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Game 3 of the Caps-Blue Jackets 2018 playoff series ignited a rivalry

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Game 3 of the Caps-Blue Jackets 2018 playoff series ignited a rivalry

The Columbus Blue Jackets opened its first season in franchise history in 2000. For most of the first 18 years of the team's existence, the Caps took little notice of them. Why would they? Columbus was originally a Western Conference expansion team until it moved to the Metropolitan Division in 2013. Despite being in the same division as the Caps, the NHL's realignment also brought Washington together with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. The Blue Jackets just did not compare.

That's certainly not the case anymore.

"When you play a team like Columbus, we have a pretty good rivalry with them and they're a tough team to play against so we've got to be ready for them," Tom Wilson said.

Things changed between the Caps and Blue Jackets in 2018. More specifically, things changed on April 17, 2018.

    In 2018, once again Washington was headed to the playoffs with a high seed after a strong regular season and once again, no one had any faith in a team with a long history of playoff disappointments. The Caps drew Columbus in the first round of the playoffs and the Blue Jackets jumped out to a 2-0 series lead after taking both games in Washington in overtime.

    The series looked over. Heck, the entire era of the Cup-hopeful Caps looked over. One goal late in Game 3 on April 17, 2018 changed everything.

    In Game 3, Washington and Columbus once again battled to a tie in regulation. In double overtime with the season essentially on the line, Lars Eller scored the ugliest most beautiful overtime winner as he charged the net and the puck pinballed off of him and a defender before finally trickling into the net.

    Eller called the goal "maybe the biggest one" he has scored, which is high praise for a player who would go on to score the Stanley Cup-clinching goal.

    "Maybe also the longest game I've ever played," Eller said. "It just makes this more satisfying to come out on top after four-and-a-half periods or whatever it was."

    The series devolved from there for Columbus with the Caps going on to win four straight before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

    But the Caps never hoist that Cup without Eller's goal, something Todd Reirden said he thinks about.

    "All the time I've thought that," he said. "That was a crazy turn of events."

    "It certainly wasn't a picture-perfect play that went right underneath the cross-bar," he added. "It won't be remembered like that. It will be remembered that it was a beautiful goal and it was a defining moment for sure."

    The Blue Jackets evidently were not over that loss in January 2019 the following season when Artemi Panarin scored an overtime winner at Capital One Arena. Columbus taunted the Caps with Evgeny Kuznetsov's bird celebration after the win.

    From the Caps' perspective, there's no question the intensity between these two teams went up a notch after that playoff series.

    "I think when you play divisional rivals, you face each other all the time, there tends to be a bit more emotion in the game," Eller said. "I think it's certainly the case with this team over the years, especially when you play them in playoffs too."

    "That's how I felt about it for sure," Reirden said. "There's some different characters in the story in the last little bit with different players for us and for them that are involved, but that's how they're coached to play a hard, physical brand of hockey and they do a good job of that. It's never an easy game."

    The Caps-Blue Jackets rivalry will be renewed for the first time this season on Monday (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington) in the first of three meetings between these two teams in the next 18 days.

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    How the Caps' European players are adjusting to life thousands of miles from home

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    How the Caps' European players are adjusting to life thousands of miles from home

    When the Capitals take the ice each game, they represent Washington, D.C. Off the ice, however, the players are a collection of talent from all over the world. Washington is the team they play for, but neither Washington nor America is where many of them come from. Many players are a long way from home, playing hockey in what is, for them, a foreign country.

    Hockey is what brought them to America and adjusting to a new country brings with it a number of challenges. Coming from Canada is one thing, but coming from Europe where life is very different is quite another.

    The Capitals roster is full of several players from all over Europe. What is it like trying to adjust to life in America? What does this country look like from an outside perspective? In their own words, here are the stories of those players about what life is like in their new home.

    What was adjusting to life in America like when you first came to this country?

    Nicklas Backstrom: "It was different, that's for sure. I think first of all, the culture back home when you play, we had a lot of single guys over there. We practiced in the morning, had lunch together and then we went grab a coffee, sit down together, had dinner together. We pretty much were hanging out with each other for the whole day. I think culture over here a little bit more is you practice and then you go home, do your own stuff. It was a little bit of transition to start there, but once you get used to it you just adjust. I think that was the biggest eye-opener for me because that's the only thing I knew before I come over here and then all of a sudden you were just solo, by yourself. A little different, but once you adjust, you're fine.”

    Radko Gudas: “The States and Europe, everything is different. Even the smallest thing is little bit different. It's definitely a lot of getting used to it. Moving from Washington State to Virginia to New York, every state has something different. Going from the West Coast to the East Coast, it was a lot of things to get used to.

