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Capitals mailbag: Will the real fourth line please stand up?

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Capitals mailbag: Will the real fourth line please stand up?

It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the Feb. 13 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.

Ben C. writes: Why don’t they play Dmitrij Jaskin more? He may not score as much but does so much more. Why not a 4th line of Jaskin, Nic Dowd and Travis Boyd?

Michael K. writes: What is the deal with the numerous line changes? Jaskin has showed that he more than deserves to be an every night starter over the likes of Devante Smith-Pelly and Chandler Stephenson, yet he’s scratched for multiple games at a time. Are the inconsistencies relating to line changes affecting chemistry and the play of the team? Is Todd Reirden starting to panic?

I don’t see the frequent changes as a sign of panic, I think Reirden just has not been able to settle on what he sees as the best combination for the fourth line. Part of that is because the team has dealt with so many injuries and Andre Burakovsky took a tour on the fourth when he was in the dog house.

I asked Reirden Monday about Jaskin once again getting scratched on Monday:

I use [Jaskin] at the end of a penalty kill and then it ends up in the back of our net. Those are situations where we have to find people that can be used in all different areas of the game, especially back-to-backs. I think that the penalty killing attributes that Stephenson and Smith-Pelly have add a little bit different element to us so don't have to use our top guys on penalty kill situations tonight.

I also asked him about when he wants to get some consistency on his lines and he said he’s not going to be married to anything until after the trade deadline.

I’m fine with some shuffling on the fourth line throughout the season – with two extra forwards, you need to get guys playing time – but I think it’s getting to be a bit much. Jaskin, to me, is someone that should be getting more games than the 34 he has played in. He plays well and has a positive impact almost every time he’s in the lineup. In my mind, the Jaskin, Dowd, Boyd line has been the best fourth line this team has shown this season and they haven’t gotten much opportunity of late. It’s hard to build much consistency with the lines changes every one or two games. Sometimes players on the fourth line make mistakes, but Jaskin definitely seems to get scratched for them more often than anybody else and I believe there are two reasons why.

First, Reirden believes both Smith-Pelly and Stephenson are better on the penalty kill and he said as much in the quote above. The second reason, and it is not something Reirden has said but is just a theory of mine, is because Smith-Pelly and Stephenson were part of the championship lineup that helped win the Caps their first Stanley Cup. These players were trusted when it mattered the most and they delivered. I believe that’s why Reirden will lean more on players like Smith-Pelly, Stephenson, and Brooks Orpik over players like Jaskin and Jonas Siegenthaler.

The Caps are all-in on defending the Cup and Brian MacLellan has made at least two trades at the deadline every year since being general manager so yes, I do believe the Caps are going to make at least one trade.

I still believe Andre Burakovsky will be available if the right deal comes along. Yes, he is playing well now, but we’ve seen this play out before. With 25 games left in the season, plus the playoffs, do we really expect Burakovsky to play consistently well that long? The fact that he is playing well is a good thing as it should increase his value. Having said that, considering how much the team values keeping its championship lineup together, I would not be surprised if they decide to hold onto him for the playoffs.

But what will they bring in? You can pretty much take it to the bank that they will bring in a defenseman. MacLellan has added a defenseman every trade deadline and I don’t expect this one to be any different. What they do on offense will be dependent on what they decide to do with Burakovsky. Obviously they will have to add a player to the third line if they want to trade him. I think they will at least explore adding a strong faceoff player, but only if he brings something else to the table as well, like penalty killing.

To summarize, I would assume we see MacLellan add a depth defenseman and at least explore adding a depth forward, though I also wouldn’t be surprised if they stand pat on offense.

Actually, I disagree with you. The second pair has been a major issue, but I am much more concerned by the play of Matt Niskanen than I am Dmitry Orlov. Because that pair was struggling, Reirden split them up during the losing streak putting Orlov with John Carlson and Niskanen with Michal Kempny. Orlov was fine, but the second pair again struggled, furthering my belief that the issue is Niskanen.

As for how to fix that, that’s a good question. I hated the Orlov, Carlson and Kempny, Niskanen pairings, as those players do not complement one another as well as the original pairs. That’s not the solution. Niskanen is a righty so moving him down to the third pair doesn’t make sense because it would mean an Orpik, Niskanen pair which is also not a good combo. Do you put Orlov with Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos with Niskanen? Not unless Bowey starts playing better.

