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The Capitals look like a team intent on reclaiming the Stanley Cup

The Capitals look like a team intent on reclaiming the Stanley Cup

WASHINGTON — You might not have noticed and it is hard to blame you.

The Nationals just had an October for the ages, winning D.C.’s first World Series in 95 years. The Redskins are a soap opera. The Trent Williams saga is sad and embarrassing. The Mystics won their first championship in October, a goofy, lovable team with the best basketball player on the planet leading the way.

The team that started this era of sports good feeling in Washington flew totally under the radar. And that’s fine. The Capitals are exactly where they want to be: In the mix for the Stanley Cup again.

There’s no other way to look at it. A rough October schedule, with nine road games and 10 against teams that made the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, proved no problem. The momentum has carried into November.

Heading into Saturday’s home game against the Vegas Golden Knights, a rematch of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, the Capitals have the best record in the NHL. Let that sink in. They are 12-2-3. They are eight points ahead of Pittsburgh and Carolina and nine ahead of Philadelphia.

The New York Islanders had to go unbeaten in 10 games to even keep pace and they are still four points back of Washington. This start could not have gone better. Points are banked. The top players are all mostly rolling. The consensus was age might catch up to the Capitals. Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom are all over 30 now and John Carlson will join them in January.

Yet Ovechkin has 13 goals in 17 games and is on pace for 63 goals. Carlson has gone bananas with 26 points. He is on pace to shatter the single-season points record for a Caps’ defenseman (Hockey Hall-of-Famer Larry Murphy has 81 in 1986-87). Oshie is on pace for 38 goals and 58 points.

Shooting percentages matter and Oshie won’t sustain 27.6%. Does it matter? The Capitals have already banked 68 goals as a team. That’s 2009-10 territory when Washington led the NHL with 313 goals, a legendary team. Since the 2004-05 lockout, only last year’s Lightning have done better (319).

Now things didn’t go well for either of those teams in the playoffs. We won’t talk about that. But Washington, at least, is in a different place now. It has that elusive Stanley Cup. A large chunk of this roster proved it could blend that skill with relentless two-way, physical play. The Capitals aren’t trying to prove anything anymore. The banner has been hung.

Tom Wilson, 26, and Jakub Vrana, 23, needed to take a leap as the younger players in the top six just to take the pressure off the veterans. They’ve done it. Wilson hadn’t yet played a game at this time last season thanks to a long suspension. He has seven goals and seven assists already, including the OT winner at Florida on Thursday.

Vrana is at nine goals and five assists. Both players are on pace to set career highs in all categories. Wilson had 40 points (22 goals, 18 assists) and Vrana had 47 points (24 goals, 23 assists) last season. Shooting percentages will come down (19.4 for Wilson and 18.8 for Vrana), but the underlying stats are excellent.

Maybe you’d like to see Evgeny Kuznetsov (14 points) and Nicklas Backstrom (13 points) catch fire. But Kuznetsov has settled in after missing three games for an NHL-mandated suspension. If both players approach 70 points, that’s fine. Backstrom is off that pace for now. History says he’ll be fine.

You can nit pick. Braden Holtby’s numbers improved in goal as October flipped to November. But that .895 save percentage needs to keep rising and rookie Samsonov (.915) has been solid, but he’s also played six NHL games. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The blueline remains a work-in-progress. Carlson has been productive, his partners not so much. Michal Kempny is trying to return from hamstring surgery and didn’t have much of a training camp. Let’s give him a pass until he has a few weeks to work his way back into form. He does have three goals and nine assists in nine games.

Nick Jensen is the one concern at 45.9 shots-for percentage on the ice. Radko Gudas (48.7) and Dmitry Orlov (49.5) are still working on their chemistry so that bears watching. Jonas Siegenthaler (52.4) began the year with Carlson and has slid down to the third pair, but he’s making the most of it. He’s a shot-blocking machine. Let’s see if this group can string together a few weeks of good health now that Kempny is back.

Otherwise, the Capitals have done fine on special teams. Their 26.8 percent on the power play is a little high, but the goal was to become less predictable, still use their strengths and get back into the NHL’s top 10. Mission accomplished. The penalty kill was an area they needed to upgrade. So far, so good at 85.7%, which ranks eighth in the league.

