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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

On November 16, 2017, the Washington Capitals were handed a brutal 6-2 loss in Denver at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. It was the second blowout loss the team had suffered in as many games and dropped the Caps’ record to 10-9-1. That moment would be the low point of the season.

A year to the day, the Caps returned to Denver. They were given every reason to quit Friday and repeat last year’s disastrous result and yet, the Caps rallied for a 3-2 overtime win to improve their record to 9-7-3.

Coming off a loss Wednesday in Winnipeg, Washington found out earlier on Friday that the team would be without both T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov who had both suffered injuries against the Jets. In net, Braden Holtby was out as well meaning the Caps would have to turn to backup goalie Pheonix Copley for his third start in as many games. Backing him up would be Ilya Samsonov, a highly touted prospect but a player without a single minute of NHL experience.

And, just in case that all did not seem daunting enough, the Caps also spotted the Avalanche a 1-0 lead just 68 seconds into the game.

One year ago, the Caps gave up the first goal of that game just 17 seconds in. When Colorado scored early again, it felt like Friday’s game was going to end up being just like that blowout loss from a year ago.

But it didn’t.

“We were shorthanded, everyone stepped up,” Tom Wilson said. “We talked about guys stepping up before the game and we got it done.”

The Capitals battled back and took control of the game in the first and second periods, tallying two goals to take a 2-1 lead. A late goal by Colorado would tie the game, but Todd Reirden reminded his players of what happened in Montreal – a game in which the Caps gave up three goals in the final four minutes of the game to lose 6-4 – and challenged them not to let that happen again. The team responded.

With all the momentum on the side of the Avalanche, Devante Smith-Pelly drew a holding penalty with less than two minutes remaining and Nicklas Backstrom would score on the resulting power play in overtime.

“When you have a lot of guys hurt, it was nice to see that we really got together, played a good defensive game, everyone was on the same page and blocking shots and doing all the little things right,” Backstrom said.

The game was reminiscent of the Game 6 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs last season. With one win separating them from advancing to the conference final, Washington had to somehow find a way to beat their biggest rival in Pittsburgh and they had to do it with no Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky or Tom Wilson. When their backs were against the wall, the Caps responded and managed to defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions 2-1 in overtime.

“It was important for guys to step up in different situations with obviously very key guys out, but we did it in the playoffs,” Smith-Pelly said. “We had key guys out at times. I guess this group is used to guys coming in and out and stepping up.”

The Caps returned most of their Stanley Cup winning roster for the 2018-19 season and fans have been waiting for this year’s team to start playing like last year’s again. A record of 8-7-3 heading into Friday’s game was hardly what people expected from this team early on.

But the win in Colorado was one of the team’s most impressive wins of the season, and perhaps the closest Washington has come since the 7-0 win in the opener to looking like that championship squad. Not because they looked dominant – they didn’t – but because when their backs were against the wall, you saw what this team was really made of mentally. Every time they were challenged in the playoffs – whether it was going down 2-0 to Columbus, playing the unbeatable Penguins, facing elimination against Tampa Bay or facing the red-hot Vegas Golden Knights – the Caps responded.

On Friday, Washington was challenged and again, and the Caps responded.

Last year’s game in Colorado proved to be a turning point. The team was at a cross-roads. They could check out and watch the inevitable coaching and roster shakeup happen, or they could rally to save the season. The Caps made a choice and the rest is history.

Maybe Friday’s game will mean nothing in the greater context of the 82-game season, or maybe this game will again prove to be a turning point. Maybe in the spring we will again circle Nov. 16 and remember it as the game in which the defending champs put the rest of the league on notice that they’re still here, they’re still the champs and they’re not going down without a fight.

“Every time we have injuries, it’s going to happen and it’s going to get other guys to get that opportunity,” Backstrom said. "I thought we played pretty good today, we didn’t give them a whole lot. That was a nice win, we needed that.”

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Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s semifinal matchup:

Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

2018-19 stats

Joonas Donskoi (27 years old): 80 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 14 goals, 23 assists, 37 points, 13:25 TOI

Playoffs: 12 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 12:26 TOI

Carl Gunnarsson (32 years old): 25 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points, 15:15 TOI

Playoffs: 19 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 14:57 TOI, won Stanley Cup

Hockey-Graph contract projections 

Joonas Donskoi: 3 years, $2,847,521 cap hit

Carl Gunnarsson: 1 year, $731,159 cap hit

The case for Joonas Donskoi

Maybe Andre Burakovsky’s qualifying offer of $3.25 million means he’s back with the Capitals for another year. But it doesn’t preclude a trade and in Donskoi you’d have a similar option at a cheaper price, which matters if you only have $9.2 million in cap space left for now.

