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A 78 second rally turns a sure loss into the Caps first win at home

A 78 second rally turns a sure loss into the Caps first win at home

WASHINGTON -- Another sloppy defensive performance looked like it would doom the Capitals, but a furious three-goal rally in the second period turned what looked like a sure defeat into a stunning 4-3 victory, their first at home this season, over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday.

Toronto took an early lead off a short-handed goal from Kasperi Kapanen. Jonas Siegenthaler then was slow to react to a streaking Ilya Mikheyev who torched him to put the Leafs up 2-0. Jakub Vrana made it 2-1 late in the first, but Toronto looked like they had this game well in hand.

But the Caps rallied and completely turned things around in a stretch of just 1:18 in the second period.

Observations from the win

Maybe it’s not the goaltending….

We learned a lot from this game about the goaltending. First off, Braden Holtby is not the problem when it comes to keeping pucks out of the net. Obviously he has to be better than he was on Monday, but the defensive breakdowns from Monday were back again on Wednesday. The worst was a misplay by Siegenthaler who was far too slow to recognize Mikheyev streaking up the ice through the middle. When he received a pass from Kapanen it was already too late. Mikheyev easily skated around Siegenthaler to create the breakaway and the goal.

The second thing to note, Samsonov is very good and is going to be very good, but he is still raw and still developing. The biggest issue I see in his game is his tendency to overcommit. When the puck was on the side of the net, Samsonov would sell out  in anticipation of the shot. There was one instance in the first period where the puck was passed to John Tavares and Samsonov slid over so hard to cover it, he almost took himself out of the net completely. Tavares’ head was down as he tried to control the puck, but if he had his head up, he would have passed that puck back to the middle and it would have been an easy goal.

“He's extremely athletic,” Todd Reirden said after the game. “You go back to some other guys that are his size from his homeland that are active like that, one of the things they have to do when they come over is be a little bit more under control just because of the puck movement and the skill level of guys changing pucks side to side that you don't take yourself out of plays.”

To his credit, Samsonov settled down after the first period, which Reirden also noted. I wonder if it will be hard on goalie coach Scott Murray to coach two players with such contrasting styles. Holtby is the exact opposite of Samsonov with calm, cool movements that some detractors incorrectly identify as a disinterest.

So what do you do Friday? You put Holtby back in. If you don’t then you are needlessly creating a goalie controversy. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t play the backup two-straight games, but it means a heck of a lot if you go back to Samsonov after an OK, but not great game. There’s no need. Go back to Holtby and hope that he has had enough time to reset and go forward knowing you can be comfortable putting in Samsonov 25-30 games.

John Carlson is incredible

The debate is now over. For years there were still the people who would cling to their old bias and reach out to me on Twitter complaining Carlson was overrated because they saw him turn the puck over that one time a few years ago.

Carlson went from good to great in the Stanley Cup year, to elite in 2018-19 and now he has gone even beyond that. This is a superstar player.

WIth one goal and two assists, Carlson now has 14 points on the season (and was briefly leading the entire league in points). From where I was sitting in the press box, I was essentially directly down the line from him on the Jakub Vrana goal. Carlson had the puck and it looked like he had no outlet to pass whatsoever. He faked the shot, and suddenly I saw the seas part and there was a direct lane to Vrana for the one-timer. I saw it as it happened, but Carlson clearly saw it before it happened and anticipated that play. It was brilliant.

But you already knew he was good on offense. The knock on him has always been his defense, but we need to get over that. Morgan Rielly is a highly regarded defenseman across the league and someone, with 72 points last year, who received some votes and consideration for the Norris last season. No one could have watched Wednesday's game and come away thinking that Rielly is more important to his team than Carlson is. If you did, you were watching a different game than I was.

Carlson is an elite defenseman and I will say it now, he will be a Norris finalist this season.

Turning point

It took the Caps 78 seconds to turn a game that looked similar to Monday’s debacle into a win. Evgeny Kuznetsov glided into the offensive zone faster than anyone on the ice could skate and tucked the puck around the outstretched pad of Michael Hutchinson. Just 11 seconds later, Nicklas Backstrom cashed in on the hard forechecking work of T.J. Oshie. The flustered Leafs took two penalties giving Washington 1:51 of a 5-on-3 power play which Carlson scored on. Suddenly a 2-1 deficit for the Caps turned into a 4-2 lead all in a stretch of just 78 seconds.

Play of the night

Kuznetsov passed the puck up to the offensive blue line. A skating Carl Hagelin tapped it to Carlson who entered the zone, pulled back and handed it off to Kuznetsov who took over.