With seven games left before Thanksgiving – always a good early benchmark which comes 24 games into the season – the Capitals are in position to force everyone else in the Metropolitan Division to chase them as they go for a fifth straight division title. They have remained relatively healthy save for forward Richard Panik, who could return Monday. There’s a long way to go, but it’s a good place to be.


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Lars Eller was 'not surprised to see that kind of acting' from Brad Marchand in Tom Wilson scrum

Lars Eller was 'not surprised to see that kind of acting' from Brad Marchand in Tom Wilson scrum

During the first period of Saturday's game against the Boston Bruins, Michal Kempny gave Brad Marchand a little shove following a whistle with 20-seconds left in the frame. Marchand responded with an even greater shove to Kempny's face.

Caps' top line enforcer Tom Wilson came onto the scene immediately, taking exception to Marchand's tiff with Kempny. When Marchand saw Wilson coming after him, he immediately flopped to the ice before Wilson could lay more than an elbow on him. Lucky for Wilson, the referees didn't buy it and neither did anyone on the Caps.

"I'm not surprised to see that kind of acting from him," Lars Eller said of Marchand on The Sports Junkies Monday.

"I think it's good that we back each other up and Tom came over and Marchand...yeah, I don't know what he was doing," Eller said. "He just kind of turtled on the ice there and goes down and Tom barely even touched him."

The Caps came out of Boston with two points, beating the Bruins 3-2 in an overtime shootout victory. They host the Anaheim Ducks Monday night at 7:00 p.m.


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4 things to know for Caps-Ducks: Boyd gets a promotion

4 things to know for Caps-Ducks: Boyd gets a promotion

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Capitals (15-3-4) saw their point streak snapped on Friday, but rebounded on Saturday with a come-from-behind win in Boston. They will look to stay hot on Monday as they host the Anaheim Ducks (10-9-2). You can catch all the action on NBC Sports Washington with Caps FaceOff Live kicking things off at 6 p.m. before Caps Pregame Live begins at 6:30 p.m. to bring you up to the 7 p.m. puck drop. Stick with NBC Sports Washington after the game for Caps Postgame Live, D.C. Sports Live and Caps Overtime Live.

Here are four things to know for Monda’s game.

Boyd gets a bump

Travis Boyd's strong play on Saturday did not go unnoticed by the coaches as he was moved up to the third line at Monday's morning skate, switching spots with Garnet Hathaway.

Here are the lines from the skate:

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Richard Panik - Lars Eller - Travis Boyd
Brendan Leipsic - Chandler Stephenson - Garnet Hathaway

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Radko Gudas
Jonas Siegenthaler -  Nick Jensen

Carl Hagelin was on the ice in a non-contact jersey and will miss his sixth-straight game. Nic Dowd was not on the ice. Todd Reirden said both remain day-to-day, but Hagelin was closer to returning than Dowd. When asked, Reirden acknowledged that Dowd's injury was worse than previously believed.

Holtby vs. Gibson

Braden Holtby will get the start for the Caps. Since his "reset" early in the season, he has been lights out with an 8-0-1 record in his last nine starts with a .924 save percentage. 

Backing up Holtby will be Vitek Vanecek. He was recalled on Saturday to take the place of Ilya Samsonov. Vanecek has a lower cap hit and the team needed that space to recall Boyd.

The expected starter for the Ducks will be John Gibson, a netminder who has established himself as one of the league's best in recent years. This season he is 7-9-0 with a .915 save percentage and 2.83 GAA.

Anaheim’s putrid power play

The Caps have taken 83 minors this season already, tied for the second-most in the league. Limiting power play opportunities for the opposition should always be a priority, but even if Washington gets into penalty trouble this is a game where they may be able to get away with it.

Anaheim's power play is clicking at only 9.1-percent, the second-worst power play in the league. Only the Ottawa Senators struggle more to score on the man advantage.

The Caps’ epic collapse

The last time these two teams met in Washington was Dec. 2, 2018. Midway through the second, the Caps held a 5-1 lead and looked like they would be able to coast to the easy blowout victory. The Ducks had other ideas.

Andrew Cogliano sparked the comeback with a goal just 61 seconds after Dowd made it 5-1. Rickard Rakell scored less than a minute after Cogliano and suddenly a three-goal lead did not seem all that insurmountable. Anaheim would go on to score three more goals in the third period, five unanswered in total, as the Ducks stunned the Caps 6-5. Anaheim did all of this in regulation as well so the Caps did not even get a single point to show for their second period 5-1 lead.