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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Dissecting the Caps' hot start

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Dissecting the Caps' hot start

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Kenuel Suarez writes: What do you believe has been the key to the Caps success so far this season?

The Caps have leaned more on their offensive production than I expected them to this season after committing to improving the defense in the offseason. This was out of necessity because the injury to Michal Kempny really forced Todd Reirden to shuffle up the defense. Add in the fact that Braden Holtby struggled at the start of the season and it was a good thing the Caps have been able to score as much as they have.

The offense right now ranks first in the NHL with 4.00 goals per game. How has the offense somehow gotten better despite losing so much offensive production in the offseason? The defense. The story of the season so far to me has been how aggressive the defense has been getting involved offensively. John Carlson is among the league-leader in points, Kempny entered the season with 11 career goals and has scored three already, Dmitry Orlov has eight points and even Jonas Siegenthaler has his first NHL goal.

Another important factor is how physical the team has been. Washington is at its best when it is playing a heavy style that wears opponents down. They got away from that last season.

Kathy Graninger writes: How likely is it that the Capitals will be able to keep up a hard-hitting, very physical, fast-paced game as we get deeper into the season? Each night, it seems like the Caps always lead their opponent in hits; how will this affect the team's play as it gets into December/January? What about April/May? Will the style of game change that might once it gets closer to just 20 games, when teams start figuring out each other's strategies?

This is a great point and something I have been thinking about the last week or so. The team is playing really well but it’s doing it at a level they can’t sustain for 82 games.

In addition to playing physical, they are also blocking a ton of shots. This team is putting in the full effort right now with 291 blocked shots, the second-most in the entire league.

Every year we get reminded of just how different the Stanley Cup Playoffs are from the regular season. I asked players about this in April and got some really thoughtful responses.

“I don't care if you're my age or 22, it's a level that you can't sustain over 82 games,” Brooks Orpik said. “I would never say that we're pacing ourselves, but you've got to pick your spots, especially with the physicality just because it really takes a toll on you. I think if guys played the way we did some of the playoff games, you'd be done by November. And then once you get to the playoffs, you know that the end of your season could be pretty near so you just kind of gas it out every game.”

You can read my article on this topic here.

The bottom line is that I do not believe the Caps will keep up this level of play for much longer and especially in the dog days of the season in December and especially into January. The team will take a step back, but it will rebound in the spring and be a real threat for a deep run in the playoffs. Hopefully the fans remember this and don't go into full-on panic mode when we do hit that midseason lull.

Joe Blumenauer writes: With the team doing as well as it's doing, what's the biggest area that the Caps still need to improve in? Penalties, preventing breakaways, goalie play?

You mentioned two areas of concern for me. First, they are taking too many penalties. It’s great that the penalty kill is much improved, but they are taking nearly four minor penalties per game and that’s just too many. Breakaways and odd-man breaks are an issue against faster teams like we saw Monday against Arizona. Teams know how aggressive Washington’s defense has been this season so the faster teams like Arizona and Edmonton have been using that to their advantage using stretch passes and quick breakouts to create breakaways and odd-man rushes.

Two other issues for me, they have to get the third line going. The offense is too dependent on the top six and the defense. Reirden has to find the right combination on that third line that can spark something offensively because the team is getting nothing from that line right now. They also need a right defenseman for the second pair. Radko Gudas has been fine in that role since replacing Nick Jensen, but they will get exposed in the playoffs without another top-four defenseman to plug in there.

Daniel Robinson writes: If the Capitals were to acquire anyone before the trade deadline? Who would they go for?

The biggest priority will to bolster the defense by adding a right-shot defenseman who can play top-four minutes on a pair with Orlov. With Gudas, Jensen and John Carlson, the Caps have two righties, but only one who I would say is a top-four defenseman. That’s not a knock on Gudas who I think has played great this season and is playing that top-four role now, but he is a high-end bottom pair guy and is better suited to play that role. He has been fine playing with Orlov, but the playoffs have a way of exposing a team’s weaknesses so that to me would be an issue even if they can get by in the regular season without the defense being a massive problem.

The only other issue would be adding offense to the third line, but I think we are a ways off from Brian MacLellan considering making a move like that. Panik has played only nine games. Let’s give him some more time first.

Jeff Baker writes: Is it just me, or does Evgeny Kuznetsov seem happier on the ice this season? I might be reading too much into it because I'm rooting for him and I hope his personal problems are behind him. Maybe they weighed him down last season?