When Kuznetsov gets the puck there are three Maple Leaf players in front of him. He pumps the legs once and then glides in on net and somehow he is behind all three players and in alone on Hutchinson with relative ease.

This is art.

Kuznetsov’s speed virtually never changes during the play. There’s no frantic, choppy acceleration, just a smooth glide that allows him to skate in, wait out Hutchinson and tuck the puck around his outstretched pad all in seemingly one fluid motion.

Stat of the night

With one goal and two assists, Carlson now has 14 points on the season. At the time, that led the NHL. Both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl passed him later on Wednesday with multi-point performances, but for a few hours, Carlson was the league-leader in points.

Quote of the night

Todd Reirden on how he felt when the team went down 2-0:

“I have to tell you tonight I wasn't concerned when we were down 2-0. I thought they converted on a couple chances but I had a good feeling about our team tonight, that there was no panic, we stayed with our game, we built and built and built, shift after shift and it was a matter of time. I was confident in our group tonight. Despite what happened last game, I felt felt strong about it.”

So while Twitter was imploding and people were gathering the pitchforks and torches in the first period, Reirden had no doubt. That’s why coaches don’t read Twitter.

Fran predictions

Vrana had one goal and another hit the post. So close!

This could explain what happened in those 78 seconds.

Ovechkin (1 assist), Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) and Oshie (1 assist) did combine for four points. Carlson meanwhile had one goal and two assists. Nice job!

The cow was in section 225 or, as I like to call him, Sir Loin.

Wrong.

What the heck are “lizard” and “spock?” Is this a thing? Have I been playing rock, paper, scissors wrong?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What does the Caps' future in net look like?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What does the Caps' future in net look like?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Joshua Cohen writes: How will the Caps keep our best players after their contracts expire after this year?

Justin Cade writes: At this point, what do you think the chances are the Nicklas Backstrom will be in a Caps sweater next season and beyond?

Charles Gabriel writes: With Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana needing new contracts in two years, and Evgeny Kuznetsov showing he can be the same kind of center needed to play with Ovechkin, do the caps consider not signing Backstrom or Holtby this season?

William Dunlap writes: Do you think the Caps will move on from Holtby after this season?

Samuel Resnick writes: How much do you think it will cost to resign Holtby or Backstrom?

Clearly the contract situations for Backstrom and Holtby is on everyone's mind. I do not see the team letting Backstrom walk. It may cost the team more money than perhaps Brian MacLellan would otherwise want to spend on a 32-year-old forward because, at $6.7 million per year, Backstrom has been a steal for a long time now. The Caps will have to pay up. But so long as Backstrom wants to be back, I think the team will do everything it can to get this done.

Holtby, on the other hand, is more complicated. He is due a raise from his $6.1 million per year cap hit. That is too much money considering the team is so tight against the cap, his replacement is already in the NHL and the Seattle expansion draft essentially makes it impossible to keep both Holtby and Samsonov together since the team will only be able to protect one from Seattle.

Craig Boden writes: With the Braden Holtby contract up next year and 3 young goalies in the system, (Ilya Samsonov, Pheonix Copley, and Vitek Vanecek) what does the Capitals Goalie tandem look like for the 2020/21 season?

As noted above, I believe Holtby is gone and Samsonov will take over as the No. 1. As for who his backup will be, I actually would not be surprised to see the team look outside the organization to find a high-end backup given Samsonov's inexperience. Someone like a Thomas Greiss or...ahem...Jaroslav Halak who will come in as the backup, but will still be expected to play heavy minutes. I am not sure the team will have enough confidence in a Samsonov/Copley or Samsonov/Vanecek tandem given  the inexperience there.

Alex Graninger writes: Why was Ilya Samsonov chosen over Vitek Vanecek?

Because Samsonov is better. The Caps have thought so for a long time. Why else would they draft Samsonov in the first round of the 2015 draft just one year after drafting Vanecek in the second round?

Dan Graninger writes: What happens if the Capitals move Ilya Samsonov down to the AHL for the expansion draft and bring up Vitek Vanecek instead, protect Holtby and leave Vanecek unprotected? Also, what are the chances that, if the Caps keep Holtby and Samsonov and only protect Holtby that Seattle would even pick Samsonov? Granted a lot could happen in Samsonov’s play between now and the draft, but surely there’s bound to be other goalies that aren’t protected by other teams who have more experience and are better than Samsonov, right?

Whether Samsonov is in the NHL or AHL is irrelevant. The Caps could send him to the ECHL and he would still be available in the expansion draft. The rules leave all first and second-year players exempt, but this is based on their professional contracts. The AHL is a professional league and playing there counts towards a player's eligibility.

