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Key Caps questions: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role?

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Key Caps questions: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role?

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 Pheonix Copley handle the backup role in place of Philipp Grubauer?

Tarik: One of the more unappreciated aspects of the 2017-18 season was the outstanding job Philipp Grubauer did in the regular season.

Grubauer, at times, was asked to shoulder the load as starter Braden Holtby went through a “reset.” And the longtime backup maximized that opportunity, establishing career highs in appearances (35), starts (28) and wins (15). In fact, from Thanksgiving until the end of the regular season, Grubi was, statistically speaking, the best goalie in the NHL, posting a .935 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average.

Of course, things didn’t go nearly as well in the playoffs; he was lifted in Game 2 of the first round after giving up eight goals on 49 shots. He didn’t play again for the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but the Caps wouldn’t have won a third straight Metro Division title without him.

So, yeah, backup goalie can be a critical role.

Which brings us to today’s question: Can Pheonix Copley step in for Grubauer, who is now Colorado’s starter?

Let me start off by saying the Caps really like Copley. So much so, they acquired him twice. (The team signed him as an undrafted free agent, dealt him to St. Louis in the deal that brought T.J. Oshie to Washington, then reacquired him in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade.)

At 6-foot-4, 200-pounds, Copley’s got ideal size. The 26-year-old native of North Pole, Alaska is lanky, athletic and coachable. He’s also due to earn the league minimum of $650,000, which provides some salary cap flexibility.

Can Copley handle the responsibility? Well, that’s certainly the expectation. But until he actually does the job, it’s a legitimate question/concern, particularly when you consider how important Grubauer proved to be a year ago.

Copley’s only got two NHL appearances on his resume and his numbers in Hershey last season (15-17-4 / .896 percentage / 2.91 goals against average) aren’t very reassuring. I’m told, however, that he played much better from February through the end of the regular season, and that he’s finally 100-percent healthy. Remember, he suffered a serious groin injury in the 2017 AHL playoffs and missed the first nine games of last season.

If Copley can pick up where he left off with the Bears last season, I think he’ll be fine. He also gained some much needed experience as one of the black aces during the Cup run, facing shots every day in practice from Alex Ovechkin and Co. If Copley fumbles the opportunity, though, the Caps will be forced to go to their backup plan...accelerating the development of 2015 first-rounder Ilya Samsonov, who'll be just 130 miles up the road.

JJ: When trying to evaluate how Copley will be in the NHL, I believe you have to throw out last season. In 41 games with the Hershey Bears, Copley managed only a 2.91 GAA and .896 save percentage. Not good. If you look at those numbers alone, it's fair to wonder why the Caps are OK with Copley taking over the backup role.

The season prior, however, after being reacquired by the Capitals as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk trade, Copley was brilliant in Hershey with a 2.15 GAA and .931 save percentage and he kept those numbers remarkably consistent in the playoffs (2.13, .933). His season was brought to an abrupt end when he suffered a serious groin injury and it was clear from the start of the 2017-18 season that he just had not fully recovered.

I am not concerned that the Capitals will get last year's Copley. Nor am I concerned about another Holtby "reset." That was the worst slump of his career, but coming off a Stanley Cup run, I am expecting a confident Holtby in net and it seems doubtful he would suffer another slump quite as drastically bad as last season.

What I am concerned about, however, is just how much of a load Copley will ultimately be able to handle.

An ideal scenario would be to limit Holtby to about 60 to 65 games. Is Copley capable of providing the Caps with 20+ quality games? It's not enough to just go out and play, he has to play well. A team cannot always take an L just because the backup is in net.

Considering Copley has only two games of NHL experience in his entire career, there is no real way to answer this question and that's why backup goaltending is a potential weakness for Washington next season.

Why go with such a big question mark after returning almost the entire team for a second potential Cup run? Two reasons. First, the team does absolutely have faith in Copley. As noted above by Tarik, that was evident when he was reacquired from St. Louis. Second, because he is a cheap, temporary placeholder for Samsonov who could be penciled in as the backup as early as 2019-20 depending on how his first season in North America goes.

Best case scenario, Copley plays 20-25 games, earns a winning record and Samsonov takes over as backup next season after a strong showing in Hershey.

And the worst case scenario? The Caps are shopping for a backup goalie at the trade deadline.

