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'Let's call it a playoff series': Capitals, Lightning renew rivalry with three games in 15 days

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'Let's call it a playoff series': Capitals, Lightning renew rivalry with three games in 15 days

The memories are still fresh and they still bring smiles.

The Capitals remember the back-to-back shutouts with their season on the line. They remember the stunned silence as they piled on top of each other in celebration. They remember skating off the ice at Amalie Arena with the Prince of Wales Trophy just one series away from their ultimate goal. 

It has been 11 months since Washington rallied to stun the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. They won three games on the road and came back from 3-2 down to take the series. By the end of that intense, emotional two weeks of hockey there was a lot of angry “I’ll get you next year” talk from both sides.

It’s the stuff real, honest-to-goodness, hate-filled rivalries are made of. But the Capitals haven’t seen the Lightning since that Game 7 on May 23. Call it a quirk of the schedule or the NHL smartly setting up two of its marquee teams to play late in the season. 

But Washington and Tampa Bay meet for the first time this season on Saturday and play three times in 15 days. The rematch is at Capital One Arena on March 20. When they’re done after the game back at Amalie Arena on March 30 the Stanley Cup playoffs will only be 11 days away from starting.

“Let’s call it a playoff series. Why not?” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “It’s that time of year. I’m sure it’ll have that feel. It’s a good challenge. They’re playing really good hockey. There’s no hiding that. We’re familiar with them so it’ll be good to see what they got.”

The Capitals (42-22-7, 91 points) have had another fine season, especially as they deal with the emotional hangover of that Stanley Cup win that went through Tampa. They shook off a seven-game losing streak in January. They are in first place in the Metropolitan Division. They will almost certainly be a playoff team again. 

The Lightning, however, have taken things to an entirely different level. Tampa Bay (54-13-4, 112 points) has the best record in the NHL and it isn’t close with an 18-point lead over the San Jose Sharks (94). They have already clinched a playoff spot. They will easily win the Atlantic Division and the Presidents’ Trophy, too. It is a veteran, tested squad and anything less than a Cup is a failure. Sound familiar? 

“We’re going to have to go through them if we’re going to do it again. I think it’s a measuring stick for them, too,” said Capitals forward Brett Connolly, who began his career with the Lightning. “We played them hard. It was an amazing series. They have that one circled on the calendar, too, I bet. Knowing those guys. I played with all of them. Very committed group and very determined and a lot of guys who are very eager to win a championship there. There’s no secret.” 

It’s also no secret the pressure they labor under. Washington finally broke through last year after years of heartbreak. Three times in eight years the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy (2010, 2016, 2017) and three times didn’t make it out of the second round. They only played for the Cup once (1998). 

Tampa Bay as an organization doesn’t have that decades-long history. It won a Stanley Cup in 2004, after all. But this group, led by captain Steven Stamkos and the breathtakingly talented Nikita Kucherov, the clear favorite for the Hart Trophy as NHL most valuable player with a league-leading 115 points, hasn’t cemented its own legacy. 

The Lightning lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and three other times (2011, 2016, 2018) have lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. They could clinch the Presidents’ Trophy by next week. They even still have an outside shot at the NHL points record held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens (132), though it would take a 10-1-0 finish to match it. Yet nothing matters to the Lightning other than a Cup. 

Only one team in NHL history has clinched a playoff spot faster: The 2009-10 Capitals. And that group lost in the first round to the No. 8 seed Canadiens. That crushing defeat left the organization devastated for years.

“We’