenson (2:10), Oshie (2:10) and Backstrom (2:01).

This is a match up the Caps want and the Blue Jackets are trying to get away from.

Trotz was asked about defending Panarin on Sunday.

“There's no one shadowing anybody,” Trotz said. “You know you want to take time and space from top players in this league, and if you do and you take away as many options as possible, you have a chance to limit their damage that they can do to you."

At a glance, this statement seems to contradict itself. You are going to take time and space away from Panarin, but you’re not going to shadow him? But in truth, this is exactly what the Caps are doing.

When the Caps’ top line matches against Panarin, if they continue attack and maintain possession in the offensive zone, that limits the time Panarin gets on the attack.

This will become more difficult on Monday, however, as the series shifts back to Columbus for Game 6. As the Blue Jackets get the second line change, just as in Game 4, you should expect to see Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella try to get his top line away from the Caps’ to avoid that matchup.

Shutting down Columbus’ power play and matching Panarin against both Ovechkin’s line and the Orlov-Niskanen pairing have been the keys to shutting him down. The Caps will need more of the same on Monday to finish off the series.

MORE CAPITALS vs. BLUE JACKETS:
How Nick Backstrom saved the Capitals in Game 5
Burakovsky done for first-round, but how much longer?
Capitals' penalty kill the biggest difference maker
 

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The Caps' penalty kill has been a major factor in the series turnaround

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The Caps' penalty kill has been a major factor in the series turnaround

For the Capitals to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the keys to the series was going to be the penalty kill. 

For the season, Columbus ranked only 25th in the league on the power play at 17.2-percent, but that number did not reflect the massive improvement the Blue Jackets made with their trade deadline acquisitions.

Since the trade deadline on Feb. 26, Columbus ranked seventh on the power play. The Caps were sixth with both teams converting 25.0-percent of the time.

Where Washington did have an edge, seemingly, was on the penalty kill. Unlike the power play, Columbus' penalty kill was consistently poor all season, finishing 27th in the NHL with a kill rate of only 76.2-percent. While not a strength by any means, the Caps were certainly better on the PK with a kill rate of 80.3-percent, good for 15th in the league.

With two power plays converting at the same rate, Washington had to be able to kill off more of the Blue Jackets' opportunities. They struggled to do that in Game 1 and Game 2.

The Caps were called for four penalties and gave up two power play goals in each of the first two games. Washington scored five power play goals in those games, but their advantage on special teams was mitigated by their inability to keep Columbus from converting. 

There are many reasons why the Caps were able to overcome the 0-2 series deficit and now sit just one win away from advancing to the second round. Chief among those reasons is the improved penalty kill. Since Game 2, Washington has not allowed a single power play goal. The PK has successfully killed off 13 straight penalties including five in Game 5.

"I think as a group, they've all stepped up," Barry Trotz said on a conference call with the media on Sunday. "I don't think I can single out anybody. They've all stepped up. The penalty kill is as good as the five guys that you have, your four and your goaltender. They've been very committed there."

In a series that has seen four out of five games go to overtime, it's not hard to recognize the impact even one goal can have on a game and, by extension, the series. Should the Caps go on to win the series, their ability to adjust their penalty kill to stop the Blue Jackets' suddenly potent power play will be one of the main reasons why.

Trotz would not go into specifics as to the adjustments the team made after Game 2, but did acknowledge the penalty kill has been a "major factor" in the Caps' turnaround this series.

But to finish the job, the penalty kill will have to continue adjusting.

"This is the time when we're still trying to tweak things," Trotz said. "They changed some things on their power play a little bit yesterday, so we'll look to maybe tweak a little bit with our PK."