Fixing the second pair may be a matter of letting Niskanen play through this just because there do not seem to be any good alternatives despite Washington’s depth on the blue line. And if you think Washington should trade for a top-four defenseman, those players are very expensive, especially rightys. The Caps hit a home run by finding Kempny last season for just a third-round draft pick, chances are lightning will not strike twice and they will not be able to pluck a hidden top-four player from an opponent like they did last year.

Benjamin C. writes: Why does it seem like Caps are undisciplined? Most minor penalties in NHL and nothing is done about it and nothing is changing, at some point this has to be thrown on Todd to blame.

Yes, the penalties are a major problem and, as you correctly note, Washington leads the NHL in minor penalties. It seems like they are undisciplined because the penalties are unnecessary. Brett Connolly’s penalty at the end of their loss to Florida is a great example. Aleksander Barkov had the puck in his own zone with four seconds late and Connolly still felt the need to knock the stick from his hands for no reason.

To say Reirden is doing nothing, however, would be untrue. It is something we know he has addressed in practices and in games. Both he and the players have said as much. He also publicly benched Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jaskin in the first period against the Boston Bruins after they both took bad penalties.

The issue for me is that it was not addressed earlier. This has really been a problem all season and only now does it seem to be a point of emphasis. Habits are hard to break. When penalties were an issue at the start of the season, that’s when you start benching players or moving them down in the lineup or even scratching them. The problem you have now is that there are 25 games left in the season and you are in a tight race in the standings. Can Reirden really afford to bench Kuznetsov and Kempny at this point in the season, the two players with the most minor penalties on the team? Probably not.

It’s fair to blame Reirden for letting the penalties get to this point, but before you grab your pitchforks and torches and conclude that the only explanation is that he is a bad coach, consider this: While the Caps may lead the NHL in minor penalties, the team in second place is Tampa Bay, the top team in the NHL. Coaching is not seen as much of an issue there.

Jimmy H. writes: With the success that Ilya Samsonov is having with the Hershey Bears could you see him coming up to play with the caps anytime soon?

Soon as in next season? Sure. Soon as in this season? No. Unless there’s an injury to Braden Holtby or Pheonix Copley, I do not believe there are any plans to bring Samsonov up. As good as he is playing in the AHL, it still has been an adjustment for him and bringing him up to the NHL in his first North American season would be a lot to ask. It’s better for him to get his minutes in the AHL.

For those of you thinking about Carter Hart and saying bringing your star goalie out of the AHL worked for Philadelphia, you have to consider that Hart grew up playing in North America. He is from Alberta, played junior hockey in the WHL and started this season in the AHL. Again, this is Samsonov’s first season in North America. It is an apples and oranges comparison.

I would not be surprised if Samsonov battles with Pheonix Copley for the backup role in training camp and even gets a few starts next season. For what it’s worth though, MacLellan said in January that he anticipates Samsonov going back to Hershey next season.

Nathan S. writes: Why do Caps often play so poorly to bad and mediocre teams at home? I know that even in the playoffs last year Caps were better on the road for some reason but it does seem that this year Caps are having trouble closing teams out at home and not running anyone out of the building the way Pittsburgh, Nashville, Vegas, Toronto, NYI, etc. often do.

I find zero correlation between how they played at home in the playoffs last season and this season. The Caps’ playoff history weighed on the minds of both the players and the fans and it was probably a relief for the team to be on the road and get away from that. You could feel the tension at home games for the past few years so I’m not surprised they played well on the road.

As for this season, the Caps are 17-9-5 at home. Bad teams play them closely because it’s the NHL and teams can lose to anyone on any given night. Tampa Bay has lost to Anaheim and Ottawa at home, San Jose lost to Arizona and Los Angeles at home, Pittsburgh lost to Carolina and New Jersey at home, etc. I just do not see this as an issue.

Ben C. writes: T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom don’t seem to be getting Ovechkin the puck and that line seems a little slow, why don’t they put Kuznetsov back up there now that he’s playing and skating well?

Ask and ye shall receive.

The Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie line used to be very good and it has enough skill to generate some points, but it is just too slow for today’s NHL and over time its deficiencies become apparent. The problem is, with Kuznetsov not playing well, Reirden could not afford to keep him on the top line so he switched things up. The offense will be much better for the switch.

