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Caps’ Holtby and Backstrom shrug off pressure of a contract year

Caps’ Holtby and Backstrom shrug off pressure of a contract year

 It is almost impossible to imagine the Capitals without Braden Holtby or Nicklas Backstrom. 

Try it. The memories come flooding back. From Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin together on stage on NHL draft night in Vancouver in 2006 to Holtby making The Save against Vegas in the Stanley Cup Final in 2018 and a million moments in between. 

But in less than 10 months the two men, pillars of the organization, Stanley Cup winners, will be unrestricted free agents and there are plenty of hurdles left to overcome to keep them in Washington. Yet neither one appears at all worried about it. 

“That stuff has never really been a thing that’s stressed me out much,” Holtby said at media day on Thursday at MedStar Iceplex. “I feel really fortunate that I get to play here anyways. We have a great team this year and that’s the exciting part. That we have another chance to win. Everything outside of that always sorts itself out. There’s people that are much smarter than me that figure that stuff out. I just try and stop the puck.”

If you were going to pick two Capitals to navigate the pitfalls of a contract year, Backstrom and Holtby are your guys. Holtby has mastered the ability to conserve mental energy during the season and push away all distractions. Just check out his post-game media sessions sometimes. There are no smiles or extra jokes. Just quick, concise answers and move on to the next task. 

Backstrom, too, has made an art of avoiding the unnecessary. The game will frustrate you enough as it is. There’s no need to add to that by thinking about where he’ll be in 10 months. 

“I’m honestly just going to focus on hockey. I’m not going to think about the other thing,” Backstrom said. “If it happens, it happens, but I’m just going to focus on having as good of a season as I can and win games and hopefully reach for the top again.”

Backstrom joked that he didn’t know why the reporters were even asking. He just signed a 10-year deal. That, of course, happened in 2010. He was 22 and just at the start of a career that will end with him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s forgiven if it seems like only yesterday. 

But time moves fast in pro sports. He and Holtby are husbands and fathers now. Backstrom will be 32 in November. Holtby turns 30 on Monday. This upcoming contract could be the last big one for both. It would be natural if they felt that pressure, internalized it. Their teammates say that isn’t likely.  

“Everyone reacts to it different. I’m not going to sit them down and ask them how they’re feeling or anything,” said defenseman John Carlson, who played out his contract in 2018 and signed an eight-year deal last summer after Washington won the Stanley Cup. “They’re both professionals who have played hockey at the highest, highest level for a long, long time. So, I can’t see it affecting them too much, those two. Maybe if it was different people, I’d have a different opinion on it.”

Capitals GM Brian MacLellan recently met with Holtby’s agent David Kaye. He hopes to do the same with Backstrom’s agent Marc Levine next week. But there’s no indication serious talks about an extension are in the works for either player right now. 

The sense is the Capitals want to see where the season goes, too. It’s an older group. Alex Ovechkin has just two years left on his contract. He turns 34 next week. T.J. Oshie is 33 in December. Carlson turns 30 in January. It remains a competitive team, hopeful for a fifth straight Metropolitan Division title and the chance to again be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. 

But there’s no rush and Backstrom and Holtby can handle that  - at least for now. That helps keep what could otherwise become a thorny issue on the back burner for two of the best players to ever play for the Capitals.  

“We’re going to communicate with both players,” MacLellan said. “Both guys have been a big part of our organization, a big part of our success. We’d love to keep both. We’re going to play it out until the end here.”

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Capitals complete undefeated month, Ovechkin lets up on Niskanen and is Oshie the best shootout player ever?

Capitals complete undefeated month, Ovechkin lets up on Niskanen and is Oshie the best shootout player ever?

The Capitals have not lost in regulation in a month. With their 2-1 shootout victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday, Washington extended its point streak to 13 games. The Caps have won 11 of their last 12 and have not lost in regulation since Oct. 14.

Check out Wednesday's game recap here.

Observations from the win

Panik is close

This was easily Richard Panik’s best game as a Cap. He had four shots on goal in the first period and six for the game. He had only seven shots on goal total in his nine games prior to Wednesday. He looked like one of the more dangerous offensive players for Washington and the third line actually looked offensively dangerous.

Now here’s the key, Panik has to continue playing like this. He can’t deliver a performance like this once every 10 games, this needs to be the new normal and not the exception.

Radko Gudas

Yeah, this game mattered to Gudas. He was far more aggressive in the offensive zone than we have seen him at any point this season. In the first period, he cut through the middle of the offensive zone and dangled the puck like a scoring winger. He nearly scored and that would have been a goal to remember.

No consistency by the refs

Slashing is called differently in today’s NHL than it was ten years ago. Heck, it is different than it was five years ago. Old-school hockey enthusiasts hate it, but whatever. It's fine. There’s not enough padding on the gloves and players get hurt from even innocent-looking slashes. It's better to have a few soft calls in the game than more broken fingers.

