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How John Tavares' move to Toronto makes 2019 a critical offseason for the Caps

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USA TODAY Sports

How John Tavares' move to Toronto makes 2019 a critical offseason for the Caps

Both the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders rolled the dice with their free agents this season.

Both John Carlson and John Tavares entered the 2017-18 season on the final year of their contracts. Both were players their respective teams could not afford to lose for nothing.

Only one of them re-signed.

While the Capitals managed to ink Carlson to an eight-year, $64 million contract, Tavares left Long Island to play for his hometown team of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And the Islanders got nothing.

Tavares was the face of the franchise and New York desperately did not want to lose him, but the closer he got to free agency, the more of a possibility his leaving became. Regardless of whatever he said about staying on the island or about his loyalty to the team, the fact that he did not put pen to paper meant that he was at the very least considering going to another team.

It’s understandable why the Islanders would be hesitant to trade away the face of the franchise, but by waiting for free agency they ended up allowing him to leave for nothing which is much, much worse.

It’s a lesson not lost on the league’s general managers as evidenced by the mess already starting in Columbus with Artemi Panarin.

Panarin’s current contract expires at the end of next season which makes him eligible to sign a new contract with his current team. The Blue Jackets offered him a new deal which he turned down and now Columbus is looking into trading away arguably its best player before the season even begins a full year away from free agency.

Why?

Because the Islanders showed the risk of riding out that final year. Columbus can't afford to lose Panarin for nothing and if he's not interested in re-signing, they feel they have to make a move.

While trying to extend a star player a year ahead of time is not uncommon, it may just become the way teams do business in the NHL in the wake of the Tavares signing.

With this in mind, we should look ahead to Washington's 2019 free agents to see if there is anyone they need to attempt to re-sign now. to avoid a similar situation.

Since there’s no real urgency with restricted free agents given their limited rights, here’s a look at the Caps’ players who are set to become unrestricted free agents in 2019:

— Pheonix Copley
— Brett Connolly
— Nic Dowd
— Jayson Megna
— Aaron Ness
— Devante Smith-Pelly

Clearly, the team is in good shape. There is no player on this list that the team needs to rush to get signed. If you look just one more year into the future, however, it is a very different story.

2020 free agents:
— Nicklas Backstrom
— Braden Holtby

There may not be much officially on the line for the Caps in the summer of 2019 with Backstrom and Holtby both a year out from becoming free agents, but it still could prove to be a blockbuster summer with the legacy of Tavares looming large. Will Brian MacLellan feel compelled to lock up both big-name players a year early to avoid a similar situation in Washington??

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Capitals mailbag: Who needs to step up in a winner-take-all Game 7?

Capitals mailbag: Who needs to step up in a winner-take-all Game 7?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out the April 24 edition below.

Have a Caps question you want to be answered for next week’s mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Nathan S. writes: What do you think the atmosphere in Game 7 will be like? Loud like Carolina or tense like in years past? I noticed when game was tied in Game 2, the arena got quiet like in prior years. Old habits die hard I guess or are DC fans just not that rabid? 

This will depend on how the game goes. Look, Caps fans have gotten a bad rap over the years because it did not take much to take the wind out of their sails after seeing multiple playoff failures. I thought the fan base was past that, but when the Caps lost Game 3 and people began tweeting me that the series was over (despite the fact that the Caps were up 2-1 at the time) I realized that that culture of assuming the worst remained ingrained in a lot of the fans.

Having said that, no one who was in Capital One Arena for any of the conference final games or Stanley Cup Final games last year can say the fans did not bring it then. That was the loudest I have ever heard the arena and there was not a shred of doubt or gloom from the fans in those games, even as Washington dropped Games 3 and 4 to Tampa Bay.

To answer your question, yes, Caps fans are rabid, but also quickly deflated in early elimination scenarios. If the Caps come out swinging, the crowd will be behind them. If it’s 2-0 heading into the third period, however, the silence will be deafening.

