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Jakub Vrana is back on the top line, here’s why this time is different

Jakub Vrana is back on the top line, here’s why this time is different

We’ve seen this story before. With Tom Wilson suspended during the playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, the Caps struggled to find a right wing to play alongside Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Finally, Barry Trotz moved Jakub Vrana up to the top line during Game 5 and Vrana responded with a goal and two assists in a pivotal win.

With Tom Wilson now again suspended, the Caps struggled early to find a right wing to play alongside Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Finally, Todd Reirden moved Vrana up to the top line prior to Saturday’s game against the Calgary Flames and he again responded with a first-period goal.

Once Wilson returned last season, Vrana was moved back down to the second line where he remained the rest of the postseason. Even after Wilson was handed a 20-game suspension at the start of this season, Vrana was not the first guy moved up to the top line. It took nine games and three different line combinations before Vrana got his chance.

“It's nice,” Vrana said Sunday of his return to the top line. “I've been playing with those guys a little bit last year. I thought we had some chemistry. It can be really good offensively, you've just got to focus on our all-around game.”

That last part is the key.

The thing Wilson adds to the top line that no one has been able to do as well as he does is win puck battles. With his physical nature and large frame, Wilson is able to battle for pucks along the boards and in corners and create room for his dynamic linemates.

Vrana brings speed and offensive skill, but winning puck and board battles was not considered a particularly strong aspect of his game. That was, until Saturday.

“His compete on the puck is at a different level than it was at definitely during the season last year,” Reirden said. “I thought he started to get better with that as the playoffs went on last year.“

In Calgary, a feisty Vrana battled along the boards, generated turnovers and created offense for his line in a way we have not previously seen from him.

Vrana has the skill of a top-six forward, but the top line already has plenty of that with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Getting time on the top line and staying there meant Vrana would have to provide what Wilson did, but in his own way.

“I have to,” Vrana said. “I'm not as big as Tom, I'm not as good a hitter as Tom so I'm just going to use my legs and use my speed, try to be first on those pucks and win those pucks.”

“Everyone has different ways of creating separation from opposition and the puck and he does it with speed and with a quick stick and other players do it physically,” Reirden said.

He also added, “I think [Vrana’s] been able to do a really good job in terms of creating turnovers in that way and getting us some offense as a result.”

Chandler Stephenson also scored in his first game on the top line. The important thing for Vrana to cement his position will be continuing to battle for those loose pucks and continue fighting along the boards

Wilson is now 10 games through his 20-game suspension and chances are he will get his spot on the top line back once he returns and gets back into game shape. At least now, however, Reirden knows he has options and a position that has been notoriously hard to fill for some time.

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With NHL season paused, a ranking of Capitals' best wins of 2019-20: No. 4

With NHL season paused, a ranking of Capitals' best wins of 2019-20: No. 4

While we wait for the NHL to hopefully resume its season, NBC Sports Washington is looking back at the 20 best wins of the Capitals' season so far. Mark Zaner, producer for Caps Faceoff Live and Caps Overtime Live, has watched every game. His rankings continue with No. 4, a 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 16 that featured a bloodied Alex Ovechkin getting revenge against the Devils and Braden Holtby getting a fancy new hat. 

WHAT HAPPENED 

Ovechkin made his presence felt in the first period. He scored on a blistering one-timer during a 5-on-3 power play to get the Caps on the board first. Then with less than a minute remaining, after Nicklas Backstrom won an offensive zone draw, Ovechkin picked up the loose puck and fired a wrister that Louis Domingue never saw. 

  

Just 16 seconds in the second period, Ovechkin got some help. Lars Eller’s forecheck forced New Jersey into a turnover. Eller and Richard Panik eventually found Carl Hagelin in front of the net for the easy score. Hagelin’s goal came on Cory Schneider, who replaced Domingue at intermission. 

  

Despite being dead last in the Metro Division, the Devils didn’t roll over. Wayne Simmonds scored less than a minute after Hagelin’s goal. Blake Coleman scored shorthanded for his 19th of the season early in the third period to make it 3-2. 

