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Kuznetsov's teammates are supportive but in tough spot after suspension

Kuznetsov's teammates are supportive but in tough spot after suspension

ARLINGTON, Va. -- In a team sport, every mistake a player makes affects the team. On Saturday, the news came out that Evgeny Kuznetsov misleading the NHL about cocaine usage and his subsequent failed IIHF drug test will now cost the Capitals one of their top centers for the first three games of the season. It is a tough blow for a team in a highly competitive division facing a brutal October schedule.

Kuznetsov’s actions have put the team at a disadvantage to start the season, but despite that, his teammates remain unwaveringly supportive.

“It's not easy moment for him and for his family, but it is what it is right now,” Dmitry Orlov said of Kuznetsov’s suspension. “He cannot do anything about that now. He's going to sit for three games and then come back and we're going to help him and support him. He's still our friend, our teammate. He should move forward past that, forget it and just focus on this season.”

With the support, however, also comes the reality that the team is going to have to find a way to win without him.

“The team has kind of accepted that and it's going to be a huge loss for us through the first three games,” Chandler Stephenson said.

The schedule makers did Washington no favors with their first three games as the Caps start on the road in St. Louis where the Blues will raise their Stanley Cup banner, then play in New York for the Islanders’ home-opener before the home-opener in Washington on the second night of the back-to-back.

Those are three tough games in a schedule that is not advantageous for Washington and now they have to navigate it without Kuznetsov.

“You never want to lose a player like [Kuznetsov] out of your lineup, whether it's the positive light that he brings to the rink or his skill and ability to take over games,” T.J. Oshie said. “But we've got some guys that'll step in and try to do a good job and try to get some wins without him.

“I think we're comfortable with whoever's in there,” Oshie added, “So for those three games whoever happens to be in there whether it's Lars or whoever they slot in there, we'll be comfortable with it, but we'll always miss Kuzy being in the middle.”

With Kuznetsov out, Lars Eller will move up to the second line. The major question mark now is who centers the third line for those three games? The likely candidate is Travis Boyd who entered the league as a center before being used primarily as a winger. With all the offseason acquisitions, Boyd is considered someone who has to re-earn his spot in training camp.

The extra cap space the team has with Kuznetsov out the first week could also potentially open up some possibilities for younger players the team otherwise would not have been able to afford, guys like Connor McMichael.

With all due respect, losing Kuznetsov and gaining a player who is fighting to stay on the NHL roster or an 18-year-old prospect is a pretty dramatic drop-off.

Even if those first three games are a struggle, however, the team is not focusing on that. The players are ready to get through those three games, move on and support their teammate.

“It's unfortunate for us,” Oshie said. “I'm sure he's pretty upset about it. We'll get through the three games and welcome him back with open arms.”

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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.

Observations from the loss

Let’s talk about the goalies

I know this is pretty much all you guys want to talk about, so let’s talk.

Holtby was bad in this game. No one is going to dispute that. But Colorado is also really, really good and the defense did not help Holtby all that much. All three of those things can be true. Fans sometimes can get one-track minds and I bet there are more than a few people who are going to put this game entirely on Holtby and forget about the other two points.

It’s not Holtby’s fault John Carlson turned the puck over and the completely misplayed the resulting rush defensively leading to the second goal. It’s also not Holtby’s fault that Tyler Lewington was too slow to react to the break-in and was beaten easily by Nazem Kadri.

I am not saying Holtby doesn’t deserve any of the blame for Monday’s loss, I’m just saying let’s not go nuts.

This game doesn’t mean that Holtby is washed up, it doesn’t mean the team should try to trade him immediately, it doesn’t mean that Ilya Samsonov is suddenly the No. 1 goalie going forward. All it means is that Samsonov has earned more playing time. That’s it.

Whatever the plan was for Samsonov, he has played well enough and Holtby has struggled enough that you should consider getting Samsonov more games. I would start him on Wednesday against Toronto and go back to Holby on Friday against the New York Rangers.

For now, however, Holty is still the No. 1. That doesn’t mean that can’t change, but we have seen this play out before with the same goalie Holtby played against on Monday. Philipp Grubauer passed Holtby in 2018 and then the playoffs came around and Holtby was back to being Holtby and retook the crease. I am not going to kick him to the curb because of a bad October.

The Caps’ identity is physical hockey

A 4-0 game could have gotten very ugly very fast. The Caps came out in the second period and committed to a physical game and it completely changed the momentum. A game that looked like it was going to be an ugly, horrendous, “burn the tape” type of game turned competitive. Suddenly it was 4-2 heading into the third period.

The second period reminded me of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final between the Caps and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning were the better team, highly skilled and should have won that series. They didn’t because the Caps beat the stuffing out of them. That’s why the Washington-Tampa Bay games last year were so physical because the Lightning wanted to show the Caps they weren’t going to be pushed around.

The one downside to being a physical team like that is that it takes a toll. You can’t play that way for 82-games and that’s why, in my opinion, you see these types of teams come out of nowhere in the postseason. A middle-of-the-pack team suddenly commits to the physical game every night and knocks around a stunned Toronto or Tampa Bay.

Turning point

Obviously the turning point was allowing three goals on three shots, so I’ll go with something different and pick Samsonov’s third-period gaffe.

The Caps had taken control of the momentum heading into the third and it looked like they could make a game of it until Samsonov made a huge mistake behind the net.

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 threw the puck in front of the net and a diving Matt Nieto hit it in.

The Caps still tried to come back, but that was the moment you knew they were going to come up short.

Play of the night

In a win or go home Game 6 against Tampa Bay in the 2018 ECF, Ovechkin was the best player on the ice. His stats in that game? No goals and no assists. It didn’t matter. He was a physical force and helped the Caps win that game by sheer force of will.

Ovechkin tried to do the same thing on Monday with hits like this one on Samuel Girard.


Stat of the night

With this loss, the Caps have now lost their first three home games for the first time since the 1983-84 season. As my colleague Brian McNally said on a podcast we recorded after the game, those weren’t exactly the glory years of the Caps’ franchise.

Washington has managed some pretty big wins on the road, but those are being wasted by the fact that this team can’t get a win at home.

Quote of the night

Todd Reirden on Samsonov’s play:

“He's doing what he's supposed to be doing, and that's to make it like a decision every night of who's going to be considered to play that game.”

That’s about as close as you’re going to get to Reirden saying he is considering playing Samsonov more.

Fan predictions

Now this is bold. I like it.

But it was also wrong. Burakovsky got an assist, but Jakub Vrana can’t seem to get out of Todd Reirden’s dog house right now.

Gudas and Kadri were exchanging words behind the play when Oshie scored. I’ll give it to you.

I’m pretty sure Stephen Strasburg started.

Almost. They would have had a shot if not for the Samsonov mistake or the coach’s challenge on Carlson’s goal.

The Caps did not win and saying Holtby looks disinterested just isn’t fair. He has always been a calm, calculated goalie. He even said after “The Save” that it wasn’t a technically sound play. This is just the way he plays and has always played, from Vezina Holtby to 2019 Holtby.

Having said that, he was pulled so you were technically correct. Don’t get weird about it though.

Oh, you got weird.

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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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