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Capitals mailbag: Caps are even with last year's pace so why is everyone still panicking?

Capitals mailbag: Caps are even with last year's pace so why is everyone still panicking?

It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the Feb. 27 edition below.

Have a Caps question you want answered for next week’s mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

The boring answer is that the NHL is a highly competitive league and that there is not much separation between the best team in the league and the worst. Or at least that’s true for most teams -- Ottawa is in a league of their own for how bad they are now after the trade deadline.

But the Caps may not be in as many close games as you think. Washington has been in 20 one-goal games this season which ties them for 14th in the NHL. Sure, one-goal games can easily become two-goal games with an empty-netter and sometimes scores can be deceiving as to how close a game really was. The point is that pretty much everyone plays in a lot of close games over the course of the season, the Caps are not unique in this.

Nathan S. writes: Why do Caps play so badly against bad teams this year?

See above. Again, the NHL is a competitive league and while there is a clear distinction between good and bad teams in the standings, the separation is not as wide on the ice in terms of talent.

I know, the losses to Buffalo and Anaheim were bad. In my mind, games against bad teams are more important than the big matchups against good teams because you need to get the points against teams you should beat. That makes those losses disappointing. Having said that, every team in the NHL loses to bad teams. The Tampa Bay Lightning are far and away the best team in the NHL with only 11 regulation losses this season. Among those 11 are losses to Vancouver, Arizona (a 7-1 blowout), Ottawa, Buffalo and Anaheim.

You are going to lose to bad teams over the course of an 82-game season.

As quick aside, every week I do this mailbag and the prevailing sense I get is that fans are panicking over the state of the team. A seven-game losing streak will do that. I get it. But let’s compare this year’s team to last year’s through 64 games:

2017-18: 36-21-7, 195 goals for, 190 goals against, 21.7-percent power play, 79.6-percent penalty kill
2018-19: 36-21-7, 217 goals for, 204 goals against, 22.2-percent power play, 78.1-percent penalty kill

Caps fans know better than anyone that a regular season is not an indicator of playoff success so I am not trying to say they are on pace for another Stanley Cup because they have the same record as last season. I’m also not saying that the team does not have issues. The second defensive pair is struggling, I don’t like the penalty kill or how they play defensively late in games, I don’t understand the constant fourth line shuffling, etc. The point I’m trying to make is that this team has not taken a dramatic step back. They are right where they were last season even with a seven-game losing streak. There are things they need to improve on, but Washington is absolutely among the Cup contenders this year.

Benjamin C. writes: Carl Hagelin looks pretty good out there but he doesn’t seem like he’s gonna get that much 5 on 5 minutes on the 4th line. Any chance they move him up? 

One thing Todd Reirden said he liked about Hagelin is his versatility. Speed is an asset you can plug almost anywhere in the lineup. That’s part of what makes him a valuable deadline pickup. If this team is healthy and playing well, Hagelin will most likely stay on the fourth line, but he will still get plenty of minutes playing on the top penalty kill and in 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 situations. We already saw that in just his second game with the Caps.

If there’s an injury Reirden could put Hagelin almost anywhere. Rather than switching up all the lines, I believe Reirden will just plug in Hagelin and move on. Hagelin will be best utilized on the bottom-six, however, and as long as the third line is playing as well as it is, the fourth line is where he will stay.

Dmitry Orlov is not getting benched in the playoffs. He remains one of the team’s top-three defensemen so that’s not going to happen.

I asked Reirden on Tuesday on if he will rotate players on the third pair and he said it was important initially to pair Jensen with the most veteran player who knows the system the best so that he can learn from him. For now, that means Brooks Orpik. I would certainly like to see what a Christian Djoos – Jensen pair looks like and not just because I want to name it “Jen and Djoos.”

Let’s not forget that both Orpik and Djoos suffered significant injuries this season and missed a lot of time. I think the Caps need to figure out where both players are heading into the postseason and would not assume Orpik or Djoos will or should play just because they did last year.

Luka K. writes: The Madison Bowey trade makes me question the Capitals development of their D prospects. Bowey is a fairly high draft pick, from a great junior team, has great tools, was our top D prospect for 5 years in row and he never figured it out. Also lack of Lucas Johanson and Connor Hobbs development is worrying. Winning teams have a tough task to achieve both winning and developing but do you think Caps are doing good enough job?