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Capitals hosting Rock The Rink skate and watch parties around DMV

Capitals hosting Rock The Rink skate and watch parties around DMV

The Capitals may not be participating in Stadium Series this year, but the team is embracing outdoor hockey around Washington for spirited game day fun.

The Caps are hosting Rock The Rink skates at The Wharf, Penatgon Row, Rockville Town Square and The Avenue at White Marsh on select game days from January to March 2020. Fans attending these events can wear Capitals jerseys or gear to get either $5 off admission or free skate rentals.

The Wharf

Jan. 18 at 1 p.m., Jan. 31 at 6 p.m., and Feb 17. at 1 p.m.

Transit Pier will boast a Capitals-paneled ice rink with an ice resurfacer, trivia contests, giveaways, along with a DJ. The Capitals Campire will also boast Adirondack chairs around a fire to roast marshmallows for smores in front of a 14-foot jumbotron screen to watch the Capitals games. 

Pentagon Row

Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. and March 9 at 6 p.m.

These skates will feature Slapshot, giveaways, a DJ and Capitals-centic specials at local restaurants. The Caps games will also be on at surrounding bars. 

The Avenue at White March

Feb. 7 at 6 p.m.

This event will feature Slapshot, giveaways, a DJ and Capitals-centic specials at local restaurants.

Rockville Town Square

Jan. 31 at 5:30 p.m. and March 5 at 6 p.m.

In addition to the above fun, Rockville native and Capitals hockey ambassador Haley Skarupa will be there on Jan. 31. You can watch the Capitals game at local bars as well. 

Fans attending these events or using local outdoor rinks this season are encouraged to post about it on social media by tagging @capitals and using the hashtag #RockTheRink to enter themselves for a chance to win prizes.

Caps slept through the first 40 minutes, they did not give Holtby much help though he was bad in his own right and Vrana sure did show something with the game-winning goal.

As for no penalties...not so much.

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Caps pull off inexplicable comeback win with five-goal third period

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Caps pull off inexplicable comeback win with five-goal third period

Down 4-1, the Capitals scored five goals in the third period for the incredible 6-4 comeback win over the New York Islanders on Saturday. Alex Ovechkin scored a hat trick pulling him in a tie with Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time in goals.

Here is how the Caps won.

Ovechkin

Ovechkin was hot coming in with five goals in his past two games. He scored midway through the first period, getting a great pass in stride from Nicklas Backstrom to launch him behind the defense. Just as the defense closed in he fired a wrister past Semyon Varlamov to make it 1-0.

There is...pretty much nothing positive to say after that until the third period. There was a great 5-on-3 penalty kill, but it was essentially negated as they allowed a goal soon after. The Islanders built a 4-1 lead through 40 minutes and it looked all but over.

But after Carl Hagelin made it 4-2, Ovechkin pulled the Caps to within one, pulling the vintage back-to-front Ovechkin curl-and-drag before passing to the front where the puck deflected off the boot of Ryan Pulock and in.

After Jakub Vrana made it 5-4, Ovechkin added the empty-netter for the knockout punch.

With three goals, Ovechkin now has 34 on the season. He passed Mario Lemieux and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time in goals. Incredibly, this is the first time in his career Ovechkin has three straight multi-goal games.

Motivation

Just what exactly lit the fire under the Caps butts for that third period will probably be a talking point after the game. Was it Devon Toews doing the bird celebration after he scored to make it 4-1? Was it pulling Braden Holtby and starting Ilya Samsonov in the third period? Was it something Todd Reirden or one of the players said?

Whatever it was, it was a different Caps team that took the ice for the third period.

Hagelin's turnaround

As great as Ovechkin's performance was -- and it was epic -- it might not happen without the Carl Hagelin's early third-period tally.

The comeback was sparked by Hagelin's goal that came less than three minutes into the final frame. A great pass by Richard Panik set Hagelin up on the doorstep and he hit it home.

That goal made it 4-2 and a two-goal deficit seems a lot less daunting than a three-goal one.

Shaky Varlamov

Once Ovechkin made it 4-3, you could smell the blood in the water. Washington had gotten to Varlamov and the flood gates were open.

Dmitry Orlov took the puck up to the top of the faceoff circle and fired a slap shot that Wilson managed to get a stick to and deflected it through Varlamov to tie the game.

About three minutes later, Vrana intercepted a pass and fired a quick shot to beat Varlamov far-side for the 5-4 lead.

Varlamov faced 10 shots in the third period and allowed four goals. The fifth came on an empty net.

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