Order was eventually restored. Jakub Vrana took advantage of a bad clearing attempt by Pavel Zacha and snuck one through Schneider. And at the 15:42 mark, the Capitals put the game away for good. Tom Wilson made one of the best passes of the season right to Ovechkin on the doorstep. Washington wins 5-2. 

  

MEMORABLE MOMENTS 

This was Ovechkin’s second hat trick of the season. It looked like it would be a rough night early on for the Captain. On one of his first shifts of the night, Ovechkin took a high stick from Miles Wood that drew blood. Ovi spent most of the period getting stitched up in the dressing room. He returned to the game just in time to score two goals in the final five minutes of the period. Don’t make Ovechkin angry, you won’t like him when he’s angry. 

  

Ilya Samsonov continued a brilliant stretch of games. He made one of the more remarkable saves of his young career. 

  

WHY IT WAS SIGNIFICANT 

Just five days earlier, the Caps hosted New Jersey and lost 5-1. It was arguably their worst game of the season. Washington didn’t take the Devils lightly in this contest and got a much needed two points with the All-Star break looming. 

Ovechkin scored career goals 687, 688 and 689. That put him one behind Mario Lemieux for 10th place on the all-time scoring list. He would jump Super Mario less than 48 hours later. 
 
WHAT WE WERE TALKING ABOUT 

When throwing hats on the ice, fans usually just chuck cheap baseball caps and toques. This is the first time I can remember someone throwing a women’s fedora on the ice. 

  

Braden Holtby pulls off the look well. The whole incident begs the question: who wears a fedora to a hockey game? 

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Who would the Caps play in the first round based on NHL 20's final regular season standings

Who would the Caps play in the first round based on NHL 20's final regular season standings

The NHL's regular season was scheduled to end on Saturday meaning we should be gearing up right now for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Alas, the coronavirus has us all stuck at home yearning for the day when live sports can return. Until that time, we are left to wonder what if and that is exactly what I am looking to answer.

NBC Sports Washington simulated the Capitals' scheduled games on EA Sports' NHL 20. With the regular season now over, it's time to take it to the next level. It is time to answer the questions we had in the final stretch run of the season. Would the Caps have won the Metropolitan Division? Would Alex Ovechkin win yet another Rocket Richard Trophy? Would John Carlson reach 90 points? Who would the Caps meet in the playoffs?

The full season has been simmed, the stats have been tallied up and the standings are set. Here is how the 2019-20 regular season finished according to the simulation.

Metropolitan Division

  1. Washington (52-22-8, 112 points)
  2. Philadelphia (48-26-8, 104 points)
  3. Pittsburgh (47-29-6, 100 points)
  4. New York Islanders (44-28-10, 98 points)
  5. Columbus (38-27-17, 93 points)
  6. Carolina (42-33-7, 91 points)
  7. New York Rangers (41-35-6, 88 points)
  8. New Jersey (35-35-12, 82 points)

While it was Philadelphia who was red hot when the season paused, it was the Caps who finished strong with seven straight wins to close out the regular season thus pulling Washington well ahead of the Flyers for the division crown. The Islanders did enough to separate themselves from the middling Metro pack while Columbus and Carolina ultimately fell just short of the postseason.

Atlantic Division

  1. Boston (55-15-12, 122 points)
  2. Tampa Bay (49-26-7, 105 points)
  3. Florida (42-29-11, 95 points)
  4. Toronto (42-30-10, 94 points)
  5. Montreal (38-34-10, 86 points)
  6. Buffalo (35-39-8, 78 points)
  7. Ottawa (30-36-16, 76 points)
  8. Detroit (19-56-7, 45 points)

Toronto and Florida tried desperately not to earn the No. 3 seed, both losing several games they should have won. In the end, the Panthers edged out the Leafs.

Central Division

  1. St. Louis (47-25-10, 104 points)
  2. Colorado (46-26-10, 102 points)
  3. Dallas (43-30-9, 95 points)
  4. Minnesota (42-32-8, 92 points)(36 regulation wins)
  5. Winnipeg (43-33-6, 92 points)(35 regulation wins)
  6. Nashville (40-32-10, 90 points)
  7. Chicago (39-34-9, 87 points)

The top three played out as expected though the gap between St. Louis and Colorado was much smaller than I would have guessed. Of the last four teams, I was very surprised that it was Minnesota that came out on top.