I’m not sure happier is the right word. He seems like his normal self whenever I speak to him. I think what we are seeing is the how much of a difference-maker he can be on the ice which we did not see enough of last season. He is starting to approach the level we saw back in 2018 when he was an all-world player helping the team win the Cup. Everyone looks happier when they are playing well and Kuznetsov looks much more engaged this season than he did last year when it seemed like he was just going through the motions.

Jason Villatoro writes: Do the Capitals have a single player to thank for the outstanding record they earned? Which Capitals forward has been the most effective while staying under the radar?

While there is not one single player who is carrying the team, the best player to this point by far has been Carlson. With 29 points, he not only leads the team, he is also fifth in the NHL with 29 points. That's more points than star players like Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane. But don’t get caught into thinking his contribution has all been offensive. He has also been tremendous defensively. Reirden leans on Carlson quite a bit and he sits at 5th in the entire NHL in ice time per game.

As for under the radar forwards, I will go with Tom Wilson.

But wait, you are probably saying, nothing Wilson does is under the radar! Yes, Wilson certainly has a reputation for his physical play, but his offensive contributions are often overlooked because of it. Wilson sits fifth on the team in points with 16 and tied for fourth in goals with eight. Jakub Vrana scored five goals in a two-game stretch and he has only one more goal than Wilson at this point.

Rebekah Ginsburg: Who do you see emerging as a leader (on or off-ice) among the younger guys on the team?

This is a pretty veteran roster so there aren’t too many young guys. The leaders of the team are also pretty well established. Having said that, there are a few guys who, though I would not call leaders, are developing more of a presence in the locker room. I think Garnet Hathaway has earned a lot of respect from his teammates for the way he plays as has Radko Gudas. Nic Dowd has also endeared himself as a lock room goofball.

Ben McLenaghan writes: I don’t think Todd Reirden should disrupt the lineup while it’s rolling. Shouldn’t the Caps have waited to put Richard Panik in until they started to struggle?

Circumstances necessitated putting Panik back in. First, when a player is on LTIR and is physically able to return, he must be activated. He had practiced for several days prior to the 10-game minimum he had to sit out so it would have been a tough sell to say he still needed more time to recover. Losing the salary cap benefit of LTIR meant sending both Tyler Lewington and Travis Boyd to Hershey to fit Panik under the cap ceiling. Add in the fact that Carl Hagelin is day-to-day with an upper-body injury and the Caps could not have even dressed a full lineup with Panik.

But even if they could have, you have to get Panik back in. He is not going to suddenly get better and look comfortable with his new team by perpetually sitting in the press box. The best thing the team can do is to get him on the ice and hope he can adjust over time and start to play well. Plus, as hot as the Caps have been, it is getting virtually no offense from the third line so you don't really need to worry about messing with the chemistry there.

Benjamin Cross writes: Our third line is a big concern. Richard Panik is a letdown, Carl Hagelin isn’t a scorer, Garnet Hathaway is a 4th liner, Lars Eller has nothing to do. Why not move T.J. Oshie to the third line to play with Eller and Panik to first to try and get him going?

Benjamin Cross writes: Hate to break up 2nd line since it’s doing so well but why won’t we put Evgeny Kuznetsov on the first line? That first line is too slow and Kuznetsov is carrying the team in a way so far. He can get Alex Ovechkin going and they should swap Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie as well.

I grouped these two questions together because my answer for both is the same. The Caps are 10-0-2 in their last 12 games. If you were to put the best possible lineup together for the Caps would the current lines be that lineup? No, probably not for many of the reasons you both listed. Having said that, why change it up when things are going so well?

Coaches change lines frequently throughout the season. It’s an easy adjustment to make or motivational tool for a coach to use when the team plays poorly. The Caps are playing well enough right now that there is no reason to change the top lines. When play starts to drop off, then Reirden has these adjustments in his back pocket that he can easily make to get things back on track.

Is Kuznetsov playing well enough to be on the top line? Yes. Would Oshie benefit from fewer minutes? Probably. Would putting Panik in the top six help jump-start his offense? You’d like to think so. Are any of those changes pressing when the team has not lost in regulation since Oct. 14? Nope, not really.

Shey Obejas writes: Who do you think will be the Caps' biggest competitor this season?

The best two teams in the East are Washington and Boston. Despite not winning the Cup, the Bruins went seven games in the Stanley Cup Final so you have to think fatigue is going to strike at some point. Tampa Bay is better than they have played, but they are clearly weighed down by the ghost of playoffs past. Even if they do recover to make the playoffs, which I expect they will, I don’t think they are mentally strong enough at this point to beat Washington in a seven-game series.