    “When I got drafted, I signed two weeks after that and I didn't have my [social security number]. I couldn't get any paychecks yet. I didn't have a bank account in the States, I didn't have nothing. My first, I would say month and a half, maybe two months I was pretty much living off my per diem or what my savings were from the leagues in Czech Republic. … I had to get a car, driver's license which was a pain in the ass, the insurance. I had a lot of help from all the staff and the Norfolk Admirals front office. Really happy that they helped me through a lot, but I’m sure I wasn't the only guy that they had to deal with through all this. It's obviously not an easy thing to do, but if you have the right people, I was fortunate enough to have the right people around me to help me through a lot. Made it all the way here and still don't have the IRS knocking on my door so I guess I did something right.”

    Axel Jonsson-Fjallby: “Go to the grocery store, I don't know the brands. Don't know what's the best brand and stuff like that. So just small things.”

    Martin Fehervary: “In Europe, in Sweden I came, I got everything set up. Here I had to find apartment so I did. Need to figure it out my car so lifestyle like this. But, I mean, it's fun.”

    Eller: “It's different, but I think the biggest part is just being a grownup, being an adult, paying the bills, paying rent, finding out things on your own. For a lot of guys it's a big step of maybe living with a family or living at home and now all of a sudden you're on your own. You've got to cook, you've got to grocery shop, you've got to do this and that. I think that's the biggest step, just becoming an adult person, not necessarily it doesn't have to do with hockey. And also, I think if you speak the language it helps a lot, but for like a Russian player or eastern Europeans, that can be a lot tougher for sure. For me, I spoke the language, makes a big difference.”

    How much English did you know and how difficult did that make the transition?

    Evgeny Kuznetsov: “Zero.”

    [Describing his first press conference] “I'm just guessing at that time pretty much every time. I see reaction, if these people happy that means I'm guessing the right way.”

    Michal Kempny: “I didn't speak any English. I think the language is No. 1 [hardest part]. I tried to learn English as fast as I could. Different country, different people. I never been in the U.S. before so it was kind of everything new, but year after year I felt better and better.”

    Jonas Siegenthaler: “If I didn't understand something it was just maybe one or two words and then I just ask. But overall, I spoke pretty good English from school. I started to learn English when I was seven years old. My birth year was the first year that had this English class from seven years old. I'm glad for that.”

    Jakub Vrana: “It's kind of easy to learn when you just in here and you hear it every day. It's different than if you're back home and you're actually going to school and you have a one-hour, two-hour class and it’s like not it, you know? Because then you speak Czech all day. So here you don't have a chance so you're hungry, you're going to ask for food. You're going to understand, it's important.”

    Backstrom: “We have English in school, but I was terrible at that, to be honest. I wasn't great. First one or two years, I was pretty quiet around there, I was just trying to learn. I was just trying to pick up the language and it helped me a lot that I had roommates [Matt Bradley, Mike Green] that spoke English. You could practice with them. Once you get a little more confident too, that helps as well.”

    Richard Panik: “I had great grades in school in English, but as soon as I got here I didn't understand. I couldn't speak. It took me maybe like six months to get used to it and then it was just easier and easier.”

    Carl Hagelin: “I thought I knew it better than I did. It was easy for me to read and stuff, but I think having conversations and speaking in front of people is pretty hard my first year. And then by my third semester [at the University of Michigan], I started picking up more and more. I was pretty quiet my first year, just kind of hung around and tried to learn as much as possible. Because even though you knew, we speak more the Oxford English, British English back home. And then you came over here and you used some words that they would use and some of the guys are just looking at you. And on our team, there was no other Europeans so I would say it's probably easier around an NHL team because you have the Canadians, the French Canadians and people are used to people with different dialects and language.”

    Gudas: “I graduated in English as the best of my class so I thought I'm speaking fluently and perfect, but when I showed up in the States I found out I don't know [expletive]. All the slang and all the Canadians around, it was a different English than we learned in school. We learned the proper 'English' English. It took me at least two, three months to get it going to at least be able to have a fun conversation of just like what I need and what I want.”

    What is something you find weird or different about America and Americans?

    Siegenthaler: “I just found out that you can buy your groceries online, get it delivered. Yeah, back home if you tell somebody that you get your groceries delivered, it's kind of like, um, you're a lazy ass.”

    Eller: “I won't say everybody is that way, but [Americans] tend to only know what's going on in America. Everything outside of America, they're not very well educated on that.”