As for the second part of your question, if Samsonov is left exposed I would put the chances he is taken near 100-percent. Barring some sort of catastrophic injury or precipitous fall-off in play, an expansion team is not going to pass on the chance to take a young starting goalie. Granted, we all thought Vegas would take Philipp Grubauer in the 2017 expansion draft and they took Nate Schmidt instead, but not everyone was sold on Grubauer as a No. 1 NHL goalie. I don't think there is much question as to Samsonov's potential.

Trenten Stemple writes: Will we see Phoenix Copley back in the lineup this season?

It's very doubtful. Between Copley, Vanecek and Samsonov, Copley has the largest cap hit at $1.1 million which is a major obstacle for the team this year. In addition, he is the only one of the three who is not waiver exempt. He had to clear waivers to get to the AHL at the start of the season so that means he can only be in the NHL for 10 games and 30 days before having to clear again.

Getting Samsonov playing time is more important than trying to squeeze Copley back into the roster. This would only happen if there was an injury.

Kaitlyn Carter writes: Who do you think is the most underrated and under talked about player on the team?

Michal Kempny. John Carlson is the best defenseman on the team, there is no doubt about that. But when Kempny was lost for the playoffs and the start of this season, he left a gaping hole on the defense that they just could not figure out how to plug. Kempny is the team's top defensive defenseman and it is fair to say the Caps don't win the Stanley Cup without him in 2018.

Kert Shipway writes: Why is the power play not working? It appears to me they are not moving as much as other successful teams.

The Caps' power play currently ranks 5th in the NHL at 24.3-percent. Seems to be working just fine to me.

Matt Greffen writes: Who do you think is the most valuable player we have acquired during the off season? Either through trade or a prospect we recently brought up to the Caps?

Radko Gudas. He has proven himself to be a very capable defenseman and is now playing in the top four with Dmitry Orlov. Considering the struggles Nick Jensen has had, where would this team be had they just traded Matt Niskanen for draft picks and not acquired the right-shot Gudas in the deal?

Ultimately, I like Gudas on the third pair and not in the top four. I think that could get exposed in the playoffs. For now, however, it works and the team is fortunate to have him.

Alex Graninger writes: The Caps penalty kill is on fire right now -- what are they doing right? How can they keep this up for the rest of the season once other teams start figuring out how to adjust their power play units to score against the caps PK?

The penalty kill has found the right mix of speed, skill and defense. The team just could not get that formula right last season and tried players ill-suited for the job such as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. The team is showing great situational awareness by getting into passing lanes, knowing when to block shots and knowing when to carry the puck and when to clear it.

Jonas Siegenthaler has been a huge boost for the defense and has more short-handed ice time than any player on the team. He deserves a lot of credit for the team's improvement there.

Also of note, and this goes to the second part of your question, no team in the NHL has blocked more shots than the Caps to this point. Because of that, I think you may see the penalty kill regress midway through the season when those shot blocks really start to wear a team down. Maybe Tom Wilson won't be as eager to throw himself in front of a shot on a Monday night in January as he is now.

Having players like Wilson, Hagelin and Lars Eller up top, however, always keeps the threat of a counter in the minds of the power play. That prevents teams from being as aggressive as they would otherwise hope. I think the penalty kill is in good shape to remain in the top 10 for much of the season.

Nick C. writes: With all the upgrades to the Caps’ PK and defense, do you see Brian MacLellan making a move before the deadline if needed?

Jake Livermon writes: Being so tight against the cap, my general line of thought is that the Caps will be silent in the trade market around the deadline. What if any moves do you think Brian MacLellan will make around the deadline?

I touched on this a bit above, but the biggest need this team has is a top-four right-shot defenseman. Gudas is fine for now, but the playoffs always expose a team's weaknesses and that second pair looks like the biggest hole in the lineup for me. The third pair has also been a bit inconsistent, but moving Gudas down to that pair should help solidify it if the team can find someone to plug on the right next to Dmitry Orlov.

The question is where the heck will they find the cap space?

That's a tough question to answer. They couldn't even find the cap space on Friday to skate four full forward lines. Forgetting the fact that top-four defensemen are hard to find, especially righties, figuring out how to fit one under the cap could be tough. The team may have to make another Kempny swing-for-the-fences type of deal and trade for a cheap defenseman that MacLellan thinks has a high upside.

Alex Graninger writes: The Bruins played awesome hockey in October, but now seem to be lacking. Will the Caps’ play decline after having such a great October? Why? How can the Caps prevent a decline from happening?

Every team in the league will have peaks and valleys over 82 games. It's inevitable. Very rarely do you see a team like Tampa Bay last year that was the best in the league pretty much from start to finish. Some would argue that was actually bad for them and that you need that adversity to prepare you for the playoffs, so be careful what you wish for.

