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Capitals turn experimental as Stanley Cup playoffs approach

Capitals turn experimental as Stanley Cup playoffs approach

WASHINGTON – The Capitals are sick and they are tired and they are injured and they are experimenting.

That’s the takeaway with six games left to go in the regular season after a 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday at Capital One Arena. Todd Reirden mixed his defensive pairs routinely and did the same in the third period with his forward lines, which led to a goal for Jakub Vrana.

Washington extended its lead in the Metropolitan Division to three points over the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins. But they have been forced to look at different options thanks to an injury to defenseman Michal Kempny and illness spreading through the forward ranks at a bad time.

And so that’s how John Carlson started the game on the right side of the top pairing as usual, but was soon on the left side of the ice, with Nick Jensen moving up to replace Christian Djoos. At various times, Brooks Orpik played with Jensen and Djoos on the third pair. Kempny is out indefinitely, so Reirden doesn’t have much time to configure his ideal pairings. And trying to win a division title while doing so is problematic. 

“I feel perfectly comfortable playing with any of our D,” said Jensen, who was acquired just before the NHL trade deadline in late February. “I think they're all capable of playing great defense, and I think they're all really great D and we tend to all be on the same page a lot of the time. When we're switching up D-pairings there, it might be a little bit of an adjustment period, but we'll get used to it as it goes down the line as we keep playing with each other.”

They’d rather have Kempny, of course. Washington had turned the tide on shot attempts during the 10 games after Jensen was acquired and the lineup was stable. It was a good sign heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Unfortunately, Kempny is out indefinitely and no one is sure if or when he will return.    

“We're looking for the right combinations that work for us that can set us up for future success,” Reirden said. “Just some guys that aren't 100-percent in terms of lets say sickness wise that are low on energy so you have to manage those minutes as well. So there's a lot of things in play that cause for that type of mix and match stuff both with up front and on our blue line.” 

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What's more important, the goalie or the defense?

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What's more important, the goalie or the defense?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 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.

Nathan S. writes: How important are goalies vs. defense? If the Islanders can make journeyman Robin Lehner an all-star caliber goalie or Blues can win a Cup riding a mostly unproven goalie, then do teams need to pay $10 million per goalie or whatever it costs for Carey Price, Sergei Bobrovsky, etc.? To that end, is a solution to the Caps’ defensive woes to adopt a more defense-first system like the Isles? I thought that was the plan with all the free agent changes.

This is a great question and the answer to the first part is going to be totally unsatisfying: It depends on who you ask.

The Islanders are a good example of the difference a good defense can make. Another is the Carolina Hurricanes who made it to the conference final with a Petr Mrazek, Curtis McElhinney tandem. That's not exactly Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur. On the other hand, one of the major reasons for the Blues’ turnaround last season was Binnington taking over in net over Jake Allen. Plus, while I would not label goalie as the most important position, there is no single position in hockey that can have a greater impact on a game or a series than a goalie.

Jaroslav Halak says hi.

He is hardly the only example. Marc-Andre Fleury carried an expansion team into the Stanley Cup Final in 2018. Braden Holtby helped the Caps beat the defending champion Boston Bruins in 2012 in a series they really had no business winning. In fact, for all those people who think Holtby has always been overrated, the fact is that for years he covered up the defensive deficiencies of the Caps. I’m not talking about right now, he’s struggling and only time will tell if he is able to play his way back into being himself, but in the past.

Ever wonder why a team with this much offensive firepower as the Caps have boasted over the years has only ever advanced past the second round once? It wasn’t because of Holtby who has one of the best playoff save percentages of all time and it wasn't because of an offense led by perhaps the best goal scorer of all-time.

So getting back to your question, it depends on the general manager. Some are willing to commit huge contracts to star goalies, others would prefer to build up the defense. It’s not as if the Florida Panthers were unaware of what the Islanders or Hurricanes did last year. Yet, they were still willing to drop $10 million per year to sign Bobrovsky.

