J.J. Regan

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Capitals-Islanders gets off to a physical start

Capitals-Islanders gets off to a physical start

Through one period of the Capitals-New York Islanders first-round series, we can tell one thing: This is going to be a very rough, physical series. Both teams combined for 26 penalty minutes in just the first 20 minutes of play with two fights (though one was just given a roughing call) plus an additional six minors.

As you would expect, Wilson was very much involved in the fisticuffs. Wilson dropped the gloves with Islanders captain Anders Lee late in the period and took an additional two minor penalties.

A bit less expected was John Carlson dropping the gloves. After missing all three games of the round robin, Carlson took exception to a hit on Nicklas Backstrom and dropped the gloves with Lee just 2:33 into his return and six seconds into his second shift.

Both players were given minor penalties for roughing. That hit on Backstrom was also likely the reason for Wilson's fight later on as Lee was called to answer.

Just a reminder, this was just the first period of the first game of a best-of-seven series. It's going to be a long one, folks.

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What is the Capitals' optimal lineup?

What is the Capitals' optimal lineup?

The regular season is over, the time for experimenting is done. The playoffs are finally upon us and the Capitals are going to have to be at their best in order to win the Stanley Cup, and that includes in their lineup. A team as deep was Washington has plenty of options of who to plug into the lineup, but now it is time to put out the best options available.

Here's what my optimal lineup would look like heading into Round 1.

Forward lines

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Ilya Kovalchuk
Richard Panik - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway

13th forward: Travis Boyd

Eller is not available for Game 1, but when he returns he obviously will take back his spot at center on the third line.

This one's not that hard. On the top line, some may quibble with Kuznetsov considering his inconsistent play over the course of the season and in the round robin, especially in the wake of Todd Reirden reuniting the Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie line against the Boston Bruins. My feeling on that trio is that, while it was great a few years ago, in this day and age of the NHL it is too slow.  Take the New York Islanders, as an example. Is there anyone on tjat line that can keep up with a player like Mathew Barzal? That would be a tough matchup. I'm not saying they can never play together or be an effective line, it's a good option to have if you need to change things up in a game, but I would not look to it as my go-to top line.

Kuznetsov has to be better in the defensive zone, but I still look to him as the best option on the top line at this point.

The rest of the lines are pretty obvious. The only other perhaps debatable pick is Boyd as my first player to plug into the lineup. The team's first-round draft pick from 2019, Connor McMichael, is with the team in Toronto and people want to see him play, but in all honesty, he would not be my first, second or perhaps even third choice. McMichael is a 19-year-old who weighs 181 pounds and has no NHL experience and you want to plug him into the lineup for the first time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Adjusting to the NHL is much more difficult than people realize and this is not a situation that would set McMichael up for success.

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Boyd is the pick here. He has been the 13th forward for much of the season and has remained productive when called upon, scoring three goals and seven assists in 24 games. He also scored a goal in one of his two appearances in the round robin.

Defensive pairs

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Brenden Dillon - Dmitry Orlov
Jonas Siegenthaler - Nick Jensen

7th defenseman: Martin Fehervary

Carlson's status heading into the playoffs remains unclear, but it should come as no surprise to see him on the top pair here.

When Kempny is at his best, he and Carlson are a great top defensive pair. We have not seen Kempny and Carlson together at all in the round robin, but Kempny looks more composed than he did during the regular season. Whether he continues to look that way in the playoffs remains to be seen, but having seen Kempny-Carlson in the past, that is definitely the team's best defensive pairing.

I am very skeptical of Orlov playing on the right. He is a left-shot defenseman so it is not his natural side and he did not look comfortable there when Reirdien plugged him on the right side during the regular season. I am not sure he is a great fit, but Nick Jensen is so much better on the third pair than the second so I will trust the coaches and put Orlov on that pair with Dillon.

RELATED: HOLTBY PLAYING HIS BEST HOCKEY AT THE PERFECT TIME

The one player whose name you may notice is missing is Radko Gudas. Gudas' play has deteriorated over the course of the season. At one point, he looked like the best option to play the right side of the second defensive pair. Now, however, he entered the round robin as the team's No. 7. He played the first two games due to Carlson's injury and gave up an egregious turnover against the Philadelphia Flyers that led to a goal. He was replaced by the rookie Martin Fehervary in the next game.

Fehervary played only 15:14 against the Boston Bruins, but recorded a game-high seven hits and looked comfortable playing on the right, which is important considering Gudas is a righty. Based on what we saw from Gudas in the Philadelphia game vs. Fehervary in the Boston game, I would think Fehervary is the better option. The only caveat to this is that if the team is in a heavy, more physical matchup, Gudas may seem like the safer pick, but Fehervary has shown he is not afraid of a physical game.

