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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What can we expect from the special teams?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What can we expect from the special teams?

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

Have a Caps question you want to be answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Luka K. writes: What will the power play and penalty kill units look like in 2019-20? Do you think the Caps need to make adjustments to the PP considering last year? Should Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos play on the second power play unit? What about the penalty kill without Chandler Stephenson? Better or worse? Do you see the PP in the top 5 and PK in the top 10?

A lot of special teams questions to unpack. Let’s start with the power play.

Do I think the power play needs to adjust? Yes, in one very specific area.

*Pulls out bullhorn*

GET. RID. OF. THE. SLINGSHOT.

The power play was fine last year. When it actually got the puck in the offensive zone, it looked just as lethal as ever. The problem was on the zone entries, which were atrocious. If the penalty kill cleared the puck once, the power play was essentially over. The Caps use a technique called the slingshot in which a defenseman, usually John Carlson, skates the puck to the neutral zone, then turns around and passes it back to a trailing forward who takes it in stride. The point is to maintain possession heading into the offensive zone and the puck carrier can either use his speed to take it himself or pass it to teammates left open by the penalty killers who are defending against the speedy puck carrier. That is how it is supposed to work. In reality, it is garbage and should be burned with fire.

Lots of teams use the slingshot, some of them successfully. The issue is that the Caps are bad at it. They need to either get better or scrap it altogether and I would prefer the latter. If they can figure out how to get the puck into the offensive zone, the power play will return to the potent offensive threat it has been in the past.

Jakub Vrana should absolutely play on the second unit. He was a power play specialist in Hershey and his speed makes him an ideal candidate to attack the offensive zone in the way I described. For now, I would give the nod to Dmitry Orlov over Djoos. I feel Orlov has the higher offensive upside, plus you also have to consider what happens if the puck is turned over and the PK counters. I would rather have Orlov as my only defenseman on the ice defending a rush than Djoos.

With all due respect to Stephenson, the penalty kill should be just fine without him with the additions of Garnet Hathaway, Richard Panik and a full season of Carl Hagelin. I did not see him as the penalty kill specialist that Todd Reirden seemed to last season and I fully expect he is going to spend most if not all of next season in Hershey.

I believe Reirden wanted the penalty kill to look like what Arizona had last season; a strong defensive unit with a counter potential that opponents have to account for. That is why we saw him experiment with players like Evgeny Kuznetsov on the PK.

A strong penalty kill is not built with three good defensive players plus one offensive threat. You need four players who know what they are doing in the defensive zone who can also transition the puck into a counter-attack. What makes Hagelin so effective is that he is incredibly smart in his own zone and also has dangerous speed that can lead to offense.

With more options for the penalty kill and personnel more suited to what Reirden envisioned last season, I expect a much-improved PK. Top ten may be a stretch, but if they can fall somewhere in the 8-15 range, Washington will be good.

Phillip M. writes: T.J. Oshie may end up with more time on the third line to rest him this year and reserve him for use in both power play and penalty kill teams. Do you see that as a likely scenario?

I wrote about this very topic early in the offseason and agree with you. It would certainly benefit Oshie for the reasons you listed. Keep him on the power play and the penalty kill, but reduce his minutes. He has great chemistry with Lars Eller and it makes the third line very dangerous.

Is it likely? Probably not.

This was something the team could do more easily when it had Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky who you could move to the second line. I am not sure they have that option now with Hagelin or Panik.

Hagelin can absolutely play on the second line if you need him to, but I would not put him there for an extended period of time. He scored five goals and 19 points last season. Part of that was playing in Los Angeles which was a bad fit for him, but I do not think he can give you the offense you need from a top-six forward.

Just like all free agents, Panik is a wildcard. He cracked 20 goals once in his career, but he did that while playing on a line with Jonathan Toews. I just do not think Reirden is going to look at the players he has available and elect to play Hagelin or Panik on the second line over a guy like Oshie, even if it would ultimately benefit Oshie over the course of the season.

Douglas F. writes: Everyone knows this is a big season for Lucas Johansen who has shown lots of bright spots every now and then but hasn't shown a lot of consistency. What do you see in the future in the former first-round pick?

I wrote on this earlier this month. You can check out the article here.

