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Key Caps questions: Can Jakub Vrana consistently play like a top-six forward?

Key Caps questions: Can Jakub Vrana consistently play like a top-six forward?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Can Jakub Vrana consistently play like a top-six forward?

Tarik: Yes, Jakub Vrana *can* consistently play like a top-six forward. And I think we’ve got enough evidence to say he probably *will* in 2018-19, his second season as a full-time NHLer.

What’s the evidence I’m talking about?

The way he finished off the postseason.

It took Vrana a while to really get going in the playoffs. He was even scratched once vs. Columbus after a looking a little overwhelmed in the opener. But once he experienced that ‘I-can-do-this’ moment—it came when he finished a give-and-go with Lars Eller on the power play in Game 2 against the Penguins—Vrana’s confidence surged and his game took off.

In fact, I thought he was one of the Caps’ best forwards against Tampa Bay and Las Vegas. And I wasn’t alone. The 22-year-old cracked eight minutes in playing time just once in the first Caps’ eight playoff games; he averaged more than 13 minutes per the rest of the way.

And then there was the Stanley Cup-clinching victory. Vrana didn’t score the game winner, but he scored the all-important ice-breaker, a second period snipe on a semi-break that got the Caps’ dreaming about what was possible that night.

No one has ever wondered about Vrana’s ability. His speed and skill screams 20-plus goal scorer. The concerns have always been about focus and hunger, and I think those questions were answered in May and June as the Czech winger shifted his career into a new gear.

Going forward, it’s kind of a good news/bad news situation for Vrana. The good news is that he’s proven to himself and everyone else that he can perform at a world-class level on a night-in and night-out basis. The bad news (if you can even call it that) is this: now that he’s done it, Todd Reirden and Co. won’t accept any excuses or settle for anything less.

JJ: I have to confess I have never understood the trepidation people have when it comes to Vrana. Maybe it stems from the fact that he was a first-round draft pick and is under more scrutiny, but I believe a lot of his "issues" have been largely overblown.

Vrana had trouble focusing in Hershey sometimes. So what? Sure, you would like him to have a different mentality and be 100-percent focused on developing his game and winning in the AHL, but it was clear Vrana was the best player on the team and one of the best players on the ice on any given night. He came to North America to play in the NHL, I do not begrudge him for wanting to make it to the big leagues when he was clearly good enough.

Vrana is also prone to mistakes and turnovers, but he's 22. That's to be expected.

Barry Trotz, who described the NHL as a performance league and not a development league, was at times quick to pull young players from the lineup for making the type of mistakes you would expect young players to make. Vrana was one such player. Because of that, many of Vrana's mistakes were largely overblown. When a player with his talent comes out of the lineup and you watch replay after replay of his mistakes explaining why a player of his caliber is in the press box, you start to think there might be something wrong. There isn't.

Not only will Vrana be another year older this year, but I also expect Todd Reirden will have a bit more patience with him.

The skill is there. Any doubt about whether he belonged was silenced in the playoff run. Tarik mentions Vrana's performance in Game 2 against Pittsburgh, but for me, Game 5 against the Penguins was the real breakthrough.

With Tom Wilson still out with suspension and Devante Smith-Pelly struggling in a top-line role, Vrana stepped in with a big-time performance with a goal and two assists to lead the Caps to the all-important Game 5 win.

Vrana scored 13 goals in his first full NHL season and capped it off with three goals and five assists in his first postseason. He is going to be just fine.

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Holtby's night ends after only three shots as Avalanche hand Caps a loss

Holtby's night ends after only three shots as Avalanche hand Caps a loss

WASHINGTON -- The Colorado Avalanche scored on its first three shots of the game and Capitals could never recover in a 6-3 loss Monday. Braden Holtby surrendered the first three goals before being relieved by Ilya Samsonov. The Caps mounted a comeback to make it 4-2, but a back-breaking goal in the third period was the final nail in the coffin of an ugly loss.

Here are five reasons the Caps lost.

A Burakovsky screen

In his first game back in Washington with his new team, it did not take long for Andre Burakovsky to make an impact. Erik Johnson put Colorado up less than four minutes into the game as Holtby lost the puck behind the screen of Burakovsky. Burakovsky earned a secondary assist on the play.

A bad play by Carlson

With the Caps in the offensive zone, Jakub Vrana passed the puck back to the blue line to the normally sure-handed John Carlson. Carlson lost control of the puck and it was picked up by Nathan MacKinnon. MacKinnon skated from the left to the right side of the ice where Jonas Siegenthaler was waiting to defend. The problem is that as MacKinnon cut to the right, Carlson followed.