    Gudas: “I think the attachment to the phones. You don't see that in Czech. Everybody trying to live more outside than inside, you know? I think that's one thing that could change here.”

    Panik: “The first thing I noticed, everybody is just too friendly. It just seems like, you don't even know the person and it seems like you know the person for 10 years. It's weird. Back home, we're conservative. I wouldn't say they're bad people, still good, but like here it's more I think when you meet somebody new it's more open.”

    Hagelin: “I love the fact that people love going to sporting events. Like back home, if you go to [a] sporting event you go and you kind of sit and you dissect the game. You don't really talk to fans from the other team and you don't really wear jerseys. Like a girl in Sweden would never wear a jersey to a game, they'll get dressed up and go to a game. Here it doesn't matter who you are, you put a jersey on and you show your support. It's a different feel in here. Obviously it's cool in Europe, but the fan clubs are screaming and hollering throughout the whole game, but it's a different experience and I think that's cool.”

    Backstrom: “Only thing maybe that I notice is they're really bad drivers in the rain.”

    Kuznetsov: “Driving. The way they drive.”

    What do you think of American food?

    Panik: “Back home when you say American food, everybody imagine hamburgers, fries, but even here you can find great restaurant with the great food. Basically you can cook at home whatever you wanted. I think American food, it means hamburgers. I like it, but I don't eat it that often. It's different than Slovakian for sure.”

    Jonsson-Fjallby: “I feel like good food is usually a lot more expensive than fast food and stuff. I mean, in Sweden, it's also cheaper with fast food, but it's not that big a difference so if you want a good dinner it's quite expensive here.”

    Eller: “I eat a hot dog or pizza once in a while, but I don't eat a lot. I think it's changed here over the last decade. Now it's trending much more towards healthier food and greens and veggies. People are more aware now than they were a decade ago I think. So it is changing, but you can always find your McDonalds and your Domino's, right? Even though I rarely eat that anymore, I like the diversity. You can get everything. That's what I like about America. Every kind of food is available.”

    Hagelin: “You can see there's a bit of a health kick coming now and if you want good food you can always find it. That's the great part especially. I've been fortunate to live in some big cities and some health-conscious people living in those cities, especially in California. Any place you go to, there's some good and healthy food.”

    Vrana: “Fries and burgers, that's like typical, isn’t it? Steak? Fries? That's very American? Or ribs? Sometimes it's not bad, but I would not recommend it like eat it too much.”

    Ilya Samsonov: “There's better meat here, steaks. Steak is very good.”

    Siegenthaler: “It's more fried stuff. More burgers, fries. I found a Swiss restaurant here in D.C. They're pretty good. I think we're pretty good friends. When I miss home or when I miss the Swiss food, I just go get dinner at the Swiss restaurant. Makes me feel like home.”

    What do you miss about home?

    Kuznetsov: “Everything. People, food. This summer I wasn't home so a long time. Most important, we got the families back home. We've got the grandmothers, all those people who pretty much see us once in a while. They get so old. The older they get, the more you want to see them.”

    Hagelin: “I think just having your family close by. Now with all the technology, it feels like they're close, with facetime and all that. I think just that feeling that everyone's close and you're just a 40-minute car ride away from all your closest people.”

    Gudas: “You get a lot of visits here from the family, but the grandmas, grandpas don't come here as much anymore and now having kids, it would be nice to be around the great grandparents and be around them so I think that's the hardest thing for me, not being able to have my kids around my grandparents as much as I would like to. It's always hard in the summer to go and see them for a while because [the kids] need their rest too, but we try to get them involved as much as we can, forcing them to speak as much Czech as we can so they don't only speak English.”

    Samsonov: “I don't know, maybe dumplings. A little bit talking with the Russian guys, my friends, my family. It's OK. I'm professional hockey player. That's my life.”

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

    Do the Caps have the defense 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.

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

    Team stats
    2.90 goals against per game (10th in the NHL)
    84.2-percent penalty kill (2nd)

    Whatever question marks this team may have on the blue line, John Carlson is not one of them. With 60 points in 49 games, he is on pace for exactly 100 points this season, but do not fall into the trap of thinking his great season is only about the offense. He is easily the most consistent defensive defenseman on the team as well. He is just an all-around elite player who was long ago labeled an "offensive defenseman" and that perception still lingers though it has not been factual since the 2017-18 season when Matt Niskanen was out for a prolonged period and Carlson was leaned upon and excelled.

    Carlson has obviously been the highlight of the blue line this season, which is to be expected. Jonas Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas have also been bright spots. The penalty kill has essentially been entrusted to Siegenthaler who gets more shorthanded ice time per game (3:06) than any player on the roster, including Carl Hagelin. Gudas is not far behind at 2:43. 