Benjamin C. writes: I am concerned with the Capitals. Why do they look like they’re sleep walking out there? They don’t look energized out there and we know they have another level.

This may be a bit revisionist history. The Caps won Games 1 and 2. I know they were close wins, but let’s remember in Game 1 the Caps were up 3-0 when Petr Mrazek saved breakaways from Nic Dowd and Carl Hagelin before Andrei Svechnikov scored twice to pull the Hurricanes close. Game 2 was won in overtime, but the Caps never trailed in that game. After Game 3 a lot of people were saying Carolina had dominated every game, but that was an overreaction to a blowout loss and to the fact that possession numbers were heavily in favor of Carolina.

Here’s the thing, the Hurricanes were always going to dominate those numbers because those numbers are based on shot attempts and Carolina is a high shot volume team, Washington is not. You have to know that going in and take those numbers with a grain of salt.

Game 3 was bad. The Caps were the better team for the most part in Game 4, but the issue there was an overreaction to the forecheck which had dominated them so completely in Game 3. The Caps adjusted with short passes and speed out of the defensive zone, but one player would zip down the ice with the puck and end up so far ahead of his teammates and surrounded by four Hurricanes in the offensive zone. He would shoot the puck or turn it over and the puck would be headed out of the zone as quickly as it went in. Game 6 started out well, but the last 40 minutes were bad and now it has come down to a Game 7. Overall, I would say the Caps have only really played poorly in two games, Games 3 and 6. It doesn’t take much in hockey to give a team hope, however, and two bad performances were all it took to push this series to seven games.

Let’s also remember that Washington is the only division winner to even make it to seven games. It will be disappointing if they lose in the first round, but it would certainly be par for the course in what is quickly becoming the year of the upset.

Carl Hagelin has played great the last two games so I am not going to bury him. Jakub Vrana has not been much of a factor at all, but really if we are going to talk about players the Caps need more from, the discussion begins and ends with Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov was brilliant in last year’s Cup run and could easily have won the Conn Smythe over Ovechkin with 32 points in 24 games. So far he has just five assists in six games. That is not good enough. Washington does not win the Cup without him playing like a superstar and they may not even make it out of the first round if he does not step up his game on Wednesday. He was invisible in Game 6 and you just cannot have that from a player as important as he is.

Kuznetsov has to be better and if he’s not, he will easily be the biggest disappointment of this series. What’s more, his words from back in October about how it’s “not my style” to be focused 365 days a year are going to come back to haunt him.

That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?

For whatever reason, the Caps have looked like a completely different team in Carolina. Having a Game 7 in Washington has not been much of an advantage in recent years, but in this specific situation, playing at Capital One Arena will be huge. The Caps have been much better at handling the Hurricanes’ forecheck at home and that will need to continue. The first period has been huge in each home game for the Caps so the opening 20 minutes of Game 7 is going to tell us a lot about who has showed up to play. I expect a very physical start for Washington as that is about the one clear advantage the Caps have established thus far through six games.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be read and answered in next week’s mailbag, send it in to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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A look back at every Capitals Game 7 and what they tell us about tonight

A look back at every Capitals Game 7 and what they tell us about tonight

ARLINGTON — Welcome back, old friend. It just would not feel like a Capitals postseason without a Game 7 and – unlike last year’s Stanley Cup title run – we have one Wednesday at Capital One Arena. 

The Capitals host the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of their first-round series (7:30 p.m., NBC Sports Washington). It’s been a weird one with blowout wins for each team and the home team taking every game. There’s been controversial calls and physical confrontations and sniping back and forth. We might have a real rivalry blooming here between old Southeast Division opponents. But for now…it's another Game 7. Win or start packing your gear.  

The record isn’t pretty. The Capitals have played 16 Game Sevens in their history. They are 5-11 overall and 3-8 at home. They have blown a 3-1 series lead five times, which is 18 percent of the total in NHL history (28). 

