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Capitals let a homestand get away in 4-1 loss to Coyotes

Capitals let a homestand get away in 4-1 loss to Coyotes

CAPITAL ONE ARENA — A listless first period, a struggling penalty kill and a sudden inability to put pucks in nets has left the Capitals searching for answers before a difficult upcoming road trip. 

Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes – a rising young team with some talent, but modest hopes to make the Stanley Cup playoffs – was a missed opportunity. 

Washington (7-6-3) went 2-2-1 on a five-game homestand after losing the final two in regulation. It now plays three times in four days against the Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche starting Tuesday night in St. Paul. 

“We’re just a little blah right now,” defenseman John Carlson said. “We’re used to trusting ourselves to make some plays that right now aren’t happening so maybe it’s time to pivot back to a little more simpler game and build up that execution point.”

They tried. Capitals coach Todd Reirden moved T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom to the top line with Alex Ovechkin as five-on-five play has stagnated. Evgeny Kuznetsov, meanwhile, was on the second line with Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana. 

Backstrom scored a goal on a pretty pass from Ovechkin to cut the Arizona lead to 2-1 at 12:41 of the second period. That was great. What wasn’t great was allowing an answer just under two minutes later – another power-play goal. This one by Alex Galchenyuk made it 3-1 and, despite 38 shots on Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper, Washington never seriously challenged after that. 

And so an Arizona team that had just played 24 hours earlier in Pittsburgh and was playing its third road game in four days, was able to impose its will on the Caps. The defending Stanley Cup champion never really gets a break. Even teams that have every excuse to mail it in when the schedule gets rough play with effort and energy and an intensity that Washington hasn’t matched consistently enough early this season  

“Everything is going to be tougher,” Backstrom said. “You need to make sure you have that mentality for every game, not be too loose or too casual coming into games. There’s no easy games in this league. We’ve got to really put our brains on again and make sure we have a different attitude.”

Whether Backstrom was translating a Swedish idiom into English, needing to put their brains back on is an apt description of where the Capitals are right now. There is a casualness to their game that could lead to trouble on this road trip, which also includes a stop in Montreal. Turnovers are common, passes aren’t crisp and good shots are passed up for perfect ones. It’s all too much, too loose. 

“Here and there, I think. But I feel like we’re not that kind of team,” Backstrom said. “But sometimes it’s a little casual, managing the puck, passing, stuff like that. That’s just an area we can focus on better.”

Reirden is seeing that, too. Everyone in that room is aware of it. Changing it is the issue. The Capitals look like a team trying to do too much in almost every area.   

“Some of the plays that we're attempting to make are plays that probably come a little easier in Game 40 or 50 when you're really at the peak performance in terms of your execution level,” Reirden said. “We're not at that level and not every player can make some of the plays that we're expecting to make. That's something that we have to realize as individual players, what plays that you have that give you the best percentage to have success.”

Washington took three offensive-zone penalties against the Coyotes on Sunday. It gave up two more power-play goals, a total that is now at 17 for the season in 60 chances (71.7 percent). That ranks a dismal 29thin the NHL. 

At home, all of this is tough to overcome night in and night out. On the road against teams in a playoff position (Minnesota, Winnipeg) or that ran the Caps out of their building last season (Colorado) or already beat them once in the District (Montreal) these details need to change, fast. With the 20-game mark approaching disturbing trends are appearing like bad omens.    

“We didn’t get the results we want to on the homestand. Our play, the way it’s been, it’s been a little up and down,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “But I think it’s good thing going on the road playing some good teams. Sometimes that helps, just go out and simplify and outwork the other teams. Don’t worry about impressing anyone or anything like that, just go out and grind out some wins, and that can do a lot for a group.” 

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Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s semifinal matchup:

Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

2018-19 stats

Joonas Donskoi (27 years old): 80 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 14 goals, 23 assists, 37 points, 13:25 TOI

Playoffs: 12 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 12:26 TOI

Carl Gunnarsson (32 years old): 25 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points, 15:15 TOI

Playoffs: 19 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 14:57 TOI, won Stanley Cup

Hockey-Graph contract projections 

Joonas Donskoi: 3 years, $2,847,521 cap hit

Carl Gunnarsson: 1 year, $731,159 cap hit

The case for Joonas Donskoi

Maybe Andre Burakovsky’s qualifying offer of $3.25 million means he’s back with the Capitals for another year. But it doesn’t preclude a trade and in Donskoi you’d have a similar option at a cheaper price, which matters if you only have $9.2 million in cap space left for now.

