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Alex Ovechkin sets tone for a confident Caps team with the message ‘not suck back to back’

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Alex Ovechkin sets tone for a confident Caps team with the message ‘not suck back to back’

A year ago, the Capitals found themselves in a very different situation than the one they find themselves in now. After another gut-wrenching playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, this time at home in Game 7, and with a number of key players gone from the roster, it looked like the team’s championship window had closed.

All the questions surrounding the team led captain Alex Ovechkin to declare to reporters, “We’re not going to be suck.”

Ovechkin backed up those words by leading Washington to its first Stanley Cup title.

On Friday, the first day of training camp, Ovechkin had a new message: “Not suck back to back.”

The message emphasizes the confidence the Caps have in their return to the ice. Now Stanley Cup champions, there are no more questions about past failures, there is no more bemoaning lost chances, no more wondering if this team will ever reach its full potential.

“I feel confident in our game,” T.J. Oshie said. “The higher the competition, the better it’s going to be for us.”

“We have so much to build off,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “This gave us confidence and if we can keep that going it’s going to be a good year again.”

That confidence stems not only from winning the Cup, but in returning almost the exact same roster to the ice for the new season.

That sentiment was echoed by general manager Brian MacLellan.

“I think the organization feels a little bit different,” he said. “There’s less tension or pressure. It doesn’t mean that we don’t want to win or repeat or anything like that, it just feels different.”

For years, the Caps would enter the season as one of the Stanley Cup favorites, but would come far short of those expectations as they continually failed to get out of even the second round.

Whether or not the pressure played a factor in their struggles is a matter of debate, but last season, without the pressure of lofty expectations, the team excelled.

As the defending champs, the expectations return, but the pressure does not.

Even with the target on their backs, the team enters camp for the first time unburdened by the pressure of proving it can go all the way.

“I think the edge has been taken off us a little bit and we’re just playing,” MacLellan said. “We’re just going to go out and play.”

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5 takeaways from the neutral arbitrator’s ruling on Tom Wilson

5 takeaways from the neutral arbitrator’s ruling on Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson finally made his season debut on Tuesday after his 20-game suspension was reduced to 14 games. The suspension was reduced by neutral arbitrator Shyam Das, who issued his decision Tuesday in a 42-page ruling.

Wilson was originally suspended for a hit he delivered to St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist.

Just as Bettman did in the first appeal, Das sheds light on several fascinating aspects of the process and various arguments used. Here are my five biggest takeaways from Tuesday’s ruling.

Think Sundqvist hit shows that Wilson is a dirty player? No one else seems to

Wilson has developed a bit of a reputation among some fans for being a dirty player and many have used this incident as evidence of that. Behind closed doors, however, it seems like everyone is in agreement that Wilson was making a hockey play and just missed.

Das wrote, “The NHLPA stresses that Wilson had no intent to injure or target Sundqvist's head, as [head of the Department of Player Safety George Parros] acknowledged. It is agreed that he was making a hockey play. His hit, even assuming it was a violation of Rule 48 -- which the NHLPA disputes -- was off ‘by inches,’ as recognized by the DPS.”

It used to be fairly common for a player who cut across the middle in the offensive zone to get blown up by the opposition. It’s not that way anymore, but there’s nobody seems to question that Wilson was simply back checking and going after the puck carrier and not simply head-hunting.

Careful what you put in an email

In a footnote, Das detailed how the NHLPA tried to argue both Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly attempted to influence the DPS’s decision of whether or not to suspend Wilson.

The NHLPA cites an email Daly sent to Parros at 5:05 p.m. on September 30, 2018 stating: "Looks like a big one. The Emergency Assistance Fund [which receives forfeited salary of penalized players] is going to be happy." Immediately prior to sending this email, Daly had been copied on five emails sent to Parros by other DPS personnel all stating that in their opinion Wilson had violated Rule 48. The NHLPA also cites Parros' testimony that the day before the DPS hearing on this incident he was at an unrelated meeting at which the Commissioner said something to the effect: "You're going to do the right thing or Do the right thing.

Conspiracy theorists are going to run away with this as proof that the NHL is somehow out to get the Caps, but I think it is important to note that the neutral arbitrator—the key word being neutral—did not buy the NHLPA’s argument. Das wrote, “The evidence as a whole, including Parros’ testimony, does not establish that the DPS was improperly influenced by the cited comments of League officials.”

Patrick Kaleta mattered a lota

Who is Patrick Kaleta? Kaleta is former player with an extensive history of supplementary discipline. His name appears 34 times in Das’ ruling so you know he must be important.

The NHLPA argued Kaleta was the “most appropriate comparison” to Wilson because he was suspended three times and fined once over the course of 94 games and with less total ice time. Despite his extensive history, the DPS issued a suspension of only 10 games in 2013 for a hit he delivered to the head of Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson. That 10-game suspension was reached by doubling his prior suspension of five games.

The DPS made a point of saying that because Wilson was facing discipline for the fourth time in 105 games, his history was “unprecedented.” The reason why the DPS felt that way was because it drew a distinction Wilson was suspended all four times whereas Kaleta was fined once in his four violations during the comparable period and it was not taking the fine into account. Once you add that in, it is easy to see the argument as to why the length of Wilson’s suspension seems extreme in comparison.