During the Alex Ovechkin era dating to 2008: Washington is 4-7 in Game Sevens, but just 2-5 at home. Like we said, it isn’t pretty. But maybe last year’s demolition of Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final has dawned a new day. The only thing that’s certain is we have no idea how it will turn out or who will be the hero or if it will be a 6-0 blowout win or if the fans will be leaving early during a blowout loss. 

Let’s take a look at the previous 16 Game Sevens in Capitals’ history and put them in context.

MAY 18, 1987

The Capitals’ first Game 7 was the Easter Epic, a four-overtime classic against the New York Islanders that ranks among the best games in NHL history. It didn’t end well. Pat Lafontaine spun just inside the blueline and ripped a shot past stunned Caps goalie Bob Mason, who stood motionless for several seconds before dropping to one knee as the Islanders celebrated a first-round series win. Washington blew a 3-1 series lead – this would become a theme - and a game that began on a Saturday night ended well past 2 a.m. on Easter Sunday at Capital Centre. 

Agony Level: 10/10. Losses don’t come much worse than this. Add in a catchy nickname that makes older fans shudder and you probably shouldn’t YouTube this one. The full CBC broadcast is on there. And it’s as brutal as it sounds.

APRIL 16, 1988            

The hockey gods were finally kind to Caps fans the following spring. They didn’t get used to this. This time the Capitals were down 3-1 in a first-round series to the Philadelphia Flyers. Any idea of completing the comeback seemed over when they fell behind 3-0 in Game 7 at home. But the Caps didn’t quit. They scored three times later in the second to tie it and the teams exchanged goals in the third. But in overtime, Dale Hunter took a stretch pass from defenseman Larry Murphy and beat Flyers goalie Ron Hextall on a breakaway. It remains an iconic moment in franchise history to this day. The 5-4 overtime win looked like it could propel Washington to its first Stanley Cup. It did not. 

Ecstasy Level: 9/10. A franchise-defining comeback. The Caps were chokers no more. But just sit tight.

APRIL 30, 1988

The rare sneaky devastating loss most younger fans have never heard of. The Capitals were heavy favorites against the New Jersey Devils, who at that point in their history had just won their first playoff series. But Hall-of-Fame defenseman Rod Langway was lost for the series when his Achilles tendon was sliced. Down 3-1 in an ugly, contentious series, Washington stomped New Jersey 7-2 in Game 6 to send it back to Capital Centre. The Capitals fell behind 2-0 in the first period, but tied the game with a pair of goals in the second. Then Devils forward John MacLean tipped a shot over goalie Pete Peeters with 6:11 to go and a furious Washington rally fell short. The season was over in the second round.

Agony Level: 7/10. The Capitals were the better team, but without Langway would have been hard pressed to beat the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final. Still they should have won this series. The bracket was wide open. Sound familiar? 

MAY 1, 1992

Again a Game 7 at home. This time the first of many against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ahead 3-1 in the series, again the Capitals let it slip away. That the Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup that year and the next…well, that actually makes it hurt more. Mario Lemieux had a goal and an assist, Jaromir Jagr scored a power-play goal in the second period and Joe Mullen ended things with an empty-net goal to send the Capital Centre crowd home bummed. Again. 

Agony Level: 9/10. You can’t keep blowing 3-1 series leads. Can you? The Caps: “Hold our beers.”

May 18, 1995

Oh no. Not again. Up 3-1 against the Penguins, who they’d actually beat the year before in the first round to slay some demons. Pittsburgh scored 16 goals over the final three games. They took the lead 1:16 into Game 7 at The Igloo. Ron Francis added a power-play goal in the second period. An empty-netter provided the 3-0 margin. At least this game was in Pittsburgh and Caps fans didn’t have to see it in person. 

Agony Level: 9/10. That’s three blown 3-1 series leads in nine years. How is that even possible?

