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Do the Caps have the goaltending to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the goaltending to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

See Monday's breakdown of the team's offense here.
See Tuesday's breakdown of the team's defense here.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stat
.916 team save percentage (20th in the NHL)

Player stats
Braden Holtby 18-9-4 (18 wins tied for 8th), .897 save percentage (48th among goalies with 15 or more games played), 3.09 GAA (40th)
Ilya Samsonov 15-2-1 (15 wins tied for 18th), .927 save percentage (5th among goalies with at least 15 GP), 2.06 GAA (1st)

It's been a tough year for Holtby. After a difficult start to the season, he seemed to reset and rebound in November. Then December rolled around and he struggled again. His save percentage has now dipped below .900 for the season. He still has gotten a majority of the starts and has put together a decent record on the season, but this does not look like vintage Holtby.

There is no one aspect of his game that you can point to and say, there it is, that's why he is struggling. The fact is that he is playing in front of a defense that has been shaky in terms of turnovers and he has not been able to bail them out with big saves like he has in years past. Deflections and screens seem to be affecting him more than they once did. Whether this is evidence of decline for the 30-year-old netminder of if this is just a bad year is a discussion for another day, but right now his play has not been up to par and he would be the first to admit that.

With Holtby in a contract year, Samsonov was likely brought up a year earlier than perhaps the team would have wanted him to be. The move, however, has paid off as Samsonov has been absolutely brilliant. There are flashes of inexperience to his game, particularly overcommitment when he slides from side to side, but already he has already improved from the start of the season to now and he seems to be every bit as good as advertised when Washington selected him in the first round back in 2015.

When it comes to the playoffs, however, Samsonov is an unknown commodity. We would like to assume his regular-season game will simply translate into great postseason play, but it does not always work that way. Just ask Jose Theodore. The fact is that he is a rookie goalie with zero NHL playoff experience. You also have to consider that the most games he has played in a professional season is 37 which he did last year in Hershey.

With Holtby struggling and Samsonov excelling, there are many who would love Samsonov to take over as the No. 1. But when you have a young goalie who has never in his professional career taken on a full-time starting role, is in his rookie season in the NHL and has no playoff experience, it is easy to see how this can all get very overwhelming very quickly.

There is no question that the play of both Holtby and Samsonov dictates that Samsonov should be playing more, but that probably will not translate into as many starts as you may think after the all-star break as Todd Reirden tries to manage the minutes of the rookie netminder. So long as the team remains atop the standings, there is no pressure to force more games than you need from Samsonov. Having said that, I doubt very much that Holtby will get every start in the upcoming four games the team has against the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins. I would be surprised if Samsonov did not get at least two of those games and one at home.

The verdict: Yes, the goaltending should be good enough to win the Cup

I know, you just read an entire analytical article with the ultimate conclusion of "I think so," but goaltending is the hardest thing to predict in hockey. Sometimes goalies get hot and sometimes they don't.

If the playoffs were to start today, Samsonov would have to be the starter. There is no debate. The problem is we have no idea what kind of a playoff goalie he will be. That's what makes Holtby's role so important.

Holtby ranks 5th all-time in playoff save percentage with a .928 and it's not a small sample size (89 games). OK, but won't his poor season translate to a poor performance in the playoffs? Ask 2018 Holtby who was in the exact same situation, supplanted by Philipp Gtubauer as the starter. He came on in relief of Grubauer in just the second game and never looked back with a .922 save percentage and 16-7 record all the way to the Stanley Cup.

Holtby is a goalie who likes to play as often as possible. The playoffs are ideal for him because you play every other night. It suits his game well. What happened in 2018 is no guarantee of success in 2020, but I don't know why anyone would think the Caps are better off getting a different back up than going with the guy who is statistically one of the best playoff goalies ever and who has won a Stanley Cup going into the postseason as a No. 2.

If Samsonov is anything close to what he has been in the regular season, the Caps are in good shape in net. If not, there is every reason to be confident in Holtby as the backup. Samsonov/Holtby as a tandem is about as good a tandem as there will be in the playoffs and there's no reason to change it.

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The Caps are back...ish, Ovechkin celebrates 700 with 701 and the bottom-six shines

The Caps are back...ish, Ovechkin celebrates 700 with 701 and the bottom-six shines

WASHINGTON -- The Winnipeg Jets certainly made things interesting. The Capitals jumped out to a dominant 3-0 lead, but the Jets managed to battle back and force a shootout. Washington got the win, but now we are all left wondering which half of the game tells us more about the state of the Caps.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the win

They're back...ish

The first half of this game was brilliant. The Caps were dominant in every facet. They were physical, the defense was playing well, the breakouts were crisp, the top-six was dangerous and the bottom-six was setting up offensive opportunities with prolonged shifts in the offensive zone. Braden Holtby was strong in net back-stopping the team to a 3-0 lead...and then suddenly it was 3-3 and the game was headed to overtime.

What the heck?

I was all ready for the story after this game to be that the Caps were officially back, but now it seems too early to declare that.

Look, overall the win over the Pittsburgh Penguins plus this game were the best two games this team has played in a long time. If they keep playing the way they have recently they will win more often than not and will be rounding into form by the playoffs. But they need to work on their full 60-minute efforts.

Let's get physical

This is a physical team and it clearly has been getting back to its identity the past week. It's no surprise the success is starting to come again as a result.

I asked Reirden after the game how much the physical play had to do with the team's turnaround and he had a very interesting answer.

