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Kuznetsov’s OT winner saves Caps in 4-3 victory over Avalanche

Kuznetsov’s OT winner saves Caps in 4-3 victory over Avalanche

WASHINGTON -- Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime goal made up for a blown two-goal third-period lead and the Capitals beat the Colorado Avalanche 4-3 at Capital One Arena on Thursday. 

Washington has now won three of four games on a six-game homestand. Kuznetsov had two goals and an assist, Matt Niskanen had a third-period goal and backup goalie Pheonix Copley made 34 saves.  

Here are five reasons Washington won. 

Pheonix Copley

Washington’s backup goalie had a strong game with 34 saves on 37 Colorado shots. In the same week he signed a three-year contract extension worth $3.3 million, Copley bought the Caps another win on a homestand where they needed to collect points after an 0-5-2 stretch. His best moment? At 6:25 of the second period, he robbed Avalanche star center Nathan MacKinnon on a 2-on-1 with Gabriel Landeskog to keep the game tied 1-1. He shook off a bad goal late by Colin Wilson that tied the game 3-3 with 2:07 to go.  

Andre Burakovsky

It’s been a rough few months for Burakovsky, who has been a healthy scratch six times since Dec. 11 and had his production crater. No surprise that his name comes up now in almost every trade rumor reported nationally. Things are picking up a bit for Burakovsky, though. He went hard to the net at 6:31 of the first period and was in perfect position to deflect home a T.J. Oshie pass to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead. Burakovsky has two goals and two assists in his past seven games. It might be too late, but it’s a start. Thursday was also Burakovsky’s 300th career NHL game with Washington.

Kuznetsov powering up

The Capitals are heating up on the power play, a unit that struggled for over a month to live up to its lofty reputation. They generated 15 shots on six power plays. One of those was an Alex Ovechkin blast that trickled past Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov. Evgeny Kuznetsov was there to make absolutely sure the puck crossed the line, getting behind Varlamov and nudging it across to make it 2-1 at 8:38 of the second period. Washington is 4-for-19 with the extra man in the past six games.  It was Kuznetsov's first three-point game since Oct. 10. He now has 10 points in his past six games.  

Avs didn’t start Grubauer

OK – no way to tell what would have happened if Colorado stated former Capitals goalie Philipp Grubauer instead of…former Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov. But it was the first homecoming for Grubauer since Washington won the Stanley Cup in June. He played a huge role last year in helping the Capitals win the Metropolitan Division for a third consecutive season. The two Caps players who didn’t return this season were Jay Beagle and Grubauer. Beagle made his return on Tuesday with the Vancouver Canucks and drew a huge ovation from the Capital One Arena crowd. Grubauer, another homegrown product and Braden Holtby’s primary backup for three full seasons, drew a warm ovation and a video tribute from the team. Just would have been nice to see him play.

Matt Niskanen

What looked like an insurance goal just 34 seconds into the second period turned out to be absolutely necessary. Niskanen was in perfect position when a hard shot by Jakub Vrana on the left wing caromed out to the boards on the right side and Niskanen one-timed a shot from the top of the right faceoff circle and past Varlamov. It was his second goal in five games and eighth on the season.   

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Tom Wilson gets into fiery back-and-forth with LA Kings mascot

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Tom Wilson gets into fiery back-and-forth with LA Kings mascot

Washington Capitals right winger Tom Wilson is used to getting into it with NHL players, but now he's moving on to NHL mascots?

During Monday's 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings, Wilson was sent to the penalty box after taking an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with Kings' Kyle Clifford. Conveniently, the Kings' lion mascot Bailey was stationed right next to Wilson and the two started to engage in some fun back-and-forth.

As pointed out by Russian Machine Never Breaks, Wilson appeared to tell Bailey that the mascot and Clifford were twins and he was hanging out at the wrong penalty box. While Wilson and the Capitals walked away with the win, Bailey won the fiery Twitter response award. 

Back in December, Vegas Golden Knights' Ryan Reaves injured Wilson with a late blindside hit, and after the game said Wilson 'ran into a lion in the jungle.' While the controversial hit got Reaves ejected, no suspension became of it and Reaves even signed pictures of the hit that he had later removed from being sold by local memorabilia company.

No wonder Bailey's Twitter bio says he's, "the world's sassiest Lion with a little attitude on the side!"