Donskoi made the offense better in San Jose in whatever role he was asked to play. He can go up and down the lineup and had a consistency to his game that Burakovsky at times lacks. Donskoi’s stats may not always reflect that, but making his teammates around him better is a valuable asset. Either way, depth scoring is important and a priority for the Capitals. 

Donskoi has every bit the Stanley Cup playoff experience as Burakovsky does if that matters to you. Donskoi has nine goals and 12 assists in 50 playoff games and Burakovsky has nine goals and nine assists in 56 playoff games. Not much to chose between the team except Donskoi would be cheaper if Washington decided to trade Burakovsky. 

The case for Carl Gunnarsson

The Caps will need a No. 6/7 defenseman after Brooks Orpik retired on Tuesday. Yes, they gave a qualifying offer to RFA defenseman Christian Djoos and they have Jonas Siegenthaler under contract, too. Both are natural left side defensemen. Going with the kids is an option. But both of them? That becomes problematic when someone gets hurt in your top two pairings and players have to bump up. 

Gunnarsson was the hero of the “Boston Pee Party” when he scored the overtime winner in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final after declaring to head coach Craig Berube at the urinal he just needed one more opportunity. Gunnarsson had just seven points in the regular season so no one should expect a ton of offense, but the point is he delivered when it mattered most.

When he is not playing the overtime hero, he is a third-pairing, stay at home defenseman who can play on the penalty kill which is pretty much exactly what the Caps need in a depth defenseman.

Take a look at Gunnarsson’s contract projection. You can’t beat that price. Sure, those projections came out before he won the Stanley Cup, but even if his price goes up, it will not be significant. You’re tinkering at the margins of the roster here and championship experience matters. 

Who’s your pick? Vote here:

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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

The Capitals tendered qualifying offers to six of their seven restricted free agents at Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline, including forward Andre Burakovsky. 

Burakovsky, 24, had been the subject of trade rumors up until the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 25 and also in the days leading up to last week’s NHL Draft in Vancouver. Nothing came of them. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan made it clear that while teams were calling, he wasn’t about to just give away a 2013 first-round draft pick. 

“We like the player. There's been some inconsistencies there, but when he's on his game, he's a good player,” MacLellan said last Thursday. “We'd like to keep him around but obviously his name is out there a little bit, so we do talk to some teams about him. But we're not going to move him unless we get something we're comfortable with back.”

But the Capitals are still in a salary cap crunch and that could still land Burakovsky elsewhere in the coming days. His qualifying offer is $3.25 million. Washington is only $9.235 million below the salary cap of $81.5 million. If Burakovsky signs, he would provide scoring depth. He has a career-high 17 goals and has scored 12 each of the past two seasons.

The Capitals do need to see more from Burakovsky. He has struggled with confidence and consistent production over the years. But if he returns, he would be a good option to replace the expected-to-depart Brett Connolly at right wing on the third line with Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin. Connolly is an unrestricted free agent and likely out of Washington’s price range. 

By tendering a qualifying offer, the Capitals ensure that they will keep Burakovsky’s rights. If they had not then he’d be an unrestricted free agent able to sign with any team. That’s not a smart use of an asset that could still help in 2019-20. They could, of course, still trade him at any time. 

Meanwhile, forward Dmitry Jaskin was not tendered a qualifying offer. He is a free agent now. Jaskin never gained the trust of the coaching staff last season. He appeared in just 37 games despite analytics that showed he had a positive impact on the fourth line. Jaskin picked up on waivers from the St. Louis Blues in October, had two goals and four assists. He did not play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Winger Jakub Vrana also received a qualifying offer, but that’s not expected to matter much as the two sides try to put together a long-term contract extension after his breakthrough 24-goal season in his second NHL year. 

The Capitals did tender a qualifying offer to defenseman Christian Djoos. An ugly thigh injury that turned into compartment syndrome and limited him to 45 games. But with Brooks Orpik retiring on Tuesday, Washington could go with Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler as their No. 6/7 defensemen on their natural left sides. 

Fourth-line winger Chandler Stephenson also received his qualifying offer. AHL Hershey forward Colby Williams and goalie Vitek Vanacek also received qualifying offers from Washington.  

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