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Key Caps questions: Which Braden Holtby will we see this season?

Key Caps questions: Which Braden Holtby will we see this season?

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: Which Braden Holtby are we most likely to see this season: February Holtby or playoff Holtby?

Tarik: The season ended in the best way imaginable for the Capitals as a team. It also ended in the best way imaginable for Braden Holtby as an individual.

There’s no disputing the fact that Holtby endured the toughest regular season since he broke into the NHL.

The 28-year-old posted career-worst marks in both save percentage (.907) and goals against average (2.99). He also ended up with 34 wins, his lowest total in a full season.

Holtby also lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer entering the playoffs.

But instead of wallowing in self-pity, he quietly went about rebuilding his game so that if he were needed again, he’d be ready. And, of course, his number was called just a couple of games into the first round.

After replacing Grubauer in Game 2, Holtby was the best goalie in the playoffs—and it wasn’t all that close. Among goalies who appeared in at least 12 postseason games, Holtby’s .922 save percentage was tied for second best (with Connor Hellebuyck and ranked behind only Marc Andre Fleury’s .927). Holtby’s 2.16 goals against average, meanwhile, was tops.

And then there was ‘The Save’ in the waning moments of Game 2 of the Final. I’m not sure there’s a Stanley Cup in Washington if Holtby didn’t get his stick on that Alex Tuch layup, preserving the Caps’ 3-2 win.

Whether it was mental fatigue or physical fatigue or something else that led to Holtby’s midseason slump, we can be sure of this much: it was the first protracted rough patch of his career. More important than the struggles, though, he figured out how to ‘reset’ himself on the fly. Many top goalies who have enjoyed staying power over the years, guys like Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo, to name a couple, have all had to do that from time-to-time, and now Holtby knows he’s got that ability, too.

In the span of seven weeks, Holtby rewrote his franchise’s history and how everyone—including himself—will view his 2017-18 season.

Struggles? What struggles?

That’s a long-winded way of saying I’d be shocked if Holts doesn’t pick up right where he left off in Las Vegas.

JJ:  A shocking proportion of the Caps' fan base has completely taken Holtby for granted for much of his Capitals career, labeled him a poor playoff performer and pointed to Grubauer as a better long-term option in net. Hopefully, all of those doubters have now seen the light.

Holtby has been consistently great in both the regular season and the playoffs throughout his entire career with only a few hiccups, and last season's slump was by far his worst. Grubauer rightly got the nod heading into the playoffs as the hotter of the two netminders, but any continued doubts anyone has regarding whether or not Holtby is a great goalie were officially put to rest during last season's playoff run.

Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, Marc-Andre Fleury's name was penciled in as the Conn Smythe winner. Holtby outplayed him and outplayed him badly:

Holtby: 5 GP, 4-1 record, .916 save percentage, 2.62 GAA
Fleury: 5 GP, 1-4 record, .853 save percentage, 4.09 GAA

But JJ, what about the 2017 playoffs?

Holtby's 2017 postseason was his worst postseason and that was a major factor in the team's second-round loss to Pittsburgh. For his career, however, Holtby has a .929 save percentage in the playoffs which ranks third all-time. He also boasts a 2.04 postseason GAA, the best among all active goalies and 12th all-time.

Why am I throwing these numbers at you? Because Holtby is a great goalie who, like all goalies, is subject to slumps from time to time. For some unknown reason, there has been a tendency to define Holtby by his slumps instead of his overall body of work which is beyond reproach.

The way Holtby rebounded from last season's slump showed how strong a netminder he is mentally. I have zero doubt that he will enter the season in top form.

Fatigue is the only factor I find concerning. There's no Grubauer behind Holtby who can step in for 35 games this season. Instead, it will be Pheonix Copley as backup, a goalie with a grand total of two NHL games worth of experience. 

Limiting Holtby to about 60 games would be ideal, but I am doubtful that is going to happen this season. Otherwise, I have no doubt we will see the normally dominant Holtby once again.

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Reirden knocks Kuznetsov to the third line in effort to spark offense

Reirden knocks Kuznetsov to the third line in effort to spark offense

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Capitals will look to snap their losing skid on Sunday and avoid their first five-game losing streak since 2014 as they face the Chicago Blackhawks (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

In four straight losses, Washington has scored only four combined goals. To spark his team, Todd Reirden is bringing a new-look lineup with him to the Windy City.

"I just think from top to bottom we need to be better,” Reirden said. “Over the last 10 games, we haven't been at our best, and there's probably no real reason to single out anybody. I just think that we have another level in our game, and part of my job is to put people in situations where they can have success. Sometimes things need to be adjusted and maybe that helps. Maybe it'll work for one line and maybe not for another and then we'll work from there.”

Based on Saturday’s practice, here are what the lines will look like on Sunday:

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana – Lars Eller – Tom Wilson
Andre Burakovsky – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson – Nic Dowd – Devante Smith-Pelly

Dmitry Orlov – John Carlson
Michal Kempny – Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik – Madison Bowey/Jonas Siegenthaler

The biggest change to the lineup is the move of Kuznetsov down to the third line.