How the suspension went from 20 to 14

How the DPS reached 20 games for the suspension was detailed in Bettman’s ruling, but here’s a quick refresher. Parros took Wilson’s last suspension of three games and doubled it to account for the weight of a playoff game (6), tripled that number because Wilson is a repeat offender (18) and added two more games because the hit caused an injury (20).

The sticking point for Das was tripling the last suspension which Das said there was no precedent of the league doing in the past.

“I conclude that Wilson's suspension should be reduced to 14 games,” Das wrote. “I have arrived at this length by treating his most recent prior 3 playoff game suspension as the equivalent of 6 regular season games, as Parros did, doubling that based on all relevant circumstances to 12 games -- which certainly constitutes more severe punishment consistent with the CBA -- and adding 2 games, as Parros did, based on the injury to Sundqvist.”

The change was that instead of multiplying the past suspension by three, Das though it appropriate to double it instead just as the league did with Kaleta.

This wasn’t a win for Wilson

Getting Wilson back was good news for the Caps and it saves him $378,048.78 that he would have otherwise had to forfeit, but let’s be clear, this was not a win for Wilson.

A 14-game suspension is still a significant suspension and it would have felt massive had the league originally given him 14 games on Oct. 3. It just doesn’t seem that way now because the original suspension was for 20 games.

The neutral arbitrator ruled that Wilson’s hit was illegal and worthy of a significant suspension. The only issue was basically that he didn’t like the NHL’s math. Das’ ruling should in no way be considered vindication for Wilson. Everything that has been said about Wilson in the wake of the suspension remains true. He still has to change the way he plays because the next suspension will be greater. Even if the NHL is beholden to the double modifier Das determined to reach 14 games, the best case scenario for the next suspension will be 24 to 28 games depending on if the DPS takes into account the extra two games tacked on for injury or not. That’s the best case scenario. Neither he nor the team can afford that.

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Tom Wilson's return sparks Capitals to a 5-2 win at Minnesota

Tom Wilson's return sparks Capitals to a 5-2 win at Minnesota

Tom Wilson stayed on brand in his return from a long suspension.

The Capitals’ big man scored a goal and took a penalty on the same play in his first game of the season, a 5-2 win against the Minnesota Wild Tuesday night. 

Wilson won’t get the 16 games back he missed for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist. But he tried to make up for it in his debut. 

Wilson scored Washington’s second goal at 19:32 of the first period when he drove the net hard and deflected a pass from teammate Dmitry Orlov past Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk. But this being Wilson, nothing is totally uncontroversial.  

The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder was moving fast. There was no stopping him. Wilson, with some help from Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, collided with Dubnyk. The puck was already in the net, but the referee decided Wilson needed to go think about what he’d done after Dubnyk got clocked in the head. It was a two-minute goalie interference call. 

That’s an odd play rarely called. Either the goal counts or it doesn’t, but maybe because Wilson had already scored before running into Dubnyk both calls could stand. 

“It was a first for me to score and get a penalty on the same play,” Wilson told reporters in St. Paul. “I was just going hard to the net and Snarls [Orlov] put it right on my tape. It was a great pass at full speed. I was trying to do everything I could to get out of the way. I’ll take the goal and the kill went out there and got it done. It was good to see.”

It was far from Wilson’s only contribution in his first game back. He also fought Marcus Foligno at 11:58 of the second period on the faceoff after Minnesota cut a Washington lead to 3-1. He didn’t back down when asked to go by Foligno. 

“He’s a key player for our team, brings so much energy both on the ice and off the ice,” forward Andre Burakovsky said. “Huge lift for the team to get him back earlier. Didn’t expect that and I think he had a really strong game today. Obviously, he got the goal in his first game back and then some dirty works. Obviously, I think he’s a huge guy for us in PK and it showed today.”

Wilson didn’t get the assist on the goal that put the game away. Alex Ovechkin found Orlov for a one-timer on a pass from the left faceoff circle to the right. But it was Wilson driving hard toward the goal that kept a Wild defenseman with him and allowed Orlov the space to finish Ovechkin’s pass. Those little things have been missed in the 16 games Wilson was suspended. He was relentless. 

One big issue for the Capitals: The penalty kill. Wilson has been a big part of that group in recent years and without him – and, to be fair the departed Jay Beagle and the injured Brooks Orpik – Washington entered the game 29thin the NHL in penalty kill percentage (71.7 percent). Wilson wasn’t eased into anything. He played 5:23 on the penalty kill and the Capitals killed five of six Wild power plays. 

[Wilson] does a lot not just on the ice, but in our room. Adds a ton of energy. Well respected player for how he trains,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “Going through a tough time and obviously kind of a surprise for us to get him back today. We were hoping to at any point here and we were able to take advantage of a fortunate bounce for our team before even the game started. But I didn’t expect him to have as strong a game as he did." 

"Obviously able to convert on a great play on a line rush, but just the other things he did. Our penalty kill, the opposition scores a goal and, you talk about shifts after goals, not giving the team any more momentum than they’ve already gotten and he gets in a fight there. There’s a lot to like about Tom Wilson and I thought he had a strong game. It was great to have him back.”

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