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The biggest ‘what ifs’ in Capitals history: What if Lars Eller never scored the 2OT goal?

The biggest ‘what ifs’ in Capitals history: What if Lars Eller never scored the 2OT goal?

This week NBC Sports Washington is looking at some of the biggest “what ifs” for the Capitals. Last week, we looked at what ifs for the season. This week, we are looking at some of the bigger what ifs from franchise history.
 
Today’s what-if: What if Lars Eller had not delivered the game-winning goal in double overtime of Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets?
 
Lars Eller scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, but that arguably was not the most important goal he scored during that 2018 postseason.
 
Down 2-0 in the first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Eller scored the double-overtime winner to give Washington its first win. It was a fluky one that bounced off a number of body parts on its way into the net, but it still counted. But what if he had not scored that goal and the Caps had lost Game 3?
 
While Washington was able to erase a 2-0 deficit to win four straight against Columbus and win the series, it’s hard to believe they could have done the same thing if down 3-0. At that time, despair would have started to sink in. 

RELATED: WHAT IF THE CAPS HADN'T WON THE 2004 NHL DRAFT LOTTERY?
 
In terms of moves head coach Barry Trotz could have made, he would have had to get creative because the standard panic move of a goalie change would not cut it. Philipp Grubauer started Games 1 and 2 and was replaced by Braden Holtby in Game 3. Going back to Grubauer was not a realistic option at that point. Chances are, Washington would have suffered a first-round exit.
 
Considering Trotz left after winning a Stanley Cup, it is hard to imagine him staying after a first-round exit. So with another year of falling short of expectations in the postseason and in need of a new head coach, this is the point where I believe Brian MacLellan would have had to seriously consider dismantling the team. 
 
I don’t think there was ever a scenario where Alex Ovechkin would be traded considering what he means to the franchise, but I think everyone else would have been on the table. After all, by 2018 what reason would the team have to believe the core was good enough to make a deep playoff run? It had not done it after four seasons with Trotz and about as loaded a lineup as a team can have.
 
It would not have meant the end of the Ovechkin era as he would have stayed, but it probably would have meant the end in terms of the Ovechkin-led Caps pursuing a Cup. By that time, it would have been clear it was time to start over and it would have meant a very long 2018 offseason.

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Brent Johnson calls for rookie Vitek Vanecek to replace Braden Holtby in goal for struggling Capitals

Brent Johnson calls for rookie Vitek Vanecek to replace Braden Holtby in goal for struggling Capitals

After the 5-2 Game 2 loss to the New York Islanders Friday night in a Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series, Rob Carlin asked the Caps Postgame Live crew how they would fix Washington's error-ridden performances seen in the first round so far. 

Brent Johnson knows the pressures that comes with playing in net during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but that doesn't mean he'll sympathize with the end results. As a goaltender for the Capitals for four seasons in the mid-2000s, Johnson has vast experience with the ups and downs that come with the position. But he had a pretty radical answer to Carlin's question: Bench veteran goalie Braden Holtby, the man who helped Washington win a Stanley Cup in 2018, for a rookie who has never played in a regular-season NHL game: Vitek Vanecek. 

"I know how they can shake it up. I know how they can shake it up. Right?" Johnson said. "Vitek Vanecek. Right there. That’s it. Hey. You know what? Bold decision. Bold decision. Do something bold. You never know. I’ve seen it happen in the playoffs thus far."

To call for Washington's veteran netminder to take a seat on the bench for a rookie who hasn't even played in the NHL yet is more than bold. Johnson's proclamation left Carlin yelling "Whoa!" and fellow panelist Al Koken saying he didn't know how to top that one. Alan May simply smiled and shook his head. 

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The Capitals wouldn't be in this position at all had rookie Ilya Samsonov never gotten injured during the long NHL break back home in Russia in an off-ice incident. The 23-year-old had a breakout season for Washington to get in the rotation in what's been an up-and-down year for Holtby. Samsonov had a .913 save percentage and won 16 of his 26 games in net this season. Vanecek, on the other hand, just got called up for the postseason after playing all season for the AHL's Hersey Bears.  

Nonetheless, the Caps have to figure out something to get a spark going for Game 3 against the Isles at noon Sunday. Johnson's solution was by far the most radical suggested, but everyone agreed changes needed to be made or the season could end far sooner than anyone anticipated. 

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Capitals 'hoping' Nicklas Backstrom can play in Game 3 vs. Islanders, but status remains uncertain

Capitals 'hoping' Nicklas Backstrom can play in Game 3 vs. Islanders, but status remains uncertain

While Capitals fans would take any good news they can get after the team fell behind 2-0 to the Islanders in a 5-2 loss on Friday night, there was no concrete update on center Nicklas Backstrom’s injury status postgame.

Washington coach Todd Reirden said he was hopeful for Backstrom’s return in Game 3 against New York on Sunday in Toronto. That was about all he was providing to reporters after the game. 

After a late hit from Islanders captain Anders Lee, Backstrom left Game 1 early and was ruled out for Game 2 as he remained in concussion protocol. Backstrom’s teammates and coaches were displeased by the late hit, calling it “dirty” and “predatory” after the fact.

The Caps struggled on Friday without Backstrom in an all-around sloppy performance. Reirden commented on the impact of losing the star center following Game 2.

“Without Backstrom, it's not an easy situation and getting Lars Eller back in there for the first time after being away from the bubble for a little bit, we have some adversity,” Reirden said. “We have to fight through. It's not going to happen easily. It never does, and we have to put more work in and match that and compete to give ourselves a chance to have some of our skill be more present in the game."

Now trailing 2-0 in the first round, the Capitals have to turn things around quickly if they hope to advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Having Backstrom back on the ice for Game 3 would certainly make their troubles easier. That is far from certain right now. 

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