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Halaked: The series that almost defined an era

Halaked: The series that almost defined an era

The Capitals return from the bye week on Monday against the Montreal Canadiens (7 p.m., NBC Sports), a team that brings back memories that most Caps fans would love to forget. The first team in franchise history to win a Presidents’ Trophy as the top team in the NHL saw its season end abruptly in the first round of the playoffs in 2010 at the hands of the Canadiens. It was a series that perhaps fans never would have truly gotten over if not for the Stanley Cup win in 2018.

On Thanksgiving Day In 2007, Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach of the Caps and promptly sparked a turnaround that saw Washington win the Southeast Division and reach the postseason for the first time since 2003. That team lost in the first round of the playoffs in seven games to the Philadelphia Flyers. The following year, the Caps again won the division and won a playoff series for the first time since 1998. That year, they lost in the second round in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Despite the loss, however, there was optimism the following year as the team continued to improve. In the 2009-10 season, it looked like there was no stopping them. Washington breezed through the regular season in one of the most dominant campaigns in league history, amassing 121 points. It was almost assumed that the team’s dominance would translate into the postseason, at least through the first round.

The first test for Washington was a Montreal Canadiens team who had just managed to squeeze into the final playoff spot by a single point. It wasn’t even really clear who would be the starting goalie for the Canadiens going into the series as the netminding duties had been split that season between Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price.

The Canadiens chose Halak and the rest, unfortunately, is history.

Washington stumbled out of the gate, dropping Game 1 in overtime. After Jose Theodore gave up two goals on the first two shots he faced in Game 2, Semyon Varlamov replaced him and seemed to right the ship. The Caps won that game as well as Games 3 and 4 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. The series looked all but over.

But that’s when Halak put on his cape and dashed the hopes of Washington.

Over the next three games, Halak turned aside 131 out of 134 shots for a stunning .978 save percentage. Even typing that number still seems unbelievable all these years later.

It was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the league.

The next several years were full of playoff disappointments from a series sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a blowout Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers, a 3-1 blown series lead to the Rangers, and two straight second-round exits to Pittsburgh who, in each season, would go on to win the Cup.

But none of those seasons came to define Washington’s playoff futility quite like the loss to Montreal. Had the team never won the Cup, Halak would have stood as the asterisk to the whole of the Ovechkin era.

Thankfully, the Caps overcame their history in 2018 and all of those playoff disappointments made that Cup run all the more satisfying in the end. But that doesn’t mean Caps fans do not remember 2010 or get that much more enjoyment every time they see Washington beat the Canadiens.

It was the series that, until Ovechkin raised the Cup over his head on the ice in Vegas, had defined the era of playoff struggles.

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Capitals send Christian Djoos to Anaheim for Daniel Sprong in minor league trade

Capitals send Christian Djoos to Anaheim for Daniel Sprong in minor league trade

ARLINGTON, Va. -- While Ilya Kovalchuk was the last NHL trade for the Capitals before Monday's 3 p.m. deadline, it was not technically the team's last trade. Defenseman Christian Djoos was traded to the Anaheim Ducks for forward Daniel Sprong in what the team referred to as a "minor league deal." Details of the deal were first reported by Frank Seravalli.

Djoos, 25, was a part of the team's Stanley Cup run in his rookie season and played 22 out Washington's 24 playoff games that year on a third-pair role with Brooks Orpik. Last season, however, he missed several weeks after suffering compartment syndrome in his thigh and his play never seemed to recover. Djoos has always been an undersized player and that seemed to be a major issue for him last season, more so than when he was a rookie. In the 2019 postseason, he was eventually replaced in the lineup by Jonas Siegenthaler.

During a brief call-up after the Christmas break, Djoos played in only two games before suffering an upper-body injury. During those two games, he did not have a single defensive zone start either on a faceoff or on the fly, reflecting a lack of trust by the coaches in defensive situations. That was a sign that his NHL future was likely done in Washington.

Despite his struggles in Washington, Djoos has been very good in the AHL this season scoring five goals and 27 assists in 42 games for the Hershey Bears. He leads all Hershey defensemen in points with 32.