MacKinnon dropped the pass back to Mikko Rantanen and Carlson tried to pounce on it, but Rantanen got there first and passed it to the left to a wide-open Nikita Zadorov. That is where Carlson should have been.

Whether Carlson was anticipating the drop pass or was just frustrated and was caught chasing the puck, it was a mistake that led to Colorado’s second goal.

Lewington caught flat-footed

The Avalanche started the breakout as defenseman Cale Makar passed the puck up to Joonas Donskoi playing on the right side. As he skated through the neutral zone, he had only two options: he could try a cross-ice pass to Nazem Kadri or he could skate it in himself. The Caps appeared to be in good position to defend the break-in until Donskoi passed to Kadri and he easily skated past a flat-footed Tyler Lewington and in on net for the goal.

Lewington was playing on the right with Nick Jensen on the left. Had Donskoi taken it himself, Nick Jensen was there to defend. Lewington was in good position as he was slightly ahead and inside of Kadri, but he did not anticipate the pass or Kadri’s speed. Lewington was in a position that he should have been able to continue skating back and keeping himself between Kadri and the net. Since he didn’t anticipate the pass, Kadri turned on the jets and Lewington had to turn, already beaten. Kadri easily skated past him and in on net for Colorado’s third goal.

3 goals on 3 shots

Colorado is really good and the Caps did not play well as a team. Both of those things can be true as can the fact that Braden Holtby just did not have it on Monday. His stat line was a rough one: three shots on goal, zero saves, .000 save percentage. His game was over after Kadri’s goal just 7:54 into the game.

A misplay behind the net

Rantanen would add a power play goal late in the first and it looked like the rout was on. Washington battled back in the second period as Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie made it 4-2 heading into the third. The Caps were playing physical, had scored two straight and the momentum was beginning to tilt in their favor. That ended, however, five minutes into the third.

Samsonov played well in relief of Holtby, but a gaffe in the third period ended any hopes of a comeback.

Samsonov went behind the net to retrieve a puck on a Colorado dump-in. Tyson Jost came to pressure him and Samsonov tried to fire the puck along the boards past him. Jost got his stick in front of the puck and then had a helpless Samsonov stuck behind the net. Jost through the puck in front of the net and a diving Matt Nieto hit it into the open net.

That goal proved to be the back-breaker. Alex Ovechkin would score a late goal to make it 5-3, but it was too little, too late. MacKinnon would add the empty-netter in the last minute of the game.

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4 things to know for the Capitals’ matchup against undefeated Colorado

4 things to know for the Capitals’ matchup against undefeated Colorado

The Capitals (3-1-2) snapped a three-game losing streak on Saturday and will look to stay in the win column on Monday in a game against the Colorado Avalanche (4-0-0). You can catch all the action on NBC Sports Washington with Caps FaceOff Live kicking things off at 4 p.m. before Caps Pregame Live begins at 4:30 p.m. to bring you up to the 5 p.m. puck drop. Stick with NBC Sports Washington afterward for Caps Postgame Live, D.C. Sports Live and Caps Overtime Live.

Here are four things to know for Saturday’s game.

Colorado is undefeated

The Avalanche is one of two teams left in the NHL that has not suffered a loss of any kind. Of their four wins, only one of them was not in regulation and that also happened to be the only game Philipp Grubauer did not play in net.

All four wins also happen to be at home as Monday’s game will be Colorado’s first on the road this season.

Washington will face former Caps Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer

Things seem to be going well in Burakovsky’s first season with the Avalanche. The winger has two goals and two assists in four games and has scored the game-winner in each of the past two games.

Burakovsky was a restricted free agent in the offseason and his contract carried a large qualifying offer which the Caps could not afford. The team traded his rights to  Colorado for a second and a third-round draft pick as well as a prospect on an expiring contract.

In net, Grubauer enters his second season with Colorado and first as the undisputed starter of the team. He earned the job after last year’s playoff performance in which he won seven games, posted a .925 save percentage and brought the Avalanche to within one win of advancing to the conference final.

In three games this season, Grubauer is 3-0-0 with a .931 save percentage.

The best line in hockey?

Colorado boasts one of the top lines, if not the outright best line in hockey with Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. All three players have had their fair share of success against Washington in their careers.

Landeskog has scored 14 points in just 13 games against the Caps, MacKinnon has 13 points in 11 games and Rantanen has seven points in five games.

The Caps have historically been a difficult matchup for Colorado

Washington’s last three games were against the Dallas Stars (twice) and the Nashville Predators, two teams the Caps have not fared well against historically. The roles are reversed for Monday’s game as this time it's the Caps who have been the thorn in the side of their opponent.

Colorado has lost nine of its last 10 meetings with Washington with its last win coming back on Nov. 16, 2017. The last win before was four years prior in November 2013.

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