Donskoi made the offense better in San Jose in whatever role he was asked to play. He can go up and down the lineup and had a consistency to his game that Burakovsky at times lacks. Donskoi’s stats may not always reflect that, but making his teammates around him better is a valuable asset. Either way, depth scoring is important and a priority for the Capitals. 

Donskoi has every bit the Stanley Cup playoff experience as Burakovsky does if that matters to you. Donskoi has nine goals and 12 assists in 50 playoff games and Burakovsky has nine goals and nine assists in 56 playoff games. Not much to chose between the team except Donskoi would be cheaper if Washington decided to trade Burakovsky. 

The case for Carl Gunnarsson

The Caps will need a No. 6/7 defenseman after Brooks Orpik retired on Tuesday. Yes, they gave a qualifying offer to RFA defenseman Christian Djoos and they have Jonas Siegenthaler under contract, too. Both are natural left side defensemen. Going with the kids is an option. But both of them? That becomes problematic when someone gets hurt in your top two pairings and players have to bump up. 

Gunnarsson was the hero of the “Boston Pee Party” when he scored the overtime winner in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final after declaring to head coach Craig Berube at the urinal he just needed one more opportunity. Gunnarsson had just seven points in the regular season so no one should expect a ton of offense, but the point is he delivered when it mattered most.

When he is not playing the overtime hero, he is a third-pairing, stay at home defenseman who can play on the penalty kill which is pretty much exactly what the Caps need in a depth defenseman.

Take a look at Gunnarsson’s contract projection. You can’t beat that price. Sure, those projections came out before he won the Stanley Cup, but even if his price goes up, it will not be significant. You’re tinkering at the margins of the roster here and championship experience matters. 

Who’s your pick? Vote here:

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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

The Capitals tendered qualifying offers to six of their seven restricted free agents at Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline, including forward Andre Burakovsky. 

Burakovsky, 24, had been the subject of trade rumors up until the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 25 and also in the days leading up to last week’s NHL Draft in Vancouver. Nothing came of them. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan made it clear that while teams were calling, he wasn’t about to just give away a 2013 first-round draft pick. 

“We like the player. There's been some inconsistencies there, but when he's on his game, he's a good player,” MacLellan said last Thursday. “We'd like to keep him around but obviously his name is out there a little bit, so we do talk to some teams about him. But we're not going to move him unless we get something we're comfortable with back.”

But the Capitals are still in a salary cap crunch and that could still land Burakovsky elsewhere in the coming days. His qualifying offer is $3.25 million. Washington is only $9.235 million below the salary cap of $81.5 million. If Burakovsky signs, he would provide scoring depth. He has a career-high 17 goals and has scored 12 each of the past two seasons.

The Capitals do need to see more from Burakovsky. He has struggled with confidence and consistent production over the years. But if he returns, he would be a good option to replace the expected-to-depart Brett Connolly at right wing on the third line with Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin. Connolly is an unrestricted free agent and likely out of Washington’s price range. 

By tendering a qualifying offer, the Capitals ensure that they will keep Burakovsky’s rights. If they had not then he’d be an unrestricted free agent able to sign with any team. That’s not a smart use of an asset that could still help in 2019-20. They could, of course, still trade him at any time. 

Meanwhile, forward Dmitry Jaskin was not tendered a qualifying offer. He is a free agent now. Jaskin never gained the trust of the coaching staff last season. He appeared in just 37 games despite analytics that showed he had a positive impact on the fourth line. Jaskin picked up on waivers from the St. Louis Blues in October, had two goals and four assists. He did not play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Winger Jakub Vrana also received a qualifying offer, but that’s not expected to matter much as the two sides try to put together a long-term contract extension after his breakthrough 24-goal season in his second NHL year. 

The Capitals did tender a qualifying offer to defenseman Christian Djoos. An ugly thigh injury that turned into compartment syndrome and limited him to 45 games. But with Brooks Orpik retiring on Tuesday, Washington could go with Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler as their No. 6/7 defensemen on their natural left sides. 

Fourth-line winger Chandler Stephenson also received his qualifying offer. AHL Hershey forward Colby Williams and goalie Vitek Vanacek also received qualifying offers from Washington.  

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