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Grading the champs: How have the Caps fared through 20 games?

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Grading the champs: How have the Caps fared through 20 games?

Monday’s win over the Montreal Canadiens was Game 20 for the Caps meaning we are officially one quarter of the way into the NHL season. That means it’s time to take a step back and look at just how the Caps have performed thus far.

Here are the first quarter grades and awards for the Caps:

Offense: B+

The Caps boasted the top offense in the NHL for a short stretch, but the numbers were being propped up initially by the explosive power play. When it comes to five-on-five play, the offense is a bit weaker than the power play would make it seem. Evgeny Kuznetsov, for example, has six goals and zero have come at even strength.

Not having Tom Wilson in the lineup for the first 16 games due to a suspension clearly hurt the offense and Todd Reirden was forced to shuffle the lines as best he could looking for a spark. Now that he is back, the offense looks much improved and much deeper. Plus, Alex Ovechkin continues to be Ovechkin even at the age of 33.

The offense has had its full lineup for less than two games this season, but even despite that, Washington still ranks seventh in the NHL with 3.35 goals per game. This is already a top-10 offense and it’s trending up.

Defense: C-

In hearing Reirden describe the team’s defense, it involves a lot of commitment. All five players are expected to back check and get into shooting lanes every time the opposition has the puck. Obviously, the defense is more nuanced than that, but at its basic core, this is what the Caps want to do. That sort of commitment is easy to get in the playoffs, but it’s harder to get a team to constantly jump into shooting lanes in November. As a result, this is where the team’s Stanley Cup hangover has been the most glaring.

The defensemen have had their struggles, particularly Dmitry Olrov and Matt Niskanen, which has led to a shuffling of the pairs. The offense also has not been as quick on the back check as you would like to see.

Most critically, however, has been puck management. The biggest defensive breakdowns for this team have been self-inflicted with bad turnovers and lazy passes. As glaring as they may be, however, they also should be correctable.

Goaltending: B

The first month of the season has been a scoring bonanza so Braden Holtby’s numbers are not where you would want them, but in recent weeks he has started to look like the dominant netminder who foiled opponents in the playoffs last season. There is no reason to think he will not continue to get better as the season goes along and he develops more of a rhythm.

The real story here has been Pheonix Copley who was largely an unknown commodity at the NHL level heading into the season.

Copley’s play was shaky to start, but when Holtby suffered an upper-body injury and Copley was forced to start all four games of their current road trip, he played very well for the most part. You can point to Monday’s game in Montreal in which he was pulled in the second period all you want, but in terms of whether this team has a backup it can trust to plug into a game 20-25 times this season, Copley has shown he is capable of providing that.

Special teams: C-

Yes, the power play is great and ranks fourth in the NHL at 29.7-percent, but it has cooled considerably in recent weeks. In the month of November, the Caps have scored on six of 29 opportunities, good for 13th in the league at 20.7-percent.

The real issue for Washington in terms of the special teams is the penalty kill.

Reirden wanted the penalty kill to be more offensively aggressive this season, but so far the Caps have not been able to do that without leaving themselves vulnerable defensively. The result is that their penalty kill now ranks 29th in the NHL at 73.3-percent.

Reirden’s goal here, I believe, is not so much to generate offense at the expense of the defense, but rather to force an opponent’s power play to be aware of Washington’s offensive weapons and to help kill time by keeping and holding possession of the puck in the offensive zone. Thus far, however, it hasn’t worked.

If the Caps are going to keep this philosophy on the penalty kill, then the coaches need to sit down and study film of the Arizona Coyotes who lead the league in both the penalty kill (91.7-percent) and shorthanded goals (10).

Pleasant surprise: Madison Bowey

Bowey has been a highly touted prospect within the organization since he was drafted in 2013. He made his NHL debut last season, but seemed to struggle with the transition from AHL to NHL. This year, he looks like the most improved player on the team and has played well in relief of an injured Brooks Orpik.

What’s more, Bowey is showing a lot more confidence in his play. He is a two-way defenseman, but no one would have been able to tell that from how conservative he was last season. This year, he is being more assertive in the offensive zone and it should translate into more points.

Needs improvement: Andre Burakovsky

Burakovsky has just four points this season in 20 games. Tom Wilson, by comparison, has five points in four games since returning to the lineup.

Burakovsky has tremendous skill, but he remains an incredibly streaky player. It was thought that confidence was the major issue for him and he saw a sports psychologist over the summer. The results? Both he and Reirden say they see a difference and say he is a more confident player, but it has not translated into more production.

Burakovsky is not a shutdown forward, he is not a physical grinder, he is not a penalty killer. If he is not producing, he just doesn’t add that much to the lineup.

MVP: Alex Ovechkin

At times it looked like John Carlson or Kuznetsov would be the MVP, but through 20 games just about every player on this roster has had the ups and downs typical of a season and especially of a Stanley Cup championship team that is realizing playing in October is not nearly as fun as it is playing in June. The only player who is consistently great on a night in, night out basis is the Great 8 who shows no signs of slowing down even at the age of 33.