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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Let’s get physical: Expect Capitals-Lightning rematch to be a rough one

Let’s get physical: Expect Capitals-Lightning rematch to be a rough one

Last season the Capitals came up against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning were heavily favored, but the Caps walked away victorious in seven games. One reason was because of the physical play. Washington flat out pushed the Lightning around.

On Saturday, Washington and Tampa Bay met for the first time since the Conference Final and the Lightning clearly made an effort to show that this year, things would be different.

Tampa Bay officially outhit the Caps 33-23 as they threw their bodies around at everything dressed in white. Alex Killorn’s second goal of the night came on a play in which he physically pushed Nick Jensen off the puck on his way to the net. At one point, Ryan McDonagh even had T.J. Oshie in a headlock.

That’s not to say that Washington was pushed around. Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson were giving as much as they took. Wilson hit Mikhail Sergachev with a thunderous hit in the first period and he was ready to drop the gloves with Erik Cernak late in the third after the two exchanged jabs.

So what does this all mean? It means we are in for one heck of a rematch on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., NBCSN).

Game notes:

Familiar foes

Wednesday’s game marks the second of three games between Washington and Tampa Bay in the month of March. They had not played one another prior to Saturday’s meeting.

Back-to-back

The Caps are back in action on Wednesday after playing the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday. For the season, the Caps are 5-5-2 in the second game of a back-to-back. While that’s not terrible, a number of Washington’s worst losses have come on the backend of a back-to-back including a 6-0 loss to New Jersey on Oct. 11, a 7-2 loss to Nashville on Jan. 15 and a 3-0 loss to Columbus on Feb. 12.

The good news is that the Caps were able to stay relatively fresh on Tuesday against an injury-depleted Devils team. The time on ice for all the team’s forwards ranged from 12:03 to 18:26 as Todd Reirden did his best to roll all four lines. On defense, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen carried most of the load each playing for over 21 minutes. John Carlson meanwhile was held to 20:55. None of the other three defensemen played over 20 minutes. Brooks Orpik and Braden Holtby each had the night off as well.

So while this may be a back-to-back, Washington did just enough to get the win on Tuesday while staying fresh for Wednesday’s game.

The Presidents’ Curse?

Tampa Bay has already clinched the Presidents’ Trophy for the season before any other team in the East has managed to clinch a playoff spot. The season the Lightning are having is incredible, but Washington fans know better than anyone that regular season success does not necessarily mean anything for the playoffs.

Of the 32 winners of the Presidents’ Trophy, 11 of those teams have reached the Stanley Cup Final and eight of those teams have won the Cup. Fans usually point to this as evidence of a “curse,” but to be able to pick out one team out of 16 and give that team a 35-percent chance of reaching the final is actually pretty good.

One funny note though, the Lightning clinched a playoff berth in just 68 games, tied for the second fastest in NHL history. The 2008-09 San Jose Sharks also needed just 68 games clinch while the 2009-10 Capitals were the fastest with just 67 games. Both of those teams lost in the first round of the playoffs. Just something to think about.

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Fresh Take: Even if Tampa wins on Wednesday, the Caps are still the champions

Fresh Take: Even if Tampa wins on Wednesday, the Caps are still the champions

The Capitals face the Lightning on Wednesday night. For our new feature, Fresh Takes, Travis Thomas explains why he's not concerned about if the Caps take this one or not.

For years I had to listen to Penguins fans tell me that the Capitals would never beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs when it counted most.

There was nothing more I wanted in the world than to shut those fans up. But time after time, it happened and they ended up being right. I find myself in the same position now as a Caps fan when it pertains to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

I get it, they are leading the league in points by a country mile. They have already wrapped up the President 's Trophy. Nikita Kucherov could literally stop playing right now and still win the Hart Trophy.

Last weekend, the Lightning outclassed the Caps 6-3 in an impressive win. Despite all of this, I still believe the Lightning will crumble when it matters most because that’s what they always do.

Or at least in important recent Caps history they have.

Let’s remember: The Lightning were the top dogs in the East last season as well and the Capitals beat them in an electrifying seven-game series. 

I’ll never forget the dominance on display in Tampa for Game Seven where Washington skunked them 4-0.

So go ahead Tampa, maybe you win again tonight. Heck, maybe you win in Tampa next weekend against the Caps as well.

Just remember, when it counts, that’s when Champions always rise up. We’ll see you in May again, I’m sure of it.   

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