April 22, 2008

The wait for another Game 7 was longer than Season 8 of Game of Thrones. The Capitals made a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, but otherwise just tread water until a full rebuild led to the Alex Ovechkin era. His first playoff series was against the Philadelphia Flyers. It is a little-remembered classic. The Flyers went up 3-1, but Washington rallied to tie the series. Ovechkin had the game-winning goal in Game 6 on the road. But back home, people had forgotten how these things go. Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom scored, but the game went to overtime and – with defenseman Tom Poti in the penalty box – Joffrey Lupul tapped home a rebound and the celebrating Flyers were pelted with beers from the stands. 

Agony Level: 3/10. Fans were so happy to see playoff hockey again, that they actually gave the Capitals a standing ovation as they left the ice. Better days were ahead. Eventually. 

April 28, 2009

As loud as I have ever heard Capital One Arena. Down 3-1 to the New York Rangers in the first round, sure that the inevitable marquee matchup with the Penguins would be wasted, fans watched the Capitals rally to tie the series. And everyone in the building held their breath in a 1-1 game in Game 7 as the seconds ticked away. Sergei Fedorov, the old champion brought in the year before at the trade deadline to bring some professionalism to a young, raw team, found some life in those 39-year-old legs. He skated on a seemingly harmless two-on-two rush with Ovechkin, stopped suddenly and ripped a shot past Henrik Lundqvist from the right faceoff dot with 4:59 to go. The barn exploded in a caldron of noise. If you were there, you know. My ears are still ringing. 

Ecstasy Level: 9/10. Relief. Pure relief. The Capitals had a great season. No one wanted to see it end in the first round to an unheralded Rangers team. Fedorov made sure it didn’t.   

May 13, 2009

The time for revenge was at hand. A Game 7 against the Penguins and Sidney Crosby to cap an epic series, the first between the two teams during the Ovechkin-Crosby era. It was a disaster. One reporter texted his brother, who had paid big money to get into the building, only to find that he was already back home. In the second period. Jordan Staal – yes, he scored the game-winner Monday for Carolina in Game 6 - scored with 9:23 to go in that period to make it 5-0 so you couldn’t really blame people for bailing. A bitterly disappointing effort. No standing ovation this time. 

Agony Level: 9/10. A 2-0 lead against a hated rival to start the series, an incredible overtime win in Game 6 to stay alive and then that clunker of a game to end it. That series deserved better. But surely NEXT season would be the year. 

April 28, 2010

It wasn’t. In fact it was the worst. Up 3-1 against the No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens, the Capitals ran smack into Jaroslav Halak, the greatest example of “The Hot Goalie” ever. Their Presidents’ Trophy meant nothing when the Canadiens took Game 7 at Verizon Center 2-1 – a Mike Knuble game-tying goal was overturned and a furious push late came up short. It took the organization four years to truly recover from this loss. It remains to this day the saddest locker room I have ever been in. 

Agony Level: 10/10. The series that proved nothing matters in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning just found this out, too. The Capitals were the better team, but Halak was too good. Also – their fourth blown 3-1 series lead. Of course.

April 25, 2012

Just not a game the Capitals were expected to win, which tells you all you need to know about Game Sevens. They failed to close out the Boston Bruins in Game 6 at home with an overtime loss. They were headed on the road for a Game 7 against the defending Stanley Cup champions. And they won! Hallelujah. Joel Ward knocked home a rebound in overtime on a rush up ice with Mike Knuble. The Capitals took the ultimate coin flip series under the ultimate coin flip coach in Dale Hunter. Four games went to overtime and all seven were decided by a goal. After the Montreal debacle in 2010 and a second-round sweep by the Lightning in 2011, the Caps needed this first-round series win. 

May 12, 2012

Really fun series against the Rangers, who finally made the leap to contender after losing to the Caps twice in the previous three years. The teams split the first six games - one went to triple overtime and another regular old single overtime. In the end, the Rangers took a 2-0 lead in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, defenseman Roman Hamrlik, of all people, brought the Caps to within 2-1 and the final 9:17 featured a desperate push, big saves from Henrik Lundqvist and a non-stop roaring Garden crowd. 