    The benefit to this is that this is the team's third defensive pair, yet they are doing the heavy-lifting on the penalty kill allowing the other two pairs who play more minutes 5-on-5 to get some time to rest. The fact that the penalty kill remains among the league's best even with the third pair running the show is a luxury that not many teams can boast.

    Dmitry Orlov has been up and down, but he fits the mold of a second-pair offensive defenseman. I view him as more of an asset than a liability and his possession numbers (54.91 Corsi-For percentage) back that up.

    Having said that, there are a few major concerns on the blue line. The first is that this team does not have two top-four right defensemen. Carlson is the only one. Nick Jensen has been playing on the second pair, but it is clear that he just cannot handle such a significant role. He has been with the Caps for nearly a full calendar year at this point and his struggles can no longer be dismissed as him simply adjusting to a new team and system. The change in system was a dramatic shift for him as it requires a lot more crossing over onto the left side, something he does not seem to be comfortable with at all. He's not a bad player and I would feel comfortable with him as a third-pair defenseman. In fact, Jensen averages 2:12 per game shorthanded, more than Carlson (1:38) or Michal Kempny (1:25), so he has held a major role on Washington's stellar penalty kill. The problem can be boiled down to this: The Caps have two third-pair caliber right defensemen and only one top four. 

    The second issue is that Kempny has not played at the level of a top-pair defenseman essentially all season. In comparison to the issues on the right, this is a minor flaw. Kempny's issues are not nearly as blatant and he is rarely caught out of position. The issue mainly has been how weak on the puck he has been.

    One team issue has been how Washington performs against an aggressive forecheck. I will label that a defensive issue because the issue comes from the defensive zone. Everyone on the team has to be smarter with puck management and distribution, but especially the blueliners who are often tasked with starting the breakouts. They have to be able to distribute the puck quickly and smartly in the face of that pressure. This was a major factor in the team's loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round the last playoffs and has seemingly been an issue in the regular season as well.

    The only other defensive issue has to do with the penalty kill. Yes, the PK has been stellar, but it has been called upon far too often. Washington has taken 186 minor penalties this season, more than any other team in the NHL. Sure, sometimes the referees like to put away the whistles in the postseason, but the Caps are a physical team that plays a heavy game. That could open them up to more penalties. Most importantly, the team has to be smarter with their sticks and limit unnecessary slashes and hooks.

    The verdict: No, the defense is not good enough to win the Cup...yet.

    A hole on the top-four is a significant enough weakness that I do not believe the team can afford to ignore it heading into the playoffs.

    But don't despair. While I do not believe the current makeup of the defense is good enough, it is not beyond repair. Only one addition is needed to completely shore up the blue line. This team needs an adequate player to plug onto the right side of the second pair. They don't need a superstar, just a serviceable top-four righty. That addition would imrpove the defense to the point of making the team a real contender.

    Top four defensemen do not grow on trees, however, especially right ones, and the team's cap constraints will certainly hurt their ability to improve in this area.

    This leaves me with two possible solutions the team could explore.

    First, and probably the most likely, look for the next Kempny. Find a cheap defenseman on another team's roster who the scouts think has high-upside and is undervalued by his current team, trade a mid-round draft pick and plug him in. The fact that Washington was able to recall Christian Djoos after the Christmas break means Washington has at least banked enough cap space to fit in his cap hit ($1.2 million). Brian MacLellan seems deadset on keeping the roster with only one healthy scratch to bank as much cap space as possible so I think they should have probably at least about $2 million to work with by the time the Feb. 24 trade deadline rolls around. Plus, there is always salary retention, though that would cost more in a trade.

    The second option is to bring up Martin Fehervary. He is a left shot, but has been playing on the right with the Hershey Bears. The team certainly loves him which was made evident by him starting the season in the NHL. Even if he may not have reached his full potential yet, he is certainly seen within the organization as a top-four caliber player so bring him up and try him out. For this option, I would like to see him called up sooner rather than later in order to get as much time as possible to adjust to the NHL, but even if this option is on the table, I would not anticipate seeing it until after the trade deadline when the team no longer needs to continue banking that space.

    One last note, for anyone wondering if Djoos could be a possibility, I do not see that happening. In his two games with the team this season, he was not put on the ice for a single defensive zone start whether on the fly or off a faceoff. Not one. It is a small sample size, but that shows me there is a lack of trust in him from the coaches when it comes to playing in the defensive zone. That does not sound like a realistic candidate to slot into the top four anytime soon. 

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