“What we weren’t doing was we weren’t putting pucks in areas where we could go be physical. So, when you’re going to turn pucks over in the neutral zone and you’re not going to put them behind their defense, now you’re not giving your players a chance to go in and forecheck and pressure pucks and force turnovers, which I thought we were really good at early on in the game today in terms of all those pucks that were below the goal line, how we were able to pressure and force turnovers and get possession out of it for the majority of the first two periods. So, that’s our identity, that’s how we have to play and, to me, it’s all set up by the proper puck management.”

The bottom-six

So far so good for Ilya Kovalchuk. The third line looked very offensively dangerous in Kovalchuk's first game with lots of prolonged shifts in the offensive zone. Garnet Hathaway credited one such shift as directly leading to his goal.

"I thought that line played really well tonight," Hathaway said. "I thought they were all contributing and making plays, too, so it was nice building off of their energy. I think you look at that, we get an offensive zone faceoff and then it turns into a goal."

In addition, the fourth line looked a bit rejuvenated with Richard Panik. He collected an assist on Hathaway's goal. If that's the type of performance the Caps can expect from the bottom-six going forward, they are in good shape.

Turning point

The Caps may have won the game, but the turning point was Nikolaj Ehlers' goal.

With Washington up 3-0 in the second period, Michal Kempny wheeled around the net in the face of the forecheck from Patrik Laine. He tried to pass the puck to Radko Gudas, but was off-target. The puck redirected off the skate of Gudas and right to Cody Eakin who was all alone in front of the net. Eakin fired a quick shot which Holtby stopped and he closed up his pads thinking he had the puck. Unbeknownst to him, however, the puck had squirted out. Ehlers spotted it and scored on the open net to breath life back into the Jets. From there Winnipeg would tie the game and force overtime.

Play of the game

The great set up by Evgeny Kuznetsov and the great finish by Alex Ovechkin. What better way to finish the celebration of 700 than by scoring No. 701?

Stat of the game

Yet another goalie goes down to the Great 8.

Quote of the game

Ovechkin scored the shootout winner with one of the best shootout goals of his career.

“Sometime even I don’t know what I’m going to do out there, so I’ll take it.”

Fan predictions

Check, check...oh no! You were doing so well!

Bold.

Just the one and you didn't have to wait too long to get it either.

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Capitals survive 3-goal surge from Jets for shootout win

Capitals survive 3-goal surge from Jets for shootout win

WASHINGTON -- The Capitals saw a 3-0 lead evaporate, but still managed to earn the 4-3 shootout win on Tuesday, their second victory in as many games. On a night in which Alex Ovechkin was honored, he scored the first goal of the game and the shootout winner.

Here is how the Caps won.

701

Right after he was honored in a pregame ceremony for scoring his 700th goal, Ovechkin scored No. 701 less than two minutes into the game.

Evgeny Kuznetsov flashed some of his behind-the-net magic as he skated the puck behind the goal line, then abruptly spun and fed Ovechkin the puck. Ovechkin's first shot was blocked by Nathan Beaulieu, but he whacked the puck out of the air and behind goalie Laurent Brossoit for his 701st career goal.

This marked the second time in as many games Washington scored first, something that has been an issue of late.

Vrana's speed

Jakub Vrana scored a great goal on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins thanks to his speed and a great individual effort. He did it again on Tuesday launching himself on his own breakaway.

The Jets broke the puck into the offensive zone, but the rush was halted by the defense of Dmitry Orlov and the backcheck from T.J. Oshie. Jakub Vrana picked up the loose puck and zipped straight down the middle of the ice.

When Vrana grabbed the puck, there were two Jets between him and the net. By the team he reached the opposite blue line, there was only one Jet left who could catch him. Vrana managed one last burst of speed to turn the corner and get behind the defense, then score the breakaway goal to give Washington the 2-0 lead.

The bottom-six

The acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk was meant to improve the offense of both lines in the bottom-six. Obviously he adds offense to the third line, but moving Richard Panik to the fourth should also provide that line with more of an offensive upside. For one game at least, the return on Kovalchuk was very good.

The third line looked tremendous with Kovalchuk skating on the right. The line had a number of dominant offensive zone shifts and was able to work the cycle really well to hem the Jets in their own zone.

Kovalchuk fired three shots on goal.

The fourth line, meanwhile, scored just its second goal in the year in 2020. The line picked up a turnover in the offensive zone off a great forechecking shift and Garnet Hathaway scored on a rebound off a shot by Nic Dowd.

Hathaway's goal was his first since Dec. 23 and he was assisted by Dowd and new linemate Panik.

Braden Holtby

Holtby had another strong performance in net ensuring the Caps could build on their early lead. The Jets fired 17 shots on goal in the second period alone and he stopped 16 of them. He finished the game with 30 saves and made an additional three stops in the shootout.

Physical play

The Caps pushed Winnipeg around in this one. Badly.

While the official hit total was pretty close (25-17), what the Caps lacked in quantity they made up for in quality. They laid a number of vicious hits on the Jets and they just did not have the muscle to match.

Dmitry Orlov in particular was in an ornery mood as he delivered two huge hits. One he delivered to Patrik Laine drew the ire of Andrew Copp. Copp went to defend his teammate and Tom Wilson decided to defend his. Copp qiuckly backed down and did not respond to a few jabs from Wilson or even a big hit from Wilson later in the shift.

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