Agony Level: 4/10. Hard to be too upset. The Capitals fired Bruce Boudreau in November and never expected to get within a game of the Eastern Conference Final. They acquitted themselves well and the Boston series was so memorable. 

May 13, 2013

Among the worst losses of the Ovechkin era. Wait…how many times can we SAY that? Anyway. Arron Asham scored on a soft shot from the right circle in the first period and it was all downhill from there in a 5-0 loss in front of a very, very angry home crowd. Reminiscent of that Penguins Game 7 loss in 2009, except four years later and in the first round. It felt like the team had stagnated and some wondered if the entire core group had to be blown up. It took missing the playoffs the following year for major changes to happen. 

Agony Level: 8/10. Call it frustration more than agony. The Capitals did not score a goal in Games 6 or 7. 

May 27, 2015

By now Game 7 just meant evil. The fanbase couldn’t handle the anxiety after two generations worth of heartbreak and that filtered down to the players. But not this time! In a tight building waiting for the worst, Evgeny Kuznetsov – not for the last time – was the hero. His brilliant individual effort with 7:18 to play lifted the Capitals to a 2-1 win in a first-round series against the New York Islanders. Keep this one in mind. It’s possible we see a rematch.  

Ecstasy Level: 7/10. It was just the first round and expectations were always high so people didn’t get too crazy. But it was a Game 7 at home and that had meant only pain before. This one meant a lot. It just didn’t actually change anything because…

May 13, 2015

It was followed by the most recent blown 3-1 series lead. Make it five. The Capitals had the Rangers on the ropes in Game 5, gave up a late goal in the third period and lost in overtime. Then they lost Game 6 at home. The return trip to the Garden was excruciating. Ovechkin scored in the first period, the Rangers tied it and the two teams spent the rest of the night obliterating each other right through overtime. Washington had a great scoring chance at one end of the ice. Moments later off a faceoff, Derek Stepan smashed home a rebound that left Ovechkin speechless on the bench after yet another second-round Game 7 loss.

Agony Level: 9/10. This game left most people speechless, to be honest. Really just sad. Seemed like the Capitals would never make it to the Eastern Conference Final. 

May 10, 2017

The game where everyone figured the Ovechkin era was done. Game 7. Penguins. Capital One Arena. Whatever. This time the Capitals rallied from a 3-1 deficit to force the deciding game. Surely it would be different this time. The tables had turned. Well, Lucy never lets Charlie Brown kick the football, does she? You should have known. Bryan Rust scored in the second period and the building felt like a morgue. Anyone who says a crowd can’t affect a team’s chances wasn’t at this game. 1-0 felt like 7-0. And people started leaving when Patric Hornqvist scored just 4:14 into the third period. It was 2-0! But a decade of this had taken a toll. The Capitals put up almost zero fight the final 15 minutes. 

Agony Level: 10/10. Two straight Presidents’ Trophies and two straight second-round exits to your biggest rival. Plus the salary-cap reaper was coming that summer along with the expansion draft and the Capitals knew next year’s team would be less talented with less depth and the upcoming rookies were no sure thing. It was over. 

May 23, 2018

Just kidding. Hockey is dumb. This was the game that changed everything. The Capitals cobbled together a solid group of role players and rookies around their stars, Braden Holtby caught fire in the playoffs and – down 3-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final – Washington rallied to win the Prince of Wales Trophy for just the second time. If Game 6 was a physical beat down at 3-0, Game 7 in Tampa Bay was a mental beat down. The kind the Capitals used to endure all the time. Ovechkin scored just over a minute into the game and Washington cruised to a 4-0 win and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Ecstasy Level: 12/10. Not possible to slay as many demons as the Capitals did last year. All that was left was to win the Cup and they did it in five games against the Vegas Golden Knights. Anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen in a Game 7 is lying. None of this makes sense. And it’s why we love it. Get ready. 

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