When talking about Johansen, we have to remember that he suffered an upper-body injury last year that essentially cost him half the season. The issue for him is that the team is very high on Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary. You can be patient with a sixth-round pick, but when a first-round pick falls behind in the organization depth chart, it is not long before he becomes more valuable to you as a trade asset than as a player.

The knock on Johansen when he was drafted was that he was too skinny and needed to put on weight. When I spoke with him last season, he said he managed to get up to 190 pounds and keep that weight on. When I watched him play, however, it is clear that his puck-moving skills still lag behind where you would expect them to be at this point for a puck-moving defenseman. He is always quick to get the puck off his stick which is good in the defensive zone, but he is too reactionary which leads to turnovers. It seems almost instinctive at this point that whenever the puck is on his stick, his primary goal is to pass it away as quickly as possible. This limits his offensive effectiveness. It is hard to score or set up plays when you instinctively fling the puck off your stick every time it gets close.

If you want my prediction, I think he will ultimately be traded and I would be surprised if he is still in the Caps’ organization a year from now.

Phillip M. writes: I’m all about the Caps but I have a soft spot for our former coach Barry Trotz. Everyone is projecting the New York Islanders being at the bottom of the Metro this year. What are your feelings about the islanders? Could they be the Capitals toughest competition in the Metro again?

The Metro is really hard to predict this season. The knock on the Islanders is that they essentially did nothing in the offseason and replaced their Vezina-winning goalie with Semyon Varlamov. It is dangerous to stand pat in a division that improved as much as the Metro did.

I do believe the Islanders will take a step back, but I could see them reaching the postseason again. Trotz is a tremendous coach so you can expect the same type of defensive performance. Plus, goalie coach Mitch Korn is a wizard. It is probably unreasonable to expect Varlamov to replicate Lehner’s season, but he will undoubtedly improve under Korn.

I do not think New York will challenge the Caps, but I do not seem the falling into the division basement which I have squarely reserved for Columbus.

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, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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‘We DC family:’ After Nationals supported the Caps’ Cup run, Caps eager to return the favor

‘We DC family:’ After Nationals supported the Caps’ Cup run, Caps eager to return the favor

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Hockey games are obviously a lot different for Capitals players than it is for Capitals fans. When it comes to the Washington Nationals, however, the Caps are fans just like anybody else.

While the Caps are focused on the NHL season, they have also been keeping close tabs on the Nationals and their playoff run. Wilson was in the crowd at Nationals Park for Tuesday’s NLCS-clinching win.

“I was there for the first inning and it was loud, it was wild,” he said. “Balls dropping like that, it's crazy.”

It is not uncommon for local teams to support one another, but the bond between the Caps and Nationals seems to run much deeper than just geography.

“It's great,” Alex Ovechkin said. “Happy for team, for boys and for city. They fight hard and hope they going to win it all. We're going to cheer, we're going to be with them and wish them luck.”

As the Caps headed to Dallas for a quick two-game road trip early in October, all the players came to the plane wearing Nationals shirts to show their support. After each game, the team MVP is presented with a Nationals batting helmet in the locker room.

The roots of the relationship between these two teams can be traced back to their previous history of postseason failures.

A Caps team with superstar Alex Ovechkin and a loaded roster could never get past the Pittsburgh Penguins or the second round of the playoffs. The Nationals, meanwhile, suffered their own setbacks as they continually failed to advance past the NLDS despite a dominant rotation and strong lineup.

So as the Caps finally broke through in 2018 and went on a deep run, whether it was because they saw some of themselves in the Caps, it was cathartic to see a team from Washington actually win or because they just like hockey, the Nationals became the Caps’ biggest supporters.

That did not go unnoticed by the Capitals.

“You notice it for sure,” Wilson said. “I think I remember a tweet when I was in Vegas and I think [Max] Scherzer was pitching that game and he was commenting about not having to bat so he could check the score. You see that stuff, it's fun to share the times in D.C. together.”

Scherzer also took to Twitter the day after Washington won the Cup.

“Their support to us over the years has been awesome,” Wilson said. “A bunch of guys in that locker room that I have a ton of respect for.”

Of course when the Caps brought the Cup back to Washington, Nationals Park was one of their first stops. Ovechkin threw out the first pitch and the Nationals fans may have been outnumbered in their own ballpark by all the fans clad in Capitals gear.