Goalie tandem

Starter: Braden Holtby

Backup: Vitek Vanecek

Holtby as the starter is not even worth discussing with Samsonov out. The question is between Vanecek and Pheonix Copley. I see the ceiling for both players being about the same as NHL backups. Copley has the experience and managed a 16-7-3 record with a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA in the NHL just last season, but I did not think he looked all that comfortable in net. Many of his best saves in the season were created by his own misplays or slow reactions. He was a fine, dependable backup, but at the very least his play left the door open for someone to supplant him and someone did in Vanecek.

Vanecek was the better goalie in Hershey this season and Reirden made the gutsy call of making Vanecek the backup. Not being at practice, I can't see what Reirden sees, but I have seen both netminders play in the past and I have enough questions about Copley that Reirden's decision to name the inexperienced Vanecek as the backup is enough reason for me to think he is the better option.

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Braden Holtby is playing his best hockey of the season at just the right time for the Capitals

Braden Holtby is playing his best hockey of the season at just the right time for the Capitals

A crucial aspect of any Stanley Cup run is goaltending. For the Capitals, that has been a question mark all season. Long-time starter Braden Holtby struggled in the regular season and was largely outplayed by the rookie Ilya Samsonov. But Samsonov suffered an injury prior to training camp and did not travel with the team to the bubble in Toronto. That safety net is now gone and the crease belongs entirely to Holtby. Is he up to the task? Based on what we saw in the round robin, the answer is an emphatic yes.

While the team put together a rather inconsistent performance in three round robin games, Holtby was one of the few bright spots.

"I think [Holtby's] for sure been our best player," T.J. Oshie said. "That's no question. I think he's tracking the puck very well."

The news is no surprise to New York Islanders head coach, Barry Trotz, who saw first hand how important Holtby can be in a playoff run and who will now have to figure out how to beat him in Round 1 of the playoffs.

"I can tell you that Braden is a quality goaltender and if you're going to beat any team in the playoffs, you're going to have to get to their goaltender, make it hard on them and all that," Trotz said. "I wouldn't have won a championship without Braden Holtby. I know that. I know his character, I know his ability."

For much of the season, however, Holby looked like a shadow of that goalie from the 2018 run.

Holtby posted a .897 save percentage and 3.11 GAA in 48 games in 2019-20. Statistically, it was by far the worst season of his career. It is the first time Holtby has been held to a sub .900 save percentage and also the first time he has been dinged for over 3.00 goals against. Washington's defensive struggles certainly were a factor as well, but Samsonov played behind that same defense and he recorded a .913 save percentage and 2.55 GAA.

RELATED: CAPS VS. ISLANDERS GAME 1 - WHAT TO EXPECT NOW THAT THE GAMES MATTER

With Samsonov out for the postseason, Holtby was going to have to be better for Washington to have any hope for a postseason run and, so far, he has been.

"it seems like he's seeing the ice and seeing the game really well," Oshie said. "He's anticipating right, he's making huge saves at big times for us and there hasn't been too many scrambles in front of our net. There's been a couple, but for the most part, he's doing a really good job of swallowing up rebounds and making it easy on the defensemen and centermen to not give them any second or third opportunities."

“What impresses me the most about him is he is always so calm back there," Nicklas Backstrom said. "He’s been playing great these last couple of games and you see the poise he is playing with. That is great to see and obviously he’s a big key for our team to be successful so moving forward here, that is what we need.”

Holtby seems to have benefitted significantly from the long pause to the season, but it is not just a matter of rest. Holtby acknowledged the pause gave him time to "fix a few things" in his game and the result of that work has been evident to head coach Todd Reirden.

"[Holtby's] a guy that I think has been able to really solidify his game with some time with Scott Murray, our goaltending coach, for the better part of Phase 2 before getting into Phase 3," Reirden said. "I think he’s able to re-establish some of the habits and the details in his game that have given him success in the past and been able to do it on his own learning curve with the extra time here.  I think it’s proved beneficial."

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The rebound could not have come at a better time.

Holtby has always been at his best during the postseason and boasts the fifth-best playoff save percentage in history. But at the age of 30 and with his regular season numbers on a steady decline for the last three years, it was fair to wonder if perhaps time had caught up to Holtby.

So far, however, it looks like Holtby is rounding into form just in time for the playoffs, just like he always seems to.

"It’s probably the sharpest and freshest I’ve seen him the last game against Boston and he’ll hopefully continue to build on that," Reirden said. "I think he’s headed in the right direction, that’s for sure.”

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