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20 Burning Questions: Who will challenge the Caps for the Metropolitan Division crown?

20 Burning Questions: Who will challenge the Caps for the Metropolitan Division crown?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today, we look at which teams in the Metropolitan have the best chance of ending the Caps’ four-year run atop the division?

A division title does not mean what it once did in Washington now that the Caps have won four-straight and 12 total. A Stanley Cup title also has a way of putting things into perspective. But even if fans don’t dream of winning another division title, the battle for the Metropolitan is still going to be worth watching because it is setting up to be a fascinating race.

Almost every team in the division got better in the offseason, some significantly so. If the Caps want to head into the playoffs with the top seed in their division, they are going to have to earn it.

Before we look at the teams that will push Washington this year, let’s first look at the teams that won’t.

The Columbus Blue Jackets went all-in at the trade deadline. Whether you support that decision or not, now they must reap what they have sown and will take a step back after watching Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel all walk in free agency. Barry Trotz did a fantastic job in his first season as coach of the New York Islanders, but I still get the sense that they are a team of smoke and mirrors. They whiffed on trying to acquire Panarin in the offseason and will be asking Semyon Varlamov to replicate the incredible season Robin Lehner just pulled off. I don’t buy it.

The Pittsburgh Penguins continue to confuse me. With no Olli Maatta, they may legitimately head into the season with Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson playing everyday roles on their blue line. That is insanity. Adding Brandon Tanev (for way too much term and money) and Alex Galchenyuk won’t be enough to make up for their defense and losing Phil Kessel and Matt Cullen.

It’s still the Penguins and they still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin so I don’t see them bottoming out, but the talent disparity on paper between Pittsburgh and Washington is undeniable.

The most exciting team to watch in the offseason has been the New Jersey Devils. They did not rest on their laurels after drafting Jack Hughes with the No.1 overall pick. They also added Wayne Simmonds, P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev. That is one hell of an offseason.

The big question mark in New Jersey is goaltending. What can you really expect from a Cory Schneider, Mackenzie Blackwood tandem?

Taylor Hall had an MVP season in 2017-18 and got this team to the playoffs. With the added talent, this looks like a playoff team. A division winner though? I’m not sure they are quite ready for that.

When it comes to teams that can push the Caps, I look at three main candidates: The Philadelphia Flyers, the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Rangers.

After watching the Flyers not only flame out but fail to even really contend for a Cup over the last several years, I get the feeling their core is not good enough to be a top contender. Claude Giroux is a fine player, but I do not see him as a No. 1 superstar who you can build a team around. I put him on a level with a player like Kesel.

So why do I put Philadelphia as a division contender? Because they finally have a solution to the one issue that has plagued them as a franchise seemingly forever. The Flyers finally have a goalie.

Philadelphia having a goalie is a bit hard to fathom, like the Cleveland Browns having a quarterback or the Washington Nationals having a bullpen, but it’s happened. Carter Hart is only 20 and it may be putting a lot of pressure on his shoulders, but he looks like the real deal. In addition to him, Alaign Vigneault takes over behind the bench which is a major boost and a clear sign they are in win-now mode. Kevin Hayes is also a good addition even if they paid way too much for him and Matt Niskanen should provide some veteran leadership on the blue line.

I still do not believe this roster is good enough to contend for a Cup, but let’s see what a Flyers team with dependable goaltending can do over the course of an 82-game season.

The Hurricanes are in the exact opposite situation. Not only did Carolina beat the Caps in the first round of the playoffs, they made it all the way to the conference final. They also very quietly have had a great offseason adding a boatload of talent with Dzingel and Erik Haula. They lost Calvin de Haan, but the blue line was strong enough that it can absorb that loss and still be great. The biggest question mark in the offseason was Sebastian Aho, but thanks to a ridiculously low offer sheet from the Montreal Canadiens, the Hurricanes managed to re-sign him for a reasonable cap hit of less than $8.5 million per year.

There is just one thing that makes me wary and they are the opposite of Philadelphia in this respect: Goaltending.

Petr Mrazek returns as the starter after what was a bounceback year for him. In 2016-17 and 2017-18, Mrazek managed only a .901 and .902 save percentage respectively. He had a .914 with the Hurricanes last season, but even in the playoffs his numbers were not great as he managed only a .894. He also will not have the same help he had last year with Curtis McElhinney now with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Carolina added James Reimer, but McElhinney outplayed him significantly last season (.912 save percentage and 2.58 GAA as compared to Reimer’s .900 and 3.09) and he was dominant in the postseason.

I am not sure if Carolina can catch lightning in a bottle again with its goaltending, but perhaps with their defense it won’t matter.

And finally, there is the Rangers. The rebuild is officially over as New York added the top free agent in Panarin, Kaapo Kakko with the second-overall draft pick and defenseman Jacob Trouba. They also added a young top-tier defensive prospect in Adam Fox who is expected to jump into a top-four role.

Oh, and there is still Henrik Lundqvist who is not quite ready to turn the crease over to Alexandar Goergiev just yet.

The Rangers are one of the most improved teams in the NHL and Panarin is a player that loves to torment the Caps. This is a team to watch.

The important thing to remember is that the division crown does not necessarily dictate who has the edge heading into the postseason. Even if Washington does fail to win the division, I would still put them as the favorites to advance to the conference final. But it is going to be a long road to get there and boy is the Metro going to be fun to watch.


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Caps finally solve Halak for improbable shootout

Caps finally solve Halak for improbable shootout

The Capitals needed a goal from T.J. Oshie with less than a minute remaining to force overtime on Saturday where they would go on to defeat the Boston Bruins 3-2 in a shootout.

It looked like Jaroslav Halak would once again pull off a miraculous win as he turned aside 42 shots, but the Caps kept up the pressure late to tie the game and get back in the win column.