On the surface, Kuznetsov is having a fairly good season with eight goals and 38 points in 41 games, but he has not been a dominant playmaker since the first month of the season. His production has also dried up significantly of late as he has only one goal and one assist in his last six games. In fact, Kuznetsov still has only one five-on-five goal for the entire season.

“Even-strength goals from him are not where they're used to being and have been in the past,” Reirden said. “For me, it's getting his game back to where it was to start the year. In talking to him, it's finding a way to do that. He obviously got off to that tremendous start and then was continuing to play fairly well and then has the injury, and I just don't really feel like he's gotten back to how he's started the year yet.”

The team’s sudden offensive deficiencies certainly do not lie solely at the feet of Kuznetsov, but given how dominant he was in the postseason and to start this season, his sudden drop off since then seems more glaring.

Kuznetsov declined to talk specifically about his own struggles, but did say about the team’s collective offensive struggles that “we just don’t execute those chances we had and some other games we have couple breakaways, we did not score. The hockey going this way right now it’s about two or three chances only during the games. Used to be like you can give up like three, four, five chances and you know you gonna give back, but right now it’s not that easy. It’s very defensive. So we’ve got to pay attention more to those chances we have.”

While it’s hard to see a drop to the third line as anything other than a demotion for Kuznetsov, Reirden said the changes were more to help put players in better situations. On the third line, Kuznetsov is not as likely to face an opponent’s top shutdown line or top defensemen. Perhaps some time away from another team’s top competition can help spark his own production and help him get back to the level he was playing at in October.

“For me, I'm trying to put him in situations where that can happen better," Reirden said. "Whether it's zone starts, whether it's different linemates, where it's different opportunities talking to him -- some guys respond differently to things. For us, he's such an important part of our team. We need him going on all cylinders to have success as a team, and that's how it is with all of our key guys. When I talk about another level, it's not just him, but that's a spot that our best players -- and the trickle-down effect -- need to play better."

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Four straight losses leave the Caps searching for answers

Four straight losses leave the Caps searching for answers

Figuring out what’s wrong with the Capitals isn’t all that hard. It’s figure out why that the team seems to be struggling with.

At first glance, it is obvious what the biggest problem for Washington is. In four straight losses, the Caps have been held to a combined four goals. The offense has suddenly gone dry, but no one seems quite sure why that is.

“I don't know,” Matt Niskanen said. “We're not purposefully going out there just for shits and giggles.”

Somehow a team that boasts such talented forwards as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie among others has been completely shut down offensively and that was certainly evident in Friday’s 2-0 loss to the New York Islanders.

“We're making it tough on ourselves,” Brooks Orpik said. “We're playing against teams that are trapping, and we're just trying to force pucks through the middle the whole time. You look at how they're playing against us: they're getting it behind us and a lot of offense is coming from point shots and just outbattling us in front. But we're not even getting opportunity to do that because we're trying to go through too many guys in the neutral zone.”

Washington was held to only 19 shots on goal on Friday in what looked like a rather easy shutout for Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss.

Though the scores of the last two games look dramatically different – a 7-2 blowout in Nashville and a 2-0 shutout against New York – Washington had many of the same offensive issues in those games.

When they got the puck players either held onto it too long, trying to do everything themselves and stickhandling their way into a turnover, or they tried to force passes when they weren’t open.

Trying to force offense is the sign of a frustrated team. The only real difference between the two games is that Nashville has a lot more playmakers on its roster who were able to take advantage of Washington’s mistakes with numerous turnovers ending up in the back of the Caps’ net.

“I just think we need to get back to basics and work a little harder as a team,” Backstrom. “I think we’re maybe doing a little too much by ourselves. Maybe work together a little bit better. Better execution. I think that’s something we haven’t been great at lately. Tape to tape passes. That’s a key in this league.”

It is perhaps no surprise the Caps are at a loss during their current losing streak as they don’t tend to lose this much very often. The last time Washington lost four straight games was in March 2017. Now they face the possibility of a five-game skid if they cannot find a way to beat the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, something they have not done since Oct.-Nov. 2014.

Their current losing streak is so unlike them it calls into question whether or not this team is simply running out of gas. They played an additional 24 playoff games plus and went through a shortened offseason. Ovechkin already backed out of the All-Star Game claiming he needs the rest, so could fatigue be playing a role in the team’s struggles?

To a man, every player who was asked said no.

“We're professional athletes,” Braden Holtby said. “You should never use that as an excuse. You get treated the best in the world health-wise. Our training staff, our strength staff, the way we travel, hotels we stay in. You never use fatigue as an excuse.”

But while the exact reason for the team’s current struggles seems hard to pin down, it’s not hard at all to figure out what the solution is.

With Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Oshie, Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana combining for just four goals and four assists in the team’s last four games, Washington must get more offensive from the top of the lineup in order to be successful.

“We need to be better,” Todd Reirden said. “That's right from top of our list to the bottom of our list. We need more. We need more from our players.”

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