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Boyd makes his case, Oshie saves the game and Vrana dazzles

Boyd makes his case, Oshie saves the game and Vrana dazzles

The Capitals are back in the win column after Saturday's 3-2 shootout win, but they almost didn't get there because of that pesky Jaroslav Halak. It took a last minute goal from T.J. Oshie and some shootout magic by Jakub Vrana. Having four full forward lines certainly helped, too.

Check out the recap of Saturday's game here.

Observations from the win

Boyd or Stephenson? Boyd is making his case

Carl Hagelin and Nic Dowd are both out with injury. Both are considered day-to-day and one or both should be returning to the lineup sooner rather than later. When that happens, the Caps are going to have to send someone back to Hershey and, with a goal against Boston, Travis Boyd is doing his best to make sure it isn't him.

In all likelihood, the decision will come down to Boyd or Chandler Stephenson again. Boyd has lost that competition earlier this season, but after Boyd's goal on Saturday I think whether to keep him in Washington or not at least warrants a discussion.

The Caps are so close to the salary cap that when both Dowd and Hagelin were out injured, the team recalled Tyler Lewington, a defenseman, because it could not afford Boyd under the cap ceiling. With things so tight, the Caps need to find a way to bank more cap space and keeping Boyd ($800,000 cap hit) over Stephenson ($1.05 million cap hit) would certainly help.

It's not just about money. Stephenson responded to Todd Reirden's preseason challenge and justified his spot in the lineup to start. He is a very fast player which is an important attirbute in today's NHL and also plays on the penalty kill which Boyd does not.

Five-on-five play matters too, however, and Boyd has far exceeded Stephenson's play in that area including his production. In 18 games and an average of 11:22 of ice time, Stephenson has 2 goals and one assist. In just seven games and 9:09 of ice time, Boyd has one goal and four assists.

Boyd produces with less playing time in fewer games and has a lower cap hit. Is the fact that Stephenson can play on the penalty kill enough to send Boyd back to Hershey? I'm not so sure.

The value of dirty goals

Don't get me wrong, Jaroslav Halak was great in this game. He made 42 saves and did a great job tracking the puck and getting in front of it to make the first save. Having said that, he was shaky with the puck all night. He could make that first save, but everything after was an adventure. He struggled to control his rebounds or the puck and that was an area the Caps needed to take advantage of, but couldn't.

Washington has one of the top offenses in the NHL and they are doing it largely with an offense that shoots off the pass. There's nothing wrong with that. Clearly it works. Making a goalie move back and forth and not allowing him to get set makes life difficult. Having said that, on nights like this where Halak is getting to everything he can see, you need dirty goals and that is one area in which the Caps are lacking.

What are dirty goals? The deflections (like Boyd's), the rebounds, the screens, the loose pucks in front. Those were the goals the Caps needed and, apart from Boyd's first-period tally, they couldn't get them. Ultiamtely the result was a win so it does not matter, but it seemed like the offense was a lot more difficult than it needed to be. There were goals to be had and opportunities in front of Halak. That is a tool the Caps need to add to their arsenal and use more often than they do.

Time to see more of Hathaway and Gudas

We are seeing more and more of Tom Wilson mixing things up lately and that's fine. It's what he does and he's very good at getting under opponents' skin. Right now it seems like we are seeing a lot of Wilson doing it and not enough of it from Garnet Hathaway or Radko Gudas. In a physical game like this one, I would like to see more of them mixing things up and less of it fall on Wilson who is a top-six, often top-line forward.

Turning point

Washington had 44 shots on goal in this game, 11 of which came in the third period. It looked like it was just not going to be the Caps' night thanks to Halak (again). Oshie, however, delivered with just 59 seconds remaining in regulation.

Play of the game

I am not a big fan of the shootout. The 3-on-3 overtime format is amazing and it seems like such a letdown when games go to the shootout. Having said that, this Jakub Vrana shootout goal was filthy.

This, however, is a close 2nd to the play of the game.

Evidently Marchand is only tough when it comes to Lars Eller.

Stat of the game

Braden Holtby has put the early season struggles behind him.

Quote of the game

Boyd on Vrana's shootout goal:

"Man, nasty. Unbelievable. I'm sure it will be all over the highlights tonight. Not only to go ahead in the shootout and put us ahead there and give us a chance to win with a [Holtby] stop, but to do it in that fashion, that's pretty cool."

Fan predictions

You guys may have overshot this one...just a bit.

Patrice Bergeron was out injured. Even so, David Pastrnak still got a goal.

https://twitter.com/LukaKneevi4/status/1195843460500262912

Boyd didn't get two points, but he did get a goal.