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How a minor trade for an unknown defenseman proved to be the biggest move of the 2018 NHL trade deadline

How a minor trade for an unknown defenseman proved to be the biggest move of the 2018 NHL trade deadline

As the dust settled after the 2018 NHL trade deadline, there were a number of key moves made to change the landscape of the league and the Stanley Cup race. The biggest move made was by the Tampa Bay Lightning who added the top defenseman on the market in Ryan McDonagh. But there was also a number of other big moves with players like Evander Kane, Paul Stastny and Rick Nash all headed to new teams.

A minor trade by the Capitals stood as barely a footnote amid all the flurry of moves. On Feb. 19, Washington sent a third-round draft pick to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a little known defenseman named Michal Kempny.

“I find out before the morning skate so I just packed two suitcases and I had to catch the plane,” Kempny said. “And that's it.”

On Feb. 17, the Caps were obliterated by the Blackhawks 7-1 in Chicago. Washington still maintained first place in the Metropolitan Division, but that game highlighted the Caps’ weak defense.

Washington had two rookies playing on their blue line regularly in Christain Djoos and Madison Bowey. Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen were a fine defensive pair, but there was no clear partner for the team’s best defenseman, John Carlson. The result was that the Caps dressed a defense with one set tandem and a mishmash of four other players including two rookies joined together into ill-fitting pairs.

The Caps desperately needed another top-four defenseman if they hoped to make a deep playoff run. Finding one midseason, however, is easier said than done.

A top-four defenseman is a valuable commodity and most teams are loathe to give those players up. When one is available, they don’t come cheap.

The Caps made the big splash move in the prior season with the addition of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. The trade did not work out as Shattenkirk never seemed to fit in with the team and ended up playing primarily on the third pair.

Washington did not have a first, second or third round draft pick in the 2017 draft. Giving up a similar haul for a second consecutive season was not an option. In terms of players and prospects, Washington simply did not have the assets needed to land an established defenseman. They had to look at other, cheaper options.

Kempny was a 27-year-old Czech defenseman in his second season with Chicago. His NHL career was not going the way he had hoped. Kempny struggled to earn the trust of Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville playing only 50 games the prior season and was again used sparingly in 2017-18 with only 31 games. He needed a change.

“My situation in Chicago wasn't good,” Kempny said.

Before the trade deadline, general manager Brian MacLellan asked then associate coach Todd Reirden to watch some video on the Czech defenseman.

“Michal I watched play I'd say probably eight games before we acquired him, so it was someone that we were kind of looking at early in the season,” Reirden said during training camp. “As our team was progressing and in some areas not progressing, we needed to look outside for some different options, particularly a guy that was extremely mobile, good skater and could potentially be a good compliment for John Carlson. That was what we saw in him. I thought in particular, comparing the way our system, what we do systematically with our defensemen, his skating ability would really be brought to the forefront with how we do things as a team and I thought that he could excel in that regard with how our team plays. He seemed like a perfect fit.”

On Feb. 19, MacLellan made the trade. It didn’t take long for Kempny to work his way up the depth chart.

“He's obviously a really good skater, one of the best skaters on the team I would say,” Carlson said. “He plays defense quick. He's in people's faces, he's high pressure onto the puck kind of guy.”

“Obviously a great guy that took to everyone else really well as well,” Carlson added. “He just fit in and that was kind of one of the turning points for us as a team getting going, getting ready for the playoffs I would say is right after he got here.”

Kempny played in just 22 games for the Caps before the playoffs. In that time, he quickly found a place in the lineup alongside Carlson. With Kempny and Carlson together, they soon became the top defensive pair on the team. Suddenly a team that could not establish its top four on defense not only had a top four, but a newly established top pair that proved critical to the team’s run to the Stanley Cup.

“Obviously he fit in perfectly,” Carlson said. “There was more to our success than that I think, but certainly that was a key moment for us in terms of filling a need that he was perfectly suitable for.”

It wasn’t McDonagh, Kane, Stastny or Nash who proved to be the biggest acquisitions of the 2018 deadline, but a relatively unknown defenseman who could not stay in the lineup in Chicago. It proved to be the biggest trade of the 2017-18 NHL season.

“Certainly it was the perfect move for us,” Carlson said. “Sometimes you try to just get the best player vs. the best player for your team. He fit perfectly.”

Said Kempny, “I was living my dream last season and I'm living dream right now so I really appreciate that I can be here in this league and this team.”

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