Madison Bowey may yet turn into a solid NHL player, but it was clear he was falling behind in the depth chart and the team has a logjam of defensive prospects. They can’t keep them all. It makes sense to sell high on a player you believe may not develop as much as you would have hoped rather than to continue scratching him and watch both his development and trade stock plummet.

Bowey was a great two-way defenseman in the WHL with Kelowna and in the AHL with Hershey. I loved his instincts at both levels, he really knew when to step into the offense and when to pull it back on defense. He never developed the same recognition in the NHL and was very timid offensively. He was more aggressive defensively, but players took that to their advantage to draw him out of position. Those things can be corrected with time and perhaps they will be in Detroit.

Before we take Bowey as an indictment of the team’s defensive development, let’s remember that John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Christain Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler were developed within the system. Johansen suffered an injury that has held him back this season, and Hobbs has taken a massive step forward in his development. Before, I thought he was a fringe NHL defenseman at best who possessed a great shot. He has developed a lot of the defensive aspects of his game to the point that I believe he could have an NHL future. That’s a credit to the job both the hockey ops and Hershey staff have done.

Benjamin C. writes: I am concerned with the Caps decision to get rid of Dmitrij Jaskin. Devante Smith-Pelly is pretty good on penalty kill but he hasn’t contributed to anything this season. I realize he was part of our success last year but at some point you have to move on from that and look at this season. I would like to hear your thoughts on it.

This email came in last week so good news, Benjamin! The Caps took your advice and waived Smith-Pelly over Jaskin and I think a lot of it had to do with your reasoning. Smith-Pelly just has not contributed much this season. He always seems to perform in the playoffs, but with a crowded roster he has not done enough to warrant getting a jersey every night. The fact that he passed through waivers without another team claiming him is a clear indictment of his performance this season.

As for Jaskin, I do not know why he is not used more. He seems to play well whenever he gets in, but I guess he does not fit what Reirden wants to do. With Hagelin in, I am not sure I see him getting much playing time.

The team made a conscious decision to waive Smith-Pelly instead of Jaskin so no. I do not believe they will turn around and waive Jaskin now just so they can bring Smith-Pelly back.

The salary cap no longer applies in the playoffs so I assume both Smith-Pelly and Siegenthaler will be recalled at that point. Riley Barber probably will as well, but only after Hershey is eliminated from the playoffs. I do not think the Caps would consider him pressing enough to pull from the AHL postseason unless there was an injury.

Kuznetsov. When the Caps lost seven straight, he managed only two goals and five points in those seven games. Since the return from the bye week, Washington is 9-4-1 and Kuznetsov has seven goals and 15 points in those 14 games. The Caps do not win the Stanley Cup without Kuznetsov playing as brilliantly as he did last season. He played so well, in fact, that he could have won the Conn Smythe over Alex Ovechkin and it would have been tough to argue against it. He needs to be one of Washington’s best players every single night.

Blake B. writes: Up to this point, the Capitals have surrendered 8 goals against when the opposing team pulls their goalie for an extra attacker. Why has it been such a struggle to close out games and score empty net goals?

To be fair, Washington has only lost only one game in which they have given up a goal with the opposition goalie pulled – the San Jose debacle in which Evander Kane scored at the last second – but your point is well taken. It’s an area the team needs to improve.

Reirden was asked about this on Tuesday and basically said unlike in the previous year where the same players were in that role all season, the personnel has changed as Reirden has looked for the right combination of players to use in that situation. He basically is taking the same philosophy with his 6-on-5 defense as he has with the fourth line in that the first three quarters of the season were an audition and now it’s time to figure out who gets the job.

If you’re saying to yourself that three quarters of the season seems like a long time to make up your mind, yes, yes it is. It’s a philosophy that probably would not be all that successful if the team were a bubble team, but for with the Caps as good as they are Reirden has been able to do this without it costing the team. It’s a luxury he may not always have.