The Caps’ win was seen as a turning point for D.C. sports, the moment the curse of Washington sports which had not seen a championship in hockey, baseball, football or basketball since 1992 was finally broken. Sure enough, the Washington Mystics won its first title in franchise history in 2019 and the Nationals are now the first baseball team from Washington to reach the World Series since 1933.

After overcoming the NLDS hump, it became impossible not to notice the similarities between the Nationals’ current run and the 2018 Caps.

“I think there's a bit of an up and down season and a group that really came together,” Wilson said. “I think you hear that out of their locker room a lot. Guys kept coming together throughout the year and wasn't always pretty and it wasn't always happy and fun, but perseverance and look where they are now. That's a special thing when a group of guys can come together and do what they've done. We had a similar thing. Each guy in the room, you wanted to win so badly for. You get a similar feeling as to how they talk about each other through the media and through what I've heard.”

“When any athletes in your town -- obviously the Mystics win a championship, the Nationals doing what they're doing, what we were able to do a couple years ago -- it just changes how everyone carries themselves around town,” Reirden said. “Sports are obviously a hobby for people to watch and a point of relaxation and it's been fun for everyone to kind of go through it. I think more importantly is probably how it's happened. It's not been a quick path and on any of our three teams involved so it's made it more special.”

But the job is not done.

The Nationals now must wait for a winner to emerge from the ALCS which currently stands with the Houston Astros leading the New York Yankees 2-1. Then it is on to the World Series.

One more series and four more wins separate the Nationals from the ultimate goal and you can bet the Caps are going to be cheering for them the whole way.

The Caps haven’t forgotten the support the Nationals gave them in the playoffs back in 2018. Now, they are ready to return the favor.

“It's a pretty cool time to be a sports fan in DC,” Wilson said. “We're just a tiny part of it, but we're taking a back seat. We're supporting them, we're hoping that they can get it done because once you get a taste of it, it's a lot of fun and they've got a bunch of great guys in that room that we're extremely happy for.”

“We D.C. family and we have to support each other,” Ovechkin said, “Doesn't matter it's Nationals, Redskins, Wizards or the Mystics. We respect everybody and we respect each team and we cheering for them.”

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A 78 second rally turns a sure loss into the Caps first win at home

A 78 second rally turns a sure loss into the Caps first win at home

WASHINGTON -- Another sloppy defensive performance looked like it would doom the Capitals, but a furious three-goal rally in the second period turned what looked like a sure defeat into a stunning 4-3 victory, their first at home this season, over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday.

Toronto took an early lead off a short-handed goal from Kasperi Kapanen. Jonas Siegenthaler then was slow to react to a streaking Ilya Mikheyev who torched him to put the Leafs up 2-0. Jakub Vrana made it 2-1 late in the first, but Toronto looked like they had this game well in hand.

But the Caps rallied and completely turned things around in a stretch of just 1:18 in the second period.

Observations from the win

Maybe it’s not the goaltending….

We learned a lot from this game about the goaltending. First off, Braden Holtby is not the problem when it comes to keeping pucks out of the net. Obviously he has to be better than he was on Monday, but the defensive breakdowns from Monday were back again on Wednesday. The worst was a misplay by Siegenthaler who was far too slow to recognize Mikheyev streaking up the ice through the middle. When he received a pass from Kapanen it was already too late. Mikheyev easily skated around Siegenthaler to create the breakaway and the goal.

The second thing to note, Samsonov is very good and is going to be very good, but he is still raw and still developing. The biggest issue I see in his game is his tendency to overcommit. When the puck was on the side of the net, Samsonov would sell out  in anticipation of the shot. There was one instance in the first period where the puck was passed to John Tavares and Samsonov slid over so hard to cover it, he almost took himself out of the net completely. Tavares’ head was down as he tried to control the puck, but if he had his head up, he would have passed that puck back to the middle and it would have been an easy goal.

“He's extremely athletic,” Todd Reirden said after the game. “You go back to some other guys that are his size from his homeland that are active like that, one of the things they have to do when they come over is be a little bit more under control just because of the puck movement and the skill level of guys changing pucks side to side that you don't take yourself out of plays.”