I do not anticipate that the Caps will be able to keep this pace up the entire season. It is hard for players to go 100-percent every single game with their hits, their board battles, their shot blocks, etc. It takes a toll. They play too physical a brand of hockey to keep that up through June. In December I anticipate things to drop off a bit heading into January before starting to pick back up again in mid to late February.

Jim Bartlett writes: When will they get rid of fighting in hockey?

Not a fan of what happened on Monday, huh?  When I was young I thought fighting would be a part of hockey forever. Now, I believe we will see an end to fighting in the next 10-15 years. The culture is shifting. We have already seen the effect it has had on the NFL. There was a point where the NFL looked untouchable in terms of its popularity and hold over America. While it still remains the top sports league by far, it has certainly fallen a notablycloser to the pack in recent years as America just does not have the same appetite for big hits as it once did. That  is true in hockey as well where the game has become much faster and more-skilled than it was 10 years ago.

With what we know about concussions and head injuries, the end to fighting is, in my mind, inevitable. Everything the NHL does to promote player safety is undermined by the fact that this is a league in which punches thrown could earn you a stern talking to from the refs and nothing more. That's not true in any other sprot. It is fro hockey. You can say phsycial play has always been a part of hockey culture, but at some point you have to realize the culture is changing.

I'd give it 10-15 years, long enough for the younger generation to take more control of the game from the older generation that will never give up hockey fights unless they are forced.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

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Capitals await word on possible Garnet Hathaway suspension

Capitals await word on possible Garnet Hathaway suspension

ARLINGTON — Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway was still waiting to hear about a possible suspension following his spitting incident Monday in a 5-2 win against the Anaheim Ducks
 
Hathaway spit on defenseman Erik Gudbranson in the final minute of the second period against the Ducks at the tail end of a brawl seconds after Chandler Stephen’s goal made it 3-0. The NHL Department of Player Safety is not involved in any decision for supplemental discipline. Instead, the NHL’s Hockey Operations Department will make the determination. Washington coach Todd Reirden said he was disappointed in Hathaway's action, but defended the player's character, too, after the game Monday. 

"I definitely appreciated that and it went a long way," Hathaway said. "Just to echo what [Reirden] said, that is not how I see myself either. Not the kind of character I want to uphold either. So it is something I regret and it was nice Todd said that stuff."
 
The Capitals play the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Tight against the salary cap and already playing with a short roster, coach Todd Reirden said there are moves coming to ease that crunch whether Hathaway is suspended or not. 
 
"I think you always have to prepare,” Reirden said. “We're going to be making a few transactions here later today and tomorrow morning, and it'll all kind of combine into the decisions that we make."
 
One move could be placing forward Carl Hagelin on long-term injured reserve. He sustained an upper-body injury in a Nov. 7 game against the Florida Panthers. Hagelin must miss 10 games and 24 calendar days, however, to make that move retroactive. He skated again in a light blue non-contact jersey at practice on Tuesday. 
 
That almost certainly rules Hagelin out for the Rangers game. That would be his seventh game in a row out of the lineup. Because of the 10/24 rule and a compressed schedule, Hagelin would actually have to miss through the Nov. 30 game against the Detroit Red Wings, which would be an 11th game missed.
 
The Detroit contest is the beginning of a four-game road trip that continues in California. Hagelin would be eligible to play again Dec. 3 at the San Jose Sharks.   
 
Another option is a player with a more concerning injury. Fourth-line center Nic Dowd had a serious cut on his left hand against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 13. He has missed three games in a row, but the injury is considered more serious. Dowd would not be able to return until a Dec. 9 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. 
 
“He's a little bit more serious than we anticipated, so he's still not on the ice,” Reirden said. “I'm going to wait to get final word from our trainer and I'll speak on that when I have that news.”
 
Dowd has a salary-cap hit of $750,000. Hagelin is at $2.75 million. The Capitals are down to $259,059 current daily cap space, according to the web site CapFriendly.com, and has been juggling players between the NHL and AHL roster (goalie Ilya Samsonov, defenseman Tyler Lewington, Travis Boyd, Vitek Vanacek, Liam O’Brien) thanks to the untimely injuries to Dowd and Hagelin. 
 
A possible Hathaway suspension complicates that further. The Capitals are headed to New York on Tuesday afternoon, but NHL executives are busy with the General Managers' meetings in Toronto so it is possible they don't find out for sure until Tuesday night or even Wednesday morning. 
 
“I haven't really thought about it, but you never want to sit and leave guys hanging and not be able to help out,” Hathaway said. “So this is a group that it would be unfortunate if I wasn't [playing], but they are a team that can handle themselves and not worried about them in the outcomes of games." 

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