For me personally, I would not commit that much money to a goalie. The NHL is moving more and more towards goalie tandems and it is no coincidence that the Cup run came in a year when Holtby had played fewer games than in any of the previous three seasons. I still think you need a bona fide No. 1 for the playoffs, but not at such a crippling price tag. Get an upper-tier No. 1, aim for him to play around 50 games and spend the rest of the money you saved on a backup and the defense.

The offseason focus for the Caps was definitely to improve defensively, but you can’t judge how they have done until Michal Kempny returns. Believe me, a defense-first plan does not include Tyler Lewington playing every night.

Nathan S. writes: What newly acquired players are Caps having buyers' remorse and might be candidates to get moved later this year? It appears Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen are both struggling and would be the top two candidates to be traded or waived. Panik is probably unmovable with larger contract but he appears to be a bad fit too.

OK, let’s pump the brakes here. The Caps have played eight games. Every player on the team, every single one of them, is going to have a bad stretch for at least that long at some point in the season. The longest scoring drought of Alex Ovechkin’s career is 10 games. Just last season Nicklas Backstrom had a 12-game stretch in which he scored no goals and only five assists. I wouldn't trade or waive either of those guys.

Let’s be clear. It is OK to be critical of a player for poor play. No one gets a free pass. These points count just as much in the standings as the points in March. Having said that, a player coming to a new team sometimes needs time to adjust and it would be foolish to simply declare any new acquisition a total bust when we are still in October.

Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway have been great. Carl Hagelin was great when he was picked up last season. Has he been as good this year? No, but he hasn't been bad. He is the team’s best forward penalty killer and the Caps currently rank 8th in the NHL at 84.6-percent. Last year, they finished 24th. Does that look like a bad signing? Not one bit.

Richard Panik has struggled, but consider the role he is being asked to play. He is supposed to be the offensive focal point of a third line that gets limited minutes while also being a strong two-way forward and penalty killer. That’s a lot to ask. If you did not expect a Hagelin, Lars Eller, Panik line to take a step back offensively from what the Caps had last year, I don’t know what to tell you. The problem there is your expectations, not the third line. Depth offense was always going to take a step back without Brett Connolly who could score 20 goals on limited third-line minutes and no power play time. That's a skill and it's one the Caps willingly gave up for defense. I think people need to adjust their expectations for what you think Hagelin, Eller and Panik are going to produce offensively this season.

Panik has to be better than he has been thus far for sure, but I am not willing to close the book on him yet.

The problem with Gudas and Jensen is that you have two right-shot defensemen who look like solid third-pair players. That’s great, but it leaves the team with a hole in the second pair.

Trading for Jensen made sense at the time. If you want to quibble with the move, the issue is signing him to a four-year extension sight-unseen based on his success in a very different defensive system. I don’t think anyone would have anticipated him struggling quite as much as he has, but I think he could be a good third-pair guy.

Let’s see what the defense looks like when Kempny comes back before we start moving pieces around.

@tarzanegg on Twitter writes: Radko Gudas got bumped up to the 2nd defensive pair. Lack of faith in Nick Jensen?

Jensen has been OK, but not great. I think it says more about how much the team likes Gudas than it does about Jensen. I don’t like Jensen playing with Lewington because it means Jensen playing on the left which is something he struggles at. For now, the team has no choice. You certainly cannot put Lewington on his off-side. He is struggling enough as it is.

William B. writes: Why has Bobby Nardella yet to play in a single game for Hershey when he is apparently fully healthy? He looked great when I saw him play live with the Bears in person at the end of last season. He didn’t look out of place at all moving up to a high-level professional league and having minimal practice time to learn systems and gain chemistry with teammates. These college UFA signings are like found money for NHL clubs. They didn’t have to use a pick on them in the draft or give up anything in a trade to acquire the player. If the Caps want to be successful for the remainder of the Ovechkin era and beyond its crucial to do everything possible to develop these “free” prospects into NHL players. I just don’t understand why AHL vets/NHL long shots are getting ice time over Nardella.