If you are going to call those light slashes as penalties, that’s fine, but you have to do it consistently. The issue is not that refs are calling too many slashes, it’s just that there is no consistency with those calls.

Jakub Vrana was called for a very light slash on Ivan Provorov in the second period. By the letter of the law, it was a slash. OK, they called it and that means that this is the standard you have now set. In the third period, Sean Couturier gave Wilson a whack in front of the net while he was battling for the puck. Ten years ago, no one would have batted an eyelash over it, t was just a light tap. But the refs set the standard with the Vrana slash, yet there was no call. You could see Wilson, he is used to having grown men throw their fists at his face, complain about what was a light tap to the refs. The severity of the slash was not the problem, consistency was.

That’s the frustrating part. It’s not that the Vrana slash was called, it’s that the same standard was not kept throughout the game.

Ovechkin on Niskanen

In the second period, Alex Ovechkin had Matt Niskanen square in his sights. The commentators on the broadcast praised Ovechkin for following through on his hit even though it was against his former teammate. I hate to disagree, but it sure looks to me like Ovechkin could have ended Niskanen with this hit. I’m fairly certain Ovechkin took something off this, but you be the judge:

Eastern conference

The Caps have played only eight games against the Eastern Conference in their first 20. In those eight games, Washington has not lost a single one in regulation and now has a record of 7-0-1.

Turning point

After the first period, this looked like it was going to be an easy win for the Caps who were completely dominating. After two periods, it looked like Washington would have to settle for a narrow victory. Then Nic Dowd toe picked in front of Matt Niskanen and fell into the former Caps’ legs. As happens in hockey, one bad penalty call quickly turned into a goal as Claude Giroux scored on a 2-on-1 to tie the game.

That was the difference between a regulation win and a shootout win on Wednesday for Washington.

Play of the game

There were a number of great saves by Holtby as the Flyers began to tip the scales in their favor after the first period. This one stands out as the best as Tyler Pitlick thought he could spin and tuck the puck into the far-side of the net, but Holtby was able to turn him aside with the toe.


Stat of the game

T.J. Oshie is not just one of the best shootout players in the league, he is the best shootout player ever.


Quote of the game

Holtby does not say much after games. He talks about shutting everything out and focusing just on his play. He does not get excited for shutouts or overly down on himself after bad games. His entire focus is helping the team win.

One reporter asked Holtby if playing in a game like Wednesday's is more fun because of how he has to push himself when the oppositions' goalie plays so well. Holtby's answer reflects how much respect he has for Philadelphia's Carter Hart.

"Yeah it is. Especially when it’s a guy that’s fun to play against obviously. Connections in different ways. Being Western Canadian, I root for those guys. It was fun. It was fun to see him play really well and it was fun to compete like that."

Fan predictions

Gudas and Holtby were closest. Gudas was buzzing and nearly scored in the first period. Holtby allowed only one goal and was 13:45 away from the shutout.

The Caps as a team could not muster two goals against Hart so that streak is now over.

Ovechkin fell just a bit shy of scoring the 224 goals he needed to pass Gretzky’s record on Wednesday. Oh well, there’s always Friday’s game.

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Lucky 13: Caps extend point streak to 13 games with shootout victory in Philadelphia

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Lucky 13: Caps extend point streak to 13 games with shootout victory in Philadelphia

The Capitals could not put away the pesky Philadelphia Flyers in regulation or overtime on Wednesday, but finally won 2-1 in a shootout to extend their point streak to 13 games. The Caps dominated early, but could not get more than one goal past Carter Hart through 65 minutes. Still, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov were there in the shootout to give the Caps two points.

Washington now has 11 wins in its last 13 games. Here is how the Caps won.

A dominant first period

The Caps played one of the strongest periods of the season in the first, dominating in just about every facet of the game. Washington outshot Philadelphia 16-5 in the first 20 minutes. Richard Panik almost outshot the Flyers by himself with four shots on goal.

The Flyers did well to keep the Caps to the perimeter for the most part, but when they did manage to get to Carter Hart, the young netminder made a number of strong saves to keep the Flyers in it.

The fourth line finally got to Hart as Brendan Leipsic parked himself in front for the screen, then tapped in the easy rebound after Hart got a pad on the initial shot.

Braden Holtby

Washington dominated the first period, but the game bogged way down after the opening frame. After outshooting Philadelphia 16-5 in the first, the Flyers began to take control and fired another 26 shots on goal in the final two periods and overtime.

Holby walked away with 30 saves on 31 total shots for his fifth-straight win.

Oshie and Kuznetsov

With the game tied through 65 minutes, the Caps looked to T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov in the shootout to finish off the game. Mr. Reliable Oshie skated in slow to open up Hart’s 5-hole then snapped the shot through it before he could even react. Kuznetsov had the Caps’ second shot, deked the Flyer’s netminder, and shot the puck off the post and into the roof.

Washington scored on each of their first two shots and that would be all they needed for the win.

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