ARLINGTON – The record is the same and so is the opponent, but Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan thinks his team might be better than the one that won a Stanley Cup.
Almost exactly one year after the Capitals played the Ottawa Senators in their first game after the NHL trade deadline with a 35-21-7 record, they do so again tonight at Capital One Arena.
Washington is again 35-21-7. It again is in second place in the Metropolitan Division. There are again 19 games to go. And the trade-deadline deals were once more modest improvements at positions of need.
Last year that was enough to win a Stanley Cup. MacLellan has no idea if that will happen again. But he believes the pieces are in place to make another run after trades for forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen.
“It’s pretty much the same roster. Maybe a little better in my mind,” MacLellan said Monday after the 3 p.m. deadline had passed. “I think Hagelin helps. I think Jensen helps. I think if we can get back to that level that we got to probably around this time last year, it should be just as good a team as it was back then – maybe even better.”
The Capitals beat Ottawa 3-2 on Feb. 27 last year. It had added defensemen Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek in deals that received little attention at the time. They finished 14-5-0 and won the Metro for the third year in a row before embarking on that championship journey.
Hagelin has twice played a big role on a Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins and been to the Final three times. Jensen has drawn good reviews in a breakthrough season with the Detroit Red Wings. Both players should help on a penalty kill that has struggled. Both are high-end skaters whom the Caps believe let them play at a higher tempo. Jensen should also help reduce the minutes workload on fellow right defensemen John Carlson and Matt Niskanen.
Last year, the Capitals went 2-2 after the deadline, including that Ottawa win, as they found their legs before winning nine of their next 10. Kempny was a good fit with Carlson. But MacLellan noted on Monday that defense isn’t just about the blueliners.
Washington has allowed 16 more goals (202) than at this point last season and the forwards are a big part of that, too. Jensen will help, especially since he’s replacing second-year players Madison Bowey, who was traded to the Red Wings in the deal, and Christian Djoos. But the overall commitment has to be closer to last spring’s style if the Capitals want to emulate that strong finish.
“Forwards play a significant role in helping out defensemen through the neutral zone and back into our end,” MacLellan said. “I think sometimes we get out of sync with the D and the forwards. It's going to be important for us, just like it was last year, to find that neutral zone and to find our defensive zone game. It's been inconsistent and we need to get better at it.”
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