Saturday's win is now Washington's 15th in the last 16 contests against the Bruins.

Here is how the Caps won.

Boyd makes the most of his opportunity

On Friday, Travis Boyd was a Hershey Bear. With Nic Dowd and Carl Hagelin both injured but without enough money under the cap for Boyd, the Caps recalled Tyler Lewington on Friday and skated seven defensemen and only 11 forwards against the Montreal Canadiens. On Saturday, the team sent Lewington and Ilya Samsonov to Hershey and recalled Vitek Vanecek and Boyd. The extra cap space the team gained from Vanecek taking Samsonov's spot allowed them to recall Boyd and skate four full forward lines. The impact of Boyd's addition was felt in the first period when Boyd scored a deflection to beat Halak and get the Caps on the board.

In seven games with the Caps this season, Boyd has one goal and four assists.

Caps get their power play setup on 6-on-5

For much of the night, the Caps just could not figure out Halak. They poured on the shots, but he was there each time and looked like he would be able to lead his team to the narrow victory. Late in regulation, the Caps pulled Braden Holtby for the extra attacker and the Caps gave Boston a power play look.

Washington had its top power play unit on the ice plus Tom Wilson. The goal looked like one right out of the power play's playbook with Evgeny Kuznetsov behind the goal line feeding Oshie in the slot. Oshie is great at getting those quick shots away from in close and he finally beat Halak with 59 seconds remaining.

Oshie was instrumental in setting up the goal as well as he blocked a clearing attempt from Zdeno Chara with his glove to keep the puck in the offensive zone just seconds before Kuznetsov set him up for the goal.

Backstrom and Vrana deliver in the shootout

Washington scored only twice on the shootout, but that would be all they needed.

The normally automatic Oshie was stopped on his shootout attempt putting Washington behind early on.I n a score-or-go-home situation for Nicklas Backstrom, he managed to sneak a shot in between the glove and the pad of Halak to force extra rounds of the shootout. Then Jakub Vrana pulled off one of the nices shootout goals you will ever see.


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6 things to know for Caps-Bruins

6 things to know for Caps-Bruins

After seeing their 13-game point streak snapped on Friday, the Capitals (14-3-4) will look to rebound in a quick turnaround on Saturday against the Boston Bruins (12-3-4). You can catch all the action on NBC Sports Washington with Caps FaceOff Live kicking things off at 6 p.m. before Caps Pregame Live begins at 6:30 p.m. to bring you up to the 7 p.m. puck drop. Stick with NBC Sports Washington after the game for Caps Postgame Live and Caps Overtime Live.

Here are six things to know for Saturday’s game.

About last night

The Caps lost 5-2 to the Montreal Canadiens on Friday, their first regulation loss since Oct. 14. It was not a great performance for Washington, especially in the second period as the Canadiens scored four goals in the middle frame to take control. Ilya Samsonov got the start and made 36 saves on 40 shots.

There won’t be any added advantage for the Bruins as they also played on Friday, defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2 in Toronto. Brad Marchand led Boston with two goals in the win.

Holtby vs. Halak

Samsonov got the start for Washington on Friday so it will be Braden Holtby in the net on Saturday. The Caps will catch a break though as Tuukka Rask started Friday for Boston. That should mean Washington will face Jaroslav Halak, a goalie in whom the Caps have some...painful history with.

Halak has a 2.68 GAA and .918 save percentage in seven games played this season.

The Caps’ roster is still yet to be determined

With both Nic Dowd and Carl Hagelin day-to-day with upper-body injuries, the Caps recalled Tyler Lewington, a defenseman, for Friday’s game. That is not ideal as it gave Washington seven defensemen and only 11 healthy forwards. That could change on Saturday.

The Hershey Bears recalled goalie Parker Milner from the ECHL on Friday while Travis Boyd and Vitek Vanecek were held out of the lineup for the Bears’ game that night. That is telling and would suggest those players will likely be joining the team in Boston. Do not be surprised if you see Samsonov and Lewington reassigned to Hershey and Boyd and Vanecek recalled prior to Saturday’s game.

Vanecek has a lower cap hit than Samsonov. If all the Caps need is a goalie to back up Holtby, Vanecek can do that while freeing up enough cap space to get Boyd back in and fill out the lineup.

These are moves that will be unnecessary if either Hagelin or Dowd is able to return for Saturday’s game, but it is a possible option in case they aren’t.

The best line in hockey?

Boston features arguably the best forward trio in hockey with Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. 

Pastrnak currently leads the league in goals with 16, two more than Ovechkin’s 14. He also has 16 assists. Marchand has 19 goals and 13 assists and Bergeron has eight goals and 11 assists. Marchand and Pastrnak rank third and fourth in the NHL respectively in points with 32 and 31. Tied with Pastrnak is John Carlson who has eight goals and 23 assists.

1st vs. 2nd

Saturday’s game will be between the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. Washington’s 32 points are the most in the NHL. Behind them in the East is Boston who sits in second with 28 points.

There are two things you should note about the Bruins’ record. First, Boston has been cold of late. The Bruins jumped out to an 11-1-2 record on the season before losing four straight. Friday’s win snapped that streak.

Second, the Bruins have not lost in regulation in Boston yet this season through 10 games. The Bruins boast a record of 7-0-3 at home. The Caps, however, have been very strong away from Washington and have a road record of 9-1-1.

Caps own the Bruins

Washington and Boston last played on Feb. 3, 2019, a game in which the Caps lost 1-0. That snapped a 14-game win streak for Washington over Boston that stretched back to April 2013. The Caps will look to start a new streak on Saturday, but did last year’s loss signal the end of Washington’s dominance over the Bruins?