Nathan S. writes: As much as I enjoy the regular season, it seems odd that teams play a grueling 82 game schedule, more than half the teams qualify for the playoffs, and then once you get to the playoffs, the NHL no longer does a 1-8 seeding system that reseeds after every round. I know this was designed to create or enhance rivalries like Caps-Pens but this also cheapens the long regular season. Is there anyway to fix this without adding more teams in the playoffs or eliminating playoff rounds? IS this a concern among players, teams, or leagues?

The NHL’s current playoff format is complete garbage. Yes, it makes it more likely we see teams like the Caps and Penguins meet in the playoffs, but for every Caps-Penguins rivalry there is a Caps-Rangers which, after both teams met in the playoffs five times in seven years, nobody wanted anymore. Admit it, if the Caps and Penguins met again in the playoffs this season for the fourth straight year, part of you would want to see someone else. It absolutely cheapens the regular season because teams in the best division automatically have a harder road to the playoffs.

In 2018, Winnipeg and Nashville were the top two teams in the league. Because they are in the same division, however, they didn’t play in the conference final. Instead, they met in the second round. The same thing happened in 2017 with the Caps and Penguins meeting in the second round.

The NHL is not like the NBA where the first two rounds of the playoffs don’t matter. There are compelling matchups in every single round. There was no reason to mess with the old format to force rivals to play each other repeatedly every year. It takes away the advantage teams gain for strong seasons and makes those rivalries stale.

Is there concern over it? Some. In 2017, Daniel Winnik called the playoff format “the stupidest thing ever” which is an accurate description. I don’t think he was alone in this, but despite the fact that most people seem to dislike this system, there also seems to be zero momentum from the league to change it.

I have seen some suggestions that more teams should be added to the playoffs, but that’s a horrible idea. More than half the league already makes it. This isn’t that hard. Keep it at 16 teams, seed the top eight teams in each conference and re-seed each round. That’s the best way to do it and hopefully the NHL will one day go back to that.

Rodney O. writes: This is Black History Month and as an African American man who loves hockey, I was wondering if the Capitals have had the most minority players to play for them in the NHL?

I have not been able to find statistics about all minority players in the NHL, but I did find some specific to black players. In their history, the Caps have had 11 black players: Madison Bowey, Donald Brashear, Anson Carter, Jason Doig, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, Mike Grier, Mike Marson, Bill Riley, Reggie Savage, Devante Smith-Pelly and Joel Ward. That ranks very close to the top as there are only three NHL teams – Buffalo, Edmonton and the New York Rangers – that have had 12 black players.

Willie O’Ree was the first black player to play in the NHL when he made his Boston Bruins debut on Jan. 18, 1958. Marson and Riley were the second and third respectively when they both played for the Caps in 1974. Riley only played one game with Washington, but that game on Dec. 26, 1974 was the first time a team dressed two black players in a game.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be read and answered in next week’s mailbag, send it in to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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Carlson cannot be stopped, Ovechkin gets out the blowtorch and Siegenthaler impresses

Carlson cannot be stopped, Ovechkin gets out the blowtorch and Siegenthaler impresses

The legend of John Carlson is growing as he added two goals to his already incredible season on Wednesday in a 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

Check out the game recap here.

Observations from the win

Just give Carlson the Norris already

Sometimes it can be hard to recognize or understand the magnitude of a player's performance over the course of the season. If you don't recognize yet that we are seeing a special season from Carlson, then you need to get on board.

With 11 goals and 31 assists in 30 games, Carlson is statistically off to one of the best starts by a defenseman ever. More on those numbers below.

It's not just his offensive play, Carlson has been very good defensively. That narrative that he is only good offensively and is a defensive liability in his own end is ludicrous.

At this point, you can start engraving Carlson's name into the Norris Trophy now. He is playing well in his own end and he is having one of the best seasons ever for a defenseman offensively. There's no debate.

Hagelin's real return

Hagelin returned from injury for Tuesday's game against San Jose, but you could not see the real impact of his return until Wednesday. The Caps did not take a single penalty against the Sharks, but took three against the Kings. Penalty killing is where Hagelin's game really excels and that was evident in this game as he led the team with 3:55 of shorthanded ice time and was a major factor in the Caps stifling the power play.