With 15 goals, Ovechkin sits second in the NHL behind only David Pastrnak’s 17.

Overall: B

Let’s consider everything Reirden has had to deal with in his first season as an NHL head coach: Wilson’s 20-game suspension, injuries to Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Travis Boyd, Braden Holtby, Michal Kempny and Brooks Orpik, a backup goalie making the jump to the NHL and a Stanley Cup hangover.

Yes, the Caps have played below the lofty standards we have come to expect and do not yet have a win streak of over two games this season. But considering everything, the fact that this team still sits in third place in the Metropolitan Division and appears to be trending upward is a good sign for the direction this season is going.

This team has another level it has not yet reached, but they are getting there, slowly but surely.

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The season pause gave Braden Holtby a chance to 'fix a few things' in his game

The season pause gave Braden Holtby a chance to 'fix a few things' in his game

No team can make it far in the playoffs without good goaltending. That's what made the news of Ilya Samsonov's injury so tough for the Capitals. Sure, they still have Braden Holtby, but let's face it, it's been a bad season. Does he even still have it in him to lead the team in the postseason? After three round-robin games, the answer is an emphatic yes.

In a round-robin in which there were seemingly few positives for Washington, Holtby was one of them. He was the team's best player in the round-robin and he capped it off with 30 saves on 31 shots against the Boston Bruins on Sunday, the team's lone win.

Holtby looks like a completely different goalie than the one who managed just a .897 save percentage and 3.11 GAA in 48 regular-season games and that's because he is. The pause to the NHL season allowed Holtby time off to reset his game that he would not have in a normal season and he took advantage.

RELATED: CAPS VS. ISLANDERS NOT ONLY 'TROTZ VS. REIRDEN'

"Put a lot of work in the last couple months and had to fix a few things and work on a few things over the break to strengthen up," Holtby said, "And every game we played here you get a little more stamina and more and more comfortable."

It is pretty remarkable that Holtby was able to improve his game as much as he seems to have done considering that for much of that time, he could not even get on the ice. Yet, as the team prepares for the playoffs, goaltending no longer seems to be an issue. The loss of Samsonov means that the team is in trouble should Holtby struggle or get injured, but in terms of the starting netminder, Holtby is once again the guy. While that may have made fans nervous in January, fans can now be comfortable with that considering Holtby is playing his best hockey of the season.

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Caps and Islanders coaches downplay the personal matchup in Stanley Cup playoff series: 'It's not Barry Trotz vs. Todd Reirden'

Caps and Islanders coaches downplay the personal matchup in Stanley Cup playoff series: 'It's not Barry Trotz vs. Todd Reirden'

As the Capitals and New York Islanders prepare to square off in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, all eyes will be on one matchup. It's not about the two goalies or how one defensive pairing matchups up against an offensive line, this matchup is off the ice. The storyline of this series is the men behind the bench, Todd Reirden and his predecessor, Barry Trotz.

Trotz was the head coach in Washington from 2014 to 2018 and led the Caps to the Stanley Cup in 2018. Reirden was on Trotz's staff as an associate coach in charge of the defense. Following the 2018 season, Trotz resigned and was hired as the head coach in New York, taking with him assistant coach Lane Lambert and goalie coach Mitch Korn. Reirden was hired as head coach of the Caps in the wake of Trotz's departure.

"It'll be a great challenge because I know the people over there," Trotz said of the series.

"Obviously we were able to accomplish something amazing together and that's something that you'll never forget as a staff," Reirden said. "That's never going to go away. It's unique now being on opposite benches and it has been."

When a team plays against its former head coach, comparisons between the two coaches are unavoidable. But even if the fans and the media look at this series as a commentary on the two coaches, the two men in question certainly do not.

"It's not Barry Trotz vs. Todd Reirden or any of those type of things," Reirden said. "It's going to be a team effort."

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They also downplayed any sort of advantage knowing each other may give them in the series.

"You've spent some time with a lot of their players, there's a lot of new players," Trotz said. "It just gives me a little insight on some of their tendencies, that's all."

The core in Washington may be the same, but there are a number of new faces on the roster who came after Trotz. The top-six on offense is the same, but players like Carl Hagelin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd all came after Trotz. Defensively, the team added Nick Jensen, Radko Gudas and Brenden Dillon.  Jonas Siegenthaler was in the organization, but did not make his NHL debut until the 2018-19 season.

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But even if they do not want to admit it, the familiarity between the coaches and players undeniably adds a different dynamic to the series.

The Caps know what kind of a coach Trotz is and how his teams like to play. Likewise, Trotz knows the level of talent on the roster in Washington so he knows the challenge that awaits the Islanders in the first round.

"They've got a lot of star power and they've won a championship," Trotz said. "They're well-equipped in a lot of areas, so the biggest challenge is to play them even and play them hard and they'll do the same because I know a lot about that group."

Trotz also added, "I think it will be a hell of a series."

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