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4 things to watch in Capitals at Canucks

4 things to watch in Capitals at Canucks

It’s going to be a late night. The Caps are in Vancouver to take on the Canucks (10 p.m., NBC Sports Washington Plus) for the first of a four-game swing through Canada. Grab your coffee, here are four things you need to watch.

Offensive firepower

Washington enters Monday’s game with the top offense in the NHL with 4.14 goals per game. Vancouver had one of the worst defenses in the league last year. They have looked much improved at the start of this season, but they are still giving up 3.00 goals per game. Washington’s high-powered superstars should be able to take advantage and get some points on the board.

Adjusted lines

The fact that Washington has the top offense in the NHL is surprising considering how much their depth forwards have struggled to produce. Prior to Friday’s game against the Florida Panthers, the Caps had gotten only two goals from the bottom six and both had come in the season-opener. After seeing his team go down 4-1 against Florida, head coach Todd Reirden shuffled up the lines and it seemed to create a spark for the offense.

Reirden indicated Sunday he will stick with those lines and he kept them together for Monday’s morning skate:

Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Devante Smith-Pelly
Chandler Stephenson – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana – Lars Eller – Brett Connolly
Dmitrij Jaskin – Nic Dowd – Andre Burakovsky

Vrana, Connolly and Smith-Pelly all scored after the change. Per the Caps’ PR team, the third line of Vrana, Eller and Connolly produced two goals, eight shot attempts and allowed just three shot attempts in over six minutes of five-on-five play.

Special teams

In addition to having the top offense in the NHL, the Caps also boast the top power play. With the extra man, the Caps are producing on 38.5-percent of their opportunities. That is most likely not a sustainable number, but it does show the power play is as good as ever.

The Canucks come into this game ranked eighth on the penalty kill at 83.9-percent and they will be the latest team to try and slow down a power play that is really starting to click with John Carlson seemingly developing into one of the top blue liners in the NHL.

Remember me?

Vancouver’s star rookie Elias Pettersson is still in concussion protocol and will not play in Monday’s game, but there is another talented youngster who will the Caps will need to watch out for in Brock Boeser.

Boeser was in a dead heat with New York Islanders forward Matt Barzal for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year last season before an injury forced him to miss the last month of the season.

In two career games against Washington, Boeser has recorded three assists. He has had a bit of a slower start to the season with five points thus far, but he is a dynamic talent who the Caps’ defense will have to account for.

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NHL goalie for a day: Gavin McHale suits up as emergency goalie for the Caps in Winnipeg

NHL goalie for a day: Gavin McHale suits up as emergency goalie for the Caps in Winnipeg

Wednesday’s game in Winnipeg was a complete nightmare in terms of injuries for the Caps. There was a silver lining, however, as the Caps' nightmare turned into a dream night for local goalie Gavin McHale.

Prior to the game, the team announced Pheonix Copley would get the surprise start due to an upper-body injury to Braden Holtby. Head coach Todd Reirden said after the game that Holtby suffered the injury while working on the ice with goalie coach Scott Murray earlier in the day.

There is an emergency goalie available at every game for either team in case of situations such as the one the Caps faced Wednesday. The most famous example came in March when Scott Foster, a 36-year-old accountant, not only dressed for the Chicago Blackhawks but actually had to play when the team lost both Anton Forsberg and Collin Delia to injury.

With only one healthy goalie on the roster and no time to recall anyone from Hershey to get to Winnipeg, the Caps had to call on Winnipeg’s emergency goalie. Enter Winnipeg native McHale.

To their credit, the Caps made the best of a bad situation and welcomed McHale with open arms.

“I think the biggest thing is just every guy in here was so nice to me and made me feel so good, just to be a good person, it’s a really important piece of what hockey players are,” McHale said. “This is a pretty successful team last year so to be welcomed in like that in a bit of a crazy situation was a pretty nice feeling.”