To his credit, Samsonov settled down after the first period, which Reirden also noted. I wonder if it will be hard on goalie coach Scott Murray to coach two players with such contrasting styles. Holtby is the exact opposite of Samsonov with calm, cool movements that some detractors incorrectly identify as a disinterest.

So what do you do Friday? You put Holtby back in. If you don’t then you are needlessly creating a goalie controversy. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t play the backup two-straight games, but it means a heck of a lot if you go back to Samsonov after an OK, but not great game. There’s no need. Go back to Holtby and hope that he has had enough time to reset and go forward knowing you can be comfortable putting in Samsonov 25-30 games.

John Carlson is incredible

The debate is now over. For years there were still the people who would cling to their old bias and reach out to me on Twitter complaining Carlson was overrated because they saw him turn the puck over that one time a few years ago.

Carlson went from good to great in the Stanley Cup year, to elite in 2018-19 and now he has gone even beyond that. This is a superstar player.

WIth one goal and two assists, Carlson now has 14 points on the season (and was briefly leading the entire league in points). From where I was sitting in the press box, I was essentially directly down the line from him on the Jakub Vrana goal. Carlson had the puck and it looked like he had no outlet to pass whatsoever. He faked the shot, and suddenly I saw the seas part and there was a direct lane to Vrana for the one-timer. I saw it as it happened, but Carlson clearly saw it before it happened and anticipated that play. It was brilliant.

But you already knew he was good on offense. The knock on him has always been his defense, but we need to get over that. Morgan Rielly is a highly regarded defenseman across the league and someone, with 72 points last year, who received some votes and consideration for the Norris last season. No one could have watched Wednesday's game and come away thinking that Rielly is more important to his team than Carlson is. If you did, you were watching a different game than I was.

Carlson is an elite defenseman and I will say it now, he will be a Norris finalist this season.

Turning point

It took the Caps 78 seconds to turn a game that looked similar to Monday’s debacle into a win. Evgeny Kuznetsov glided into the offensive zone faster than anyone on the ice could skate and tucked the puck around the outstretched pad of Michael Hutchinson. Just 11 seconds later, Nicklas Backstrom cashed in on the hard forechecking work of T.J. Oshie. The flustered Leafs took two penalties giving Washington 1:51 of a 5-on-3 power play which Carlson scored on. Suddenly a 2-1 deficit for the Caps turned into a 4-2 lead all in a stretch of just 78 seconds.

Play of the night

Kuznetsov passed the puck up to the offensive blue line. A skating Carl Hagelin tapped it to Carlson who entered the zone, pulled back and handed it off to Kuznetsov who took over.

When Kuznetsov gets the puck there are three Maple Leaf players in front of him. He pumps the legs once and then glides in on net and somehow he is behind all three players and in alone on Hutchinson with relative ease.

This is art.

Kuznetsov’s speed virtually never changes during the play. There’s no frantic, choppy acceleration, just a smooth glide that allows him to skate in, wait out Hutchinson and tuck the puck around his outstretched pad all in seemingly one fluid motion.

Stat of the night

With one goal and two assists, Carlson now has 14 points on the season. At the time, that led the NHL. Both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl passed him later on Wednesday with multi-point performances, but for a few hours, Carlson was the league-leader in points.

Quote of the night

Todd Reirden on how he felt when the team went down 2-0:

“I have to tell you tonight I wasn't concerned when we were down 2-0. I thought they converted on a couple chances but I had a good feeling about our team tonight, that there was no panic, we stayed with our game, we built and built and built, shift after shift and it was a matter of time. I was confident in our group tonight. Despite what happened last game, I felt felt strong about it.”

So while Twitter was imploding and people were gathering the pitchforks and torches in the first period, Reirden had no doubt. That’s why coaches don’t read Twitter.

Fran predictions

Vrana had one goal and another hit the post. So close!

This could explain what happened in those 78 seconds.

Ovechkin (1 assist), Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) and Oshie (1 assist) did combine for four points. Carlson meanwhile had one goal and two assists. Nice job!

The cow was in section 225 or, as I like to call him, Sir Loin.

Wrong.

What the heck are “lizard” and “spock?” Is this a thing? Have I been playing rock, paper, scissors wrong?

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