In exchange, the Caps receive forward Daniel Sprong, 22, who has played the majority of the season in the AHL with the San Diego Gulls where he had 11 goals and 16 assists in 39 games. He also played eight games for the Anaheim Ducks with one goal and one assist. He has 97 total games of NHL experience between Anaheim and the Pittsburgh Penguins with 19 goals and 11 assists.

Sprong will be assigned to Hershey, per a team official.

Sprong is on the final year of his contract and will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights on July 1.

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The 4 most important things Caps GM Brian MacLellan said about new Capitals forward Ilya Kovalchuk

The 4 most important things Caps GM Brian MacLellan said about new Capitals forward Ilya Kovalchuk

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Brian MacLellan did not make any further additions to the Capitals' roster on Monday before the 3 p.m. trade deadline, leaving the Ilya Kovalchuk trade as the last piece for what he hopes will be another championship roster.

"I think he's a good fit for what we need," MacLellan said. "He's an established player. So many good reports and viewings of what he did in Montreal. I think he's a fit for our team. We think he can add a lot offensively, playmaking. So many good things have been said about him on and off the ice in Montreal that we basically thought it was a no-brainer to add him."

Here are the four most important things MacLellan had to say about Kovalchuk.

Kovalchuk will start on the third line

This should perhaps come as no surprise with Washington ranking third in the NHL in offense, but Kovalchuk will not step into a top-six role for the Caps. Instead, he will play on the third line.

While MacLellan was careful to say lineup decisions would be left to Todd Reirden, he was very specific with where he felt Kovalchuk fit.

"I probably start him third line, right wing," MacLellan said. "Start him there, see how it goes, and we can move him around."

Don't take the addition of Kovalchuk as an indictment of the third line

MacLellan knew he was not going to get as much offensive production from the third line without Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly this season and was quick to defend the performance of the Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik line.

"I think the third line's been good recently," MacLellan said. "I think the intention of it, the way we put it together, was that it wasn't gonna be as offensive (as) last year but you could trust it more against top-six players from other teams. They've had reasonable offensive output and played a pretty solid two-way game for most of the year."

Yet, MacLellan pegged Kovalchuk for the third line.

When asked if this meant he was changing his philosophy for that line he said, "It could be. I mean we don't have to go with it. I think the Kovalchuk thing gives us just options to -- if we need offense, we can use him in that situation, and if we don't we can leave the line the way it is."

Look, you don't trade a third-round draft pick for nothing. There's a reason MacLellan sought out Kovalchuk and it is for his offense. What this points to most likely is that Kovalchuk will play on the third line, but that the Hagelin, Eller, Panik trio will be used in defensive situations when needed.

Kovalchuk is willing to accept a smaller role

Kovalchuk was playing nearly 19 minutes per game in Montreal. That's significantly more than he should expect in a third-line role with Washington, but, per MacLellan, Kovalchuk understands this.

"I think he views our team as having a chance to win a championship and that's his main priority," MacLellan said. "I think he likes the style of play that we have. I've talked to him a couple times about accepting a role and he's pretty clear in his mind that he'll do anything as long as he has a chance to win a championship."

MacLellan added, "Having conversations with Ilya about will he be willing to accept a certain type of role -- I know in Montreal he was playing probably a little bit more than he's going to play here -- and would he be able to accept that role and be OK with it? He's pretty clear in his mind that he'll do whatever's asked of him."

Kovalchuk will be used on the power play

Washington's power play has struggled significantly this season. At times, the team has tried to use the second unit more than in the past, but when the player Evgeny Kuznetsov is setting up for one-timers is Brendan Leipsic, well, that's not a unit you can really expect much offensive production from. Kovalchuk should provide a more dangerous option for that second power play unit.

"He's a power-play player," MacLellan said. "Probably a second-power play player for us unless something's going on and we want to change it up. We can start him in our bottom six, we can move him up for shifts depending on the coaches. I just think it gives our coaching staff a lot of flexibility to use the player."

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