I don’t know what to make of the Islanders. Their talent tells me this is still just fools gold, especially after having a good season last year and getting swept in the second round. But at some point you have to acknowledge how good they are playing. Pittsburgh's roster is not very good, but you know Jim Rutherford is going to pull the trigger on a trade or two. He will overpay to do it, but I’ll reserve judgement on the Penguins until that point and see what he can do to bolster the roster.

In the West, St. Louis has picked up right where they left off as the defending champs. I also think that Colorado, when healthy, is the best team in the NHL.

Steve Waters writes: It seems every time Jakub Vrana scores he has this look like someone just stole his puppy or he got caught stealing a cookie. Can Ovi have a little talk with him on getting him to cheer or perhaps even hoot?

Vrana actually has one of my favorite goal celebrations ever, the no-big-deal shrug.

Yeah, I just scored an NHL goal. No big deal.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

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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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Capitals and Bruins put on a show worthy of Stanley Cup playoffs

Capitals and Bruins put on a show worthy of Stanley Cup playoffs

WASHINGTON — There are only a handful of nights like Wednesday during the course of an NHL season. 
 
Players and coaches grind their way through 82 games with one running into the next. Sometimes, for the very best teams, the Stanley Cup playoffs can seem like a desert mirage off in the far distance. 
 
The Capitals and Bruins reminded us what the spring will bring during Washington’s 3-2 win on Wednesday. The NHL’s two best teams gave us physical play, great goaltending and world-class skill all in one wildly entertaining package. 
 
“No matter where you are in the standings, games against those teams, Boston, Tampa, games like that, in a way they are measuring stick games,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “You want to see how you measure up to what they are bringing that particular year or that particular time during the season. Tonight was no different.”
 
Oshie scored twice – one after a spectacular inside-out move that stands as Washington’s goal of the year so far. John Carlson continued piling up the points with an assist and the game-winning goal in the third period off a pass from Nicklas Backstrom. 
 
These Capitals, playing against a Bruins team that came within a game of the Stanley Cup last season, continue to show they measure up. The roster has turned over some, but the fight hasn’t gone out of the 2018 championship team yet. 
 
“The crowd was into it a little bit more than your average game,” Carlson said. “I think both teams were flying around, going that extra step to hit someone all the time and that sort of thing. It was a fun game, it was fun to play in. Still not playoffs.”
 
No, not yet. Carlson has been through all this before. He has played on three teams that won the Presidents’ Trophy (2009-10, 2015-16, 2016-07) and none of them made it out of the second round of the playoffs. 
 
The Capitals are just happy to be where they are, now five points clear of Boston for the NHL’s best record and with a nine-point lead in the Metropolitan Division over the New York Islanders and the rest of their rivals. 
 
But they know none of it will matter in mid-April. The slate gets wiped clean and they will have to beat the Islanders or the Hurricanes or the Flyers or maybe the Penguins – isn’t it always the Penguins - four times in seven games. And then they’d have do it again with one of those teams in the second round. Only then would they even get a crack at these Bruins - or maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning - once more in the Eastern Conference Final. 
 
There are still 49 games to go before all of that and upsets are a fact of life in the playoffs so you might as well enjoy the journey to get there. So far, Washington (23-5-5, 51 points) is off to the second-best start in team history through 33 games. 
 
Only the 2015-16 Presidents’ Trophy winner was better at 25-6-2 with 52 points. That group also led the Islanders by nine points in the Metro Division race at this point in the season. It’s a comfortable place to be and a nice cushion for the endless, cold nights of winter when illness or injuries strike and the schedule wears you down and you lose a couple of games in a row and frustration sets in. 
 
That will happen at some point for these Capitals. It’s inevitable over the course of a long season. But if Wednesday tells them anything, it’s that they still have that reserve of confidence to rally even against the very best teams in the league. 
 
Down 2-1 in the second period, Oshie banged home his own rebound when left alone in front. And 3:30 later he undressed the Boston defense and beat goalie Jaroslav Halak with a backhand roof shot that left the crowd unhinged and Washington ahead.  
 
It wasn’t an easy game. The Capitals had to kill five Boston power plays and their video department helped save the game by getting a Bruins goal overturned on replay after a missed offsides call. That kept the score 1-0. Washington might “own” Boston at 16-1 in the past 17 games, but no one thinks that would mean much in any playoff series. Instead, nights like this are a dress rehearsal for the games that matter most. 
 
“Our team usually plays better against teams like that, teams that work hard, play an honest, hard game structurally,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “It's fun for us to play in those games, especially in the regular season. It kind of feels more like a playoff style. We've been fortunate to have success, but there's been a lot of real close games against them the last little bit, games that make us better in the long run."

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