“Pretty successful last year”? OK, bit of an understatement there, but sure.

Anyway….

McHale, 31, is the goaltending coach for the women’s hockey team at the University of Manitoba. The last time he played competitive hockey was in 2014-15 as a member of the Warren Mecs from the South Eastern Manitoba Hockey League.

He also may or may not be a Jets fan.

“I’m not at liberty to say that right now,” McHale said.

Interestingly enough, lightning has struck twice for McHale as this was not the first time he has been called upon to be a backup in an NHL game. He suited up for the Colorado Avalanche in February as the emergency goalie when Jonathan Bernier appeared to suffer an injury against the Jets. Somehow, McHale did not get to keep his jersey from that night. This time, hopefully he will able to save his Caps sweater as a keepsake.

“If I get to keep it, it’s getting framed really fast,” McHale said. “There’s a couple puck marks on it too actually surprisingly.”

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Injuries hit Capitals hard in 3-1 loss to Winnipeg

Injuries hit Capitals hard in 3-1 loss to Winnipeg

The Capitals were already facing one of the toughest back-to-back challenges in the NHL. Then they found out their starting goalie would not play and less than nine minutes into the game lost their No. 1 center. 

That about summed up a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday. The last time an NHL team swept a back-to-back set of games against the Jets and Minnesota Wild was 2012. 

Washington played well enough taking a 1-0 lead on a Jakub Vrana goal in the first period and the game was tied until 12:51 of the third period when a shot by Ben Chiarot skipped past goalie Pheonix Copley. The Jets added an empty-net goal to seal the win. 

The loss is one thing. Winnipeg is a tough place to play and maybe the favorite to come out of the Western Conference. But injuries have begun to mount and that’s the big takeaway. 

Holtby showed up to the rink Wednesday morning and it was assumed he’d play after Copley won the game in St. Paul against the Wild. Instead, Holtby was ruled out with an upper-body injury and the Capitals had to sign an emergency goalie – Gavin McHale, a 31-year-old assistant coach for a local women’s college hockey team in Winnipeg. That is less than ideal. 

Holtby’s injury might not be a big deal. You’ll know if Washington recalls top prospect Ilya Samsonov from AHL Hershey for Friday’s game in Denver against the Colorado Avalanche. 

“That was this morning. [Holtby] came over with our goalie coach and did a skate this morning and was not able to back up tonight or play,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “So he was kind of a game-time decision and he wasn’t able to participate tonight.”

Holtby will be re-evaluated Thursday after he gets continuing treatment for his injury. There has to be concern about Kuznetsov, who took an elbow to the face at 8:52 of the first period from Jets forward Brandon Tanev. Kuznetsov left the game and did not return. 

That left the Caps shorthanded most of the night with Lars Eller playing center alongside Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson on the top line. Ovechkin ended up playing 24:21. Eller played 18:48 and Backstrom 21:41. Not having Kuznetsov would be an issue. He’s not a player they can replace for long. 

“Was more precautionary,” Reirden said. “Obviously a blow to the head. We had to continue to evaluate him tomorrow, but we needed to make sure he didn’t return to the game.”

Washington, of course, could look to last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs when they missed Backstrom for Game 6 during the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a hand injury and the first three games against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

Oshie was the final blow. He was slammed to the ice by Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey and the back of his head hit the ice. Reirden compared the play to a hit by Florida Panthers defenseman Michael Matheson on Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson. He was suspended two games on Oct. 15.  

Oshie certainly didn’t look right. He had to stay on the ice as the Caps pushed for the tying goal with the net empty down 2-1. But it took a while for him to get back to his skates and then he wasn’t able to jump on a loose puck in the slot moments before Winnipeg put the game away at the other end of the ice with an empty-net goal. 

The result is one thing for the Capitals (8-7-3), who are still struggling to generate multiple wins in a row. The status of their three key players is more important after a 1-1-0 start to a four-game road trip. 

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