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6 observations from the Capitals' first 10 games of 2018-19 NHL season

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6 observations from the Capitals' first 10 games of 2018-19 NHL season

Now 10 games into the season, the Capitals are 5-3-2 and sit fourth in the Metropolitan Division. We don’t know everything about this Caps team just yet, but here are some observations from the first 10 matchups.

1. The Caps are still adjusting to a new head coach

A 5-3-2 record may not be what you envisioned for the defending champs when they returned almost the exact same roster this season. Some may call it a hangover, but I see this more as a product of adjusting to a new coach.

Some people get it in their head that hockey is a simple game. Players get on the ice and “do that hockey,” and head coaches are just there to set lines and pull a goalie. It is way, way more complicated than that.

It is no coincidence that the most dominant aspect of Washington’s game to this point has been the power play. The power play is run by assistant coach Blaine Forsythe who ran it last year as well. It’s also why I’m not overly concerned about the defense allowing 3.60 goals per game just yet. Reid Cashman is in charge of the defensemen now, and with Reirden behind the bench, I trust those two to be able to figure out the defense.

Even when a team is familiar with the new head coach, as the Caps were with Todd Reirden, it still takes time to adjust to that new coach’s system. Washington is still very much in that process as evidenced by the extreme highs and lows of the first 10 games.

2. The offense is relying too much on the power play

Just like I am not concerned with that the Caps’ 25th ranked defense, I’m also not celebrating their 2nd ranked offense. The offense is being propped up by a power play that is producing at an incredible 37.1-percent. While I think it is safe to assume the penalty kill and the defense will improve over time, I think it is also safe to think the power play is not going to continue to produce at that rate, and I’m not sure where that leaves the offense.

Washington has scored only 21 goals at 5-on-5 this season which ranks 14th in the NHL.

Those hot starts for the team's stars? That’s being propped up by the power play as well.

Evgeny Kuznetsov has 15 points, Alex Ovechkin has 14, Nicklas Backstrom has 13 and T.J. Oshie has 10. If you take away the power play points, however, that leaves Kuznetsov with seven, Ovechkin with six, Backstrom with five and Oshie with eight. Both Kuznetsov and Backstrom are still looking for their first goals at five-on-five of the season.

The Caps have been held without a power play goal in three of the first seven games. In those three games, they are 0-2-1. We know the penalty kill across the league is going to improve and penalties are going to decrease as the season goes along until the playoffs when the referees swallow the whistles. Washington needs more five-on-five production than what they are currently getting.

3. Jakub Vrana is the best choice to replace Tom Wilson on the top line

With Tom Wilson suspended, Reirden has tried to replace him with Brett Connolly, Chandler Stephenson, Devante Smith-Pelly and Jakub Vrana  Vrana may have only played there for one game, but he is the obvious choice at this point, and he should stay there for as long as Wilson remains out.

The most important thing Wilson brings to the top line is his ability to win puck battles, which helps generate more offense for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Vrana not only is the most offensively skilled of the players Reirden cycled through the right wing of the top line, but he also did a tremendous job fighting for pucks in his first crack at in Saturday’s game against Calgary.

An Ovechkin – Kuznetsov – Vrana line looks like an offensive-heavy line and it was last year. Vrana, however, looks like he has a bit more grit in his game this season. He’s not going to win board battles by playing physically, but he showed he can still win the puck with his speed and a quick stick. He can win those battles and add an extra bit of offense to boot so that top line job should be his.

4. John Carlson is a legitimate superstar

In 10 games, Carlson has five multi-point games, is tied for first among all defenseman with five goals and is tied for first among defensemen in points with Morgan Rielly, who has played one more game than Carlson.

Detractors will say he’s not great at defense and point to the disastrous turnover he had against Edmonton. Yes, there are times when he is prone to making those type of gaffes, but if you’re using that one example to define him, you’re missing everything else he is doing.

Carlson is averaging 26:00 minutes per game, the third most in the league. That’s more than Ryan Suter, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, etc. Clearly, Reirden trusts Carlson on both ends of the ice.

5. Pheonix Copley is the backup… for now

After earning his first NHL win on Saturday, I wrote an article on how the backup goalie job, one of the few questions surrounding Washington this season, was settled. Copley has played well in all three of his appearances and has numbers comparable to what Braden Holtby has managed thus far (.882 save percentage to Holtby’s .888, 3.55 GAA to Holtby’s 3.41).

But that may have been premature, as I am not so sure the team is sold yet.

Copley made just two starts in the first 10 games. If he starts 20-percent of the games this season, that will give him 17 starts and Holtby 65. That’s pretty much the bare minimum you would want Copley to start, and that’s at the beginning of the season when you are not too concerned about the standings yet.

When it comes to a backup, the real question you need to ask is if something happened to Holtby in the playoffs, would you trust Copley to start? If the answer to that question is no, then you can’t say the backup role is settled.

Would you trust Copley to start a regular season game? Yes. That much he has established. But would you trust Copley to start a playoff game? I’m not sure we have an answer to that question just yet.

6. Significant roster moves are on the horizon

Travis Boyd is nearing a return from LTIR, and Wilson will return from suspension sometime in November depending on the ruling from the independent arbitrator. That means Reirden and general manager Brian MacLellan are going to have to make some tough decisions fairly soon.

Has Dmitrij Jaskin shown enough for the team to keep him? There is some offensive upside there we haven’t seen yet and he is starting to play much better than when he first came.

Will Nathan Walker be headed back to Hershey? Walker’s speed and effort make him dangerous on the forecheck, but that can also lead to reckless mistakes, which is likely why we have only seen him play three games.