I spoke with a team official on this to confirm there is no injury for Nardella. This is just a coach’s decision.

The problem is that Hershey has nine defensemen on the roster and six spots in the lineup. Further complicating things is the fact that the top four is set with Alex Alexeyev and Erik Burgdoerfer as the top pair and Martin Fehervary and Christian Djoos on the second. That means Lucas Johansen, Connor Hobbs, Colby Williams, Tobias Geisser and Nardella are all competing for playing time on that bottom pair.

Burgdoerfer is an AHL veteran and I like Alexeyev and Fehervary playing with players who have a little bit of experience so it is hard to quibble with that top four.

Is nine defensemen too many? I don’t know enough about the day-to-day operations of an AHL team to be able to answer that. It seems like it would be beneficial to send one or two of those nine to the ECHL to get more playing time, but that does not seem to be the plan for now.

I’m not as sold on Nardella as you are. He was fine last season and fine in camp. I can assure you though that If he really wowed the coach, he would be playing. Everything you said about the benefit of college free agents is true if they work out. Wanting Nardella to be an NHL caliber player and him actually being one, however, are two different things.

@BelleLegacy on Twitter writes: Would a trade for Josh Ho-Sang (to play in Hershey) be a good move for the Caps org as it is low on forward prospects? Besides reclamation projects, how else can the organization stock future high-end prospects while Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom keep the team in the playoffs?

I actually thought about this too. Why a team like Ottawa wouldn’t take a chance and claim a player like Josh Ho-Sang, I don’t know. What have they got to lose? They have tons of cap space and they stink. Why not add him to the lineup and see what he can do? If he’s bad, put him back on waivers. The Senators, however, have their own scouts so they must not be all that high on him.

When it comes to the Caps, first off it would have made no sense to claim him off waivers because he would have had to be put back on waivers to go to Hershey and New York could have easily just reclaimed him.

OK, but what about a trade? If the Caps think Ho-Sang is a future top-six player and they can buy low, great! They should. I just don’t know if that’s what anyone thinks of Ho-Sang at this point.

I have not seen this guy play so I don’t know just how well I can answer this question. From what I know of the situation there are a few red flags. First, it is not as if the Islanders are dealing with an abundance of offensive talent. The fact that he can’t make that team is a concern. It doesn’t mean he will never be an NHL player, it just means you have to ask why is he not there yet and how much more time does he need to develop?

Teams, coaches, general managers can get stubborn about a player sometimes so you have to come up with your own evaluation of him. Maybe he’s great, but he just rubs Lou Lamoriello the wrong way. I assume someone with the Caps’ organization has seen Ho-Sang play so they would have a better feel for how good he is, but for me from an outside perspective, it’s an issue that he can’t make a team that would seemingly benefit from another good offensive addition. His numbers in the AHL don’t blow me away either. They are good, but not great. He was tied for 25th in assists in the AHL last season and did not rank in the top 100 in terms of points per game.

The Caps have had plenty of reclamation projects in the past, but those happen because the player has been scouted and the team thinks they can get more out of him. They saw potential in Brett Connolly and Michal Kempny. They didn’t go into those deals thinking these guys stink but maybe they can do better here. If the Caps think Ho-Sang is a top-six player who won’t implode the locker room, sure, go for it. If he is a depth player it’s not worth it.

While the Caps don’t have much top-six talent in the pipeline, there are plenty of depth players. I am not going to go out of my way to send assets to a division rival to pick up another depth player, especially one in which there could be some off-ice concerns.

Plus, if you are the Islanders, would you want to trade him within the division? Unless you are 100-percent sure he is a bust, there is a high probability of embarrassment potential there and teams hate that.

Just imagine if George McPhee had made the Filip Forsberg trade with someone in the Caps’ division. That would have made it even worse.

Thanks for all your questions! 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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