Don't forget about Siegenthaler

Carlson is going to steal all the headlines, but Jonas Siegenthaler put together one heck of a game and was named the second star. He recorded a game-high four blocked shots, but his real highlight came in the second period as he defended a 2-on-1 by the Kings.

The responsibility of a defenseman on a 2-on-1 is to defend the pass. Siegenthaler got into the passing lane and timed his slide exactly right, getting down on the ice at just the right time to block the puck. It was exceptionally well played and prevented Los Angeles from even getting a shot off.

Turn off the blowtorch, Ovi!

During a stoppage in play, Alex Ovechkin was on the bench taking a blowtorch to his helmet. He then handed the still lit blowtorch off to head equipment manager Brock Myles.

Come on, man. Turn off the blowtorch before you hand it off.

Turning point

Carlson's second goal of the game first period proved to be the game-winner and established that this was going to be his and the Caps' night.

Play of the game

Carlson's 100th career goal was a pretty one and very fitting. The defenseman who does it all did it all on this play, getting the steal in the defensive zone, taking it himself down the ice and firing the wrister to beat Jonathan Quick on the far post.

Stat of the game

It's Carlson's world, we're all just living in it.


Quote of the game

Ovechkin has spent much of his career leaving his teammates speechless. Now Carlson has done it to him.

"I don't know what to say right now; he's the hottest guy out there. You can see two highlight-reel goals again. He's good."

Fan predictions

This was pretty darn close.

The Caps are now 4-0-1 this season on the second leg of a back-to-back.

Well, you got the two for Carlson right.

I love this bit. Keep trying guys.

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Carlson's two goals propel Caps over Kings

Carlson's two goals propel Caps over Kings

John Carlson's incredible season continued as he scored twice Wednesday to lead the Capitals to the 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. In the dreaded California road trip. Washington now sits 2-0-0 with only Friday's game in Anaheim remaining.

 

Here is how the Caps won.

John Carlson

What can you even say at this point?

One day after tallying three points in San Jose, Carlson came up big again scoring twice in the first period to make sure this game was never really in doubt.

Kings forward Trevor Lewis was trying to corral a bouncing puck in the offensive zone. Carlson saw that and attacked, stealing the puck away and sprinting down the ice. Carl Hagelin was with him but cut behind him leaving Carlson with no pass options. Instead, he called his own number and fired a wrister that hit off the far post and into the net. It was not clear, but the puck may have ramped up off the stick of defenseman Matt Roy.

Later in the first, Lars Eller battled for a puck in the corner of the offensive zone. He got it away from traffic up to T.J. Oshie. At that moment, Carlson was on the far side and recognized he was wide open. He charged towards the net and received a great pass from Oshie to put him in alone on goalie Jonathan Quick. Quick thought Carlson was going high the whole time and was leaning forward to make himself big to cover up high. By leaning forward, however, he committed himself and could not adjust as Carlson smartly stick-handled around and behind him.

That goal would prove to be the game-winner.

Carlson's goals were the 10th and 11th of the season making him the sixth Cap with at least 10 goals this season.

The penalty kill

Washington got arguably its best penalty killer back in the lineup for Tuesday's game in San Jose. The Caps did not take any penalties against the Sharks, however, so the team did not get the full impact of Hagelin's return. He got plenty of time to show off his penalty-killing acumen on Wednesday, however, as the Caps gave up three power play opportunities.
Washington killed off all three of those power plays to maintain their lead. Hagelin led the team with 3:55 of shorthanded ice time.

Strong defense

It was not just the penalty kill, the Caps defense as a whole was strong. Los Angeles was limited to just 44 shots with only 23 of those attempts getting in on net.

Ilya Samsonov was strong despite one mistake behind the net that led to the Kings' lone goal of the game and turned aside from the remaining 22 shots he faced.

The Caps did a great job of limiting Los Angeles' opportunities with key plays. Oshie took a penalty late in the second as he slashed Anze Kopitar to deny him a chance when he had gotten inside of Carlson in front of the net. Jonas Siegenthaler delivered a picture-perfect 2-on-1 defense as he timed his slide perfectly to cut off the passing lane and make sure the Caps would escape without even giving up a shot. Those key defensive plays stifled the Kings all night.

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