How much will Boyd and Nic Dowd split time? Boyd and Dowd were competing for the role of fourth line center in the preseason. Dowd had that role all to himself for the first 10 games of the season, and, while he played fairly well, he certainly did not do enough to earn a stranglehold on that spot.

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Capitals and Bruins put on a show worthy of Stanley Cup playoffs

Capitals and Bruins put on a show worthy of Stanley Cup playoffs

WASHINGTON — There are only a handful of nights like Wednesday during the course of an NHL season. 
 
Players and coaches grind their way through 82 games with one running into the next. Sometimes, for the very best teams, the Stanley Cup playoffs can seem like a desert mirage off in the far distance. 
 
The Capitals and Bruins reminded us what the spring will bring during Washington’s 3-2 win on Wednesday. The NHL’s two best teams gave us physical play, great goaltending and world-class skill all in one wildly entertaining package. 
 
“No matter where you are in the standings, games against those teams, Boston, Tampa, games like that, in a way they are measuring stick games,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “You want to see how you measure up to what they are bringing that particular year or that particular time during the season. Tonight was no different.”
 
Oshie scored twice – one after a spectacular inside-out move that stands as Washington’s goal of the year so far. John Carlson continued piling up the points with an assist and the game-winning goal in the third period off a pass from Nicklas Backstrom. 
 
These Capitals, playing against a Bruins team that came within a game of the Stanley Cup last season, continue to show they measure up. The roster has turned over some, but the fight hasn’t gone out of the 2018 championship team yet. 
 
“The crowd was into it a little bit more than your average game,” Carlson said. “I think both teams were flying around, going that extra step to hit someone all the time and that sort of thing. It was a fun game, it was fun to play in. Still not playoffs.”
 
No, not yet. Carlson has been through all this before. He has played on three teams that won the Presidents’ Trophy (2009-10, 2015-16, 2016-07) and none of them made it out of the second round of the playoffs. 
 
The Capitals are just happy to be where they are, now five points clear of Boston for the NHL’s best record and with a nine-point lead in the Metropolitan Division over the New York Islanders and the rest of their rivals. 
 
But they know none of it will matter in mid-April. The slate gets wiped clean and they will have to beat the Islanders or the Hurricanes or the Flyers or maybe the Penguins – isn’t it always the Penguins - four times in seven games. And then they’d have do it again with one of those teams in the second round. Only then would they even get a crack at these Bruins - or maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning - once more in the Eastern Conference Final. 
 
There are still 49 games to go before all of that and upsets are a fact of life in the playoffs so you might as well enjoy the journey to get there. So far, Washington (23-5-5, 51 points) is off to the second-best start in team history through 33 games. 
 
Only the 2015-16 Presidents’ Trophy winner was better at 25-6-2 with 52 points. That group also led the Islanders by nine points in the Metro Division race at this point in the season. It’s a comfortable place to be and a nice cushion for the endless, cold nights of winter when illness or injuries strike and the schedule wears you down and you lose a couple of games in a row and frustration sets in. 
 
That will happen at some point for these Capitals. It’s inevitable over the course of a long season. But if Wednesday tells them anything, it’s that they still have that reserve of confidence to rally even against the very best teams in the league. 
 
Down 2-1 in the second period, Oshie banged home his own rebound when left alone in front. And 3:30 later he undressed the Boston defense and beat goalie Jaroslav Halak with a backhand roof shot that left the crowd unhinged and Washington ahead.  
 
It wasn’t an easy game. The Capitals had to kill five Boston power plays and their video department helped save the game by getting a Bruins goal overturned on replay after a missed offsides call. That kept the score 1-0. Washington might “own” Boston at 16-1 in the past 17 games, but no one thinks that would mean much in any playoff series. Instead, nights like this are a dress rehearsal for the games that matter most. 
 
“Our team usually plays better against teams like that, teams that work hard, play an honest, hard game structurally,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “It's fun for us to play in those games, especially in the regular season. It kind of feels more like a playoff style. We've been fortunate to have success, but there's been a lot of real close games against them the last little bit, games that make us better in the long run."

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Capitals at Lightning: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, How to Watch

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Capitals at Lightning: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, How to Watch

After winning in a thriller on Wednesday over the Boston Bruins, the Capitals look to make it two wins in a row and five of their last six when they travel to Tampa on Saturday to face the Lightning.

Earlier this season, the Capitals edged the Lightning 4-3 in an overtime thriller, a contest that saw Washington come back from a 3-1 third period deficit.

Washington currently leads the Eastern Conference with 51 points, while a slow start to 2019 leaves the Lightning with just 33.

Here's how to catch the action. 

Capitals-Lightning: How to Watch

What: Game 34 of the NHL regular season

Who: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning

When: Wednesday, December 14, 2019, at 7 p.m.

Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Florida

TV Channel: Capitals-Lightning game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports channel finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals-Lightning on NBC Sports live stream page.

Radio: Caps Radio 24/7

Capitals-Lightning TV Schedule

6:00 PM: Caps FaceOff Live

6:30 PM: Caps Pregame Live

7:00 PM: Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

9:30 PM: Caps Postgame Live

Capitals-Bruins Lightning Injury Report

Capitals: None

Lightning: Braydon Coburn, D (lower body, out indefinitely)

Capitals-Lightning Players to Watch

T.J. Oshie, W, Capitals: Oshie dazzled in the Caps victory on Wednesday, finishing with a pair of goals, including this beauty. After not scoring in the four games prior, Oshie will look to continue his hot hand into Saturday's contest against Tampa.

Steven Stamkos, C, Lightning: After a six-game stretch without scoring, Stamkos has found the back of the net four times in the past three games. He'll look to avenge a pointless showing that he had during the Lightning's November loss to Washington.

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