Pacific Division

  1. Vegas (48-25-9, 105 points)
  2. Edmonton (44-27-11, 99 points)
  3. Calgary (42-32-8, 92 points)
  4. Arizona (40-33-9, 89 points)
  5. Vancouver (39-35-8, 86 points)
  6. San Jose (36-40-6, 78 points)
  7. Los Angeles (34-40-8, 76 points)
  8. Anaheim (33-40-9, 75 points)

Vegas finally did what every expected it too, take control of the division. The way Arizona and Vancouver finished the season was hugely disappointing.

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Capitals player stats

Nicklas Backstrom 19 goals, 50 assists, 69 points
Travis Boyd 3 goals, 7 assists, 10 points
John Carlson 16 goals, 68 assists, 84 points
Brenden Dillon 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points
Nic Dowd 11 goals, 13 assists, 24 points
Lars Eller 21 goals, 28 assists, 49 points
Martin Fehervary 1 assist, 1 point
Radko Gudas 2 goals, 15 assists, 17 points
Carl Hagelin 10 goals, 21 assists, 31 points
Garnet Hathaway 10 goals, 10 assists, 20 points
Nick Jensen 1 goal, 13 assists, 14 points
Michal Kempny 3 goals, 16 assists, 19 points
Ilya Kovalchuk 5 goals, 7 assists, 12 points
Evgeny Kuznetsov 24 goals, 37 assists, 61 points
Brendan Leipsic 3 goals, 8 assists, 11 points
Dmitry Orlov 5 goals, 29 assists, 34 points
T.J. Oshie 27 goals, 32 assists, 59 points
Alex Ovechkin 54 goals, 27 assists, 81 points
Richard Panik 11 goals, 18 assists, 29 points
Jonas Siegenthaler 2 goals, 10 assists, 12 points
Jakub Vrana 31 goals, 29 assists, 60 points
Tom Wilson 24 goals, 30 assists, 54 points

Dowd set a new career-high in goals, Hathaway and Orlov set career-highs in assists, Dowd, Hathaway and Orlov all set career-highs in points and Carlson, Eller, Siegenthaler and Wilson set career highs in all three categories.

Top goal scorers

  1. David Pastrnak 56
  2. Alex Ovechkin 54
  3. Auston Matthews 50
  4. Mika Zibanejad 45
  5. Leon Draisaitl 44

Ovechkin fell just short of a ninth Rocket Richard, but this total would give Ovechkin 712 career goals, moving him past Mike Gartner for seventh overall on the all-time goals list.

Points leaders

  1. Leon Draisaitl 123 points
  2. Connor McDavid 112 points
  3. David Pastrnak 108 points
  4. Artemi Panarin 103 points
  5. Nathan MacKinnon 103 points

No one was going to catch Draisaitl.

Top rookies

  1. Quinn Hughes 8 goals, 49 assists, 57 points
  2. Dominik Kubalik 33 goals, 19 assists, 52 points
  3. Cale Makar 12 goals, 39 assists, 51 points
  4. Victor Olofsson 25 goals, 26 assists, 51 points
  5. Adam Fox 8 goals, 37 assists, 45 points

Playoff matchups

M1 Washington vs. WC1 New York Islanders
M2 Philadelphia vs. M3 Pittsburgh

A1 Boston vs. WC2 Toronto
A2 Tampa Bay vs. A3 Florida

C1 St. Louis vs. WC1 Minnesota
C2 Colorado vs. C3 Dallas

P1 Vegas vs. WC2 Winnipeg
P2 Edmonton vs. P3 Calgary

This is a fascinating bracket. For the Caps, it's Washington vs. Barry Trotz in the first round. Flyers vs. Penguins, Lightning vs. Panthers and Oilers vs. Flames are all big rivalries that would have been incredible to watch in a seven-game series.

I also love how the Leafs just can't escape the Bruins. The year they finish outside the top three is the year Boston wins the division.

The postseason begins on Wednesday. Stick with NBC Sports Washington for your simulated Stanley Cup Playoff recaps!

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