Keep trying. You'll get there.

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Capitals Prospect Report: Gersich takes the next step in his development

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Capitals Prospect Report: Gersich takes the next step in his development

In Brendan Leipsic's last year in the WHL, he scored 39 goals and 52 assists in just 60 games. In his last season in the AHL, he scored 51 points in 49 games. Yet, in the NHL he struggled to find a role that seemed to fit until the Capitals signed him to be a fourth-line player. He is a good example of why it can be difficult to find depth players in the NHL. Prospects make it to the league by being one of the best players at every level from youth hockey to juniors, to the minors. Then when they reach the NHL, they are suddenly not the best player anymore and their game has to adapt. A player like Leipsic who was a top offensive threat in juniors has to become a different player to earn his keep in the NHL.

So when you read about how prospect Shane Gersich has only eight points in 23 games and is focusing more on his play in his own end, you may take this as a troubling step back, but that would be a mistake. This reflects a necessary step in his development.

Gersich showed some skill at the University of North Dakota. In his final two seasons there, he produced 37 points and 29 points respectively, both in 40 games. But he never looked like he was going to be a top producer at the NHL level and was never projected to be. Gersich was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 draft and always looked to be better suited for a bottom-six role in the NHL. Playing in the bottom six means being strong in your own end of the ice, something Gersich is working on this season as detailed in this profile by NOVA Caps.

Travis Boyd is also a player projected for a bottom-six role. In Hershey, however, his role was always an offensive one. He typically played on the top two lines and did not contribute on the penalty kill. He does have a lot of offensive skill for the AHL game, but ultimately he has struggled to find his place in the Caps' lineup because he does not provide the kind of things usually asked of a third and fourth-line player.

Producing points is always important. no matter what line you are on so of course Boyd is still a player with value. Hopefully Gersich will be able to produce at the NHL level as well. By playing more of a two-way game in the AHL, however, and focusing on things like defensive play and the penalty kill, Gersich will have a much clearer path to the NHL than he would as just a top-six AHL forward.

Other prospect notes

  • We are a long way off from knowing just how good the Caps' 2019 draft was, but the early returns look pretty darn good. Check out a draft class update from The Hockey Writers.
  • With Team Canada gearing up for the World Junior Championship, there is a lot of attention being paid to Connor McMichael. His tremendous season has caught the attention of many analysts including those at The Hockey News where he is declared the prospect who has shown the most unexpected growth in this awkwardly intimate video. Prospect analyst Craig Button also talks about the role McMichael will have on Team Canada and how he has the skillset to fill just about any forward role on the ice.
  • As teams prepare for the World Junior Championship at the end of the month, Aliaksei Protas' tournament has already begun. Belarus is a level below the top tournament and is currently hosting the Division I Group A tournament. Protas has one goal and one assist as Belarus sits fourth in the standings out of six teams.
  • Beck Malenstyn was given a three-game suspension by the AHL for elbowing. The suspension began on Sunday and will keep him out on Saturday and Sunday of this week's action. Here's a video of the play, though it is hard to see exactly what happened.
  • Joe Snively had two points through 16 games. In the past nine, he recorded eight. He scored twice over the weekend and now sits second on the team in goals with seven. Someone asked this week in the Capitals Mailbag if Snively could possibly get a call up this season. As good as he has played, Snively has the maximum cap hit for an entry-level contract at $925,000. Because of that, I doubt we see him in Washington this season.
  • Vitek Vanecek was named Hershey's PSECU Player of the Week after two impressive starts. He got the nod on Friday and turned aside 25 shots in a 2-1 win over Lehigh Valley. Bears head coach Spencer Carbery is very regular in his goalie rotation, but after a strong start on Friday and considering Hershey was playing three games in three nights and Vanecek was going to get two starts anyway, Carbery elected to go with the hot hand on Saturday and started Vanecek again. Vanecek rewarded the coach's faith with a 32-shot shutout performance to once again shut down the Phantoms. The shutout was Vanecek's first of the season. He has now allowed two goals or fewer in five of his past six starts.
  • Bobby Nardella returned to the lineup after missing 12 games with an upper-body injury. He had an assist in Sunday's game giving him four on the season in just five appearances.
  • Check out this profile an Axel Jonsson-Fjallby from Chocolate Hockey.

 

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Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas details mental health issues on day he's inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

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Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas details mental health issues on day he's inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

WASHINGTON — The tears rolled down Tim Thomas’ cheeks. 

Honored with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the former Boston Bruins goalie, a Stanley Cup champion, one of the greatest American players of all time, spoke of the hard end to his playing career and the brain damage he sustained playing the sport he loved. 

While playing for the Florida Panthers in 2013-14, his final season, Thomas sustained a concussion that December which left him debilitated. It was an injury “that changed my life,” Thomas said. 

Speaking publicly for the first time since retiring from hockey in 2014, the reclusive Thomas, a Michigan native who now lives in Idaho with his family, described a darkening spiral. He awoke the morning after his concussion and couldn’t decide what he wanted to eat, where he wanted to go. He couldn’t plan a schedule. Thomas survived by just following the team schedule put together by the Panthers - and later, the Dallas Stars after a trade. 

One year after retiring, Thomas found he couldn’t keep up with the sport on television or in person. He underwent a CereScan, which measures the flow of blood to the brain by using radioactive isotopes. Thomas claims the numbers showed two thirds of his brain was getting less than five percent of the necessary blood flow and the other third was getting about 50 percent.    

“I've struggled mightily with how do I process the experience that I've been through and rectify that with the love of the game that I had my whole life until I crashed, so to speak,” Thomas said. “That happened. I still haven't worked my whole way through that process.”

Thomas was a late bloomer. He played four years at the University of Vermont and after turning pro bounced around minor leagues in North America and played in Europe, too. He was 31 before he earned a roster spot with Boston and 33 before he was the unquestioned No. 1 goalie. 

But he went on a brilliant seven-year run, winning the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie in 2008-09 and 2010-11. That year he led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. He also played for 2010 U.S. Olympic Team in Vancouver, which won the silver medal. Hockey brought him immense joy and he was thrilled to be honored with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.       

"I can see the positive sides of the whole hockey life and everything. It doesn't take away from that,” Thomas said. “I guess, I don't know where I stand completely on the game of hockey at the levels where people are injuring themselves to the levels that they actually are and my involvement in that.”

That will take some time. The pain is still raw. Thomas’ wife and children suffered because he was suffering with his mental health. He couldn’t communicate with anybody for a few years. He didn’t call his dad - or his old teammates, who were still stuck in that hockey life he had left behind. He just didn’t want to bother anybody. His love for the game was part of the heavy price paid.  

“There was a time period, yeah, where I hated the game,” Thomas said. “I didn't sit there and (say) I hate it. My rebound effect was like, this wasn't worth it. That's where I was then. Where I am today is past that. I ended up learning so many lessons out of the experience.”

But that doesn’t mean normal. Thomas isn’t sure what that word even means at this point. He’s endured ups and downs and only started to feel like his old self about two years ago. Oxygen therapy helped, Thomas said, and he believes plenty of special mineral water did, too. He wouldn’t have been able to make the trip to Washington to take part in this ceremony otherwise. Better doesn’t mean fully healed, though   

“I still can’t choose,” Thomas said. “I’m so much better, but I wake up every day and basically I have to reorder everything in my mind for the first couple hours of the day and then make a list and try to make some choices to get some stuff done, on which I have gotten to the level that I can.”

Thomas spoke haltingly to the gathered reporters. He paused, choked up multiple times and tried to keep his composure. The tears rolled down his cheeks anyway. On what was a monumental day honoring his accomplishments on the ice, this was as big a part of his story as any of that. After six years, he is finally able to talk and he hopes current hockey players can learn from his struggles with mental health.   

"I didn't want to talk about this. I didn't want to talk,” Thomas said “I didn't want to tell the world this stuff. Not untill I felt ready, and I didn't feel ready yet. But here I am.”

The book “Game Change” written by former Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden helped, Thomas said. That story details the struggles of longtime NHL defenseman Steve Montador, who died in 2015 at age 35 and who researchers later determined had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neurological disease caused by repeated head injuries.

Learning about Montador’s issues made Thomas realize he wasn’t unique, he wasn’t alone. He’s channeled the competitive drive that allowed him to become an elite NHL goalie and channeled that into learning about mental health. 

On Tuesday, Thomas attended his first NHL game since leaving the sport in 2014. Ironically, his old Bruins were in Washington to play the Capitals and the 2019 inductees were honored before the game. Thomas had only seen former teammate Johnny Boychuk a few years back, but otherwise had fallen out of touch with most others.

Tuesday, Thomas got to catch up with Bruins staffers still with the organization and also ex-teammates Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Kreiji. Those five are still with Boston and they were on the ice with Thomas that memorable night in Vancouver eight years ago when they won the Stanley Cup together. 

Seeing them again was a blast, even if for a short time - a chance to immerse himself in a game that had given him so much but for a long time has been lost to him. 

"Being welcomed back into the arms of the hockey family has been great,” Thomas said. “It's reminded me of all the great people that I crossed paths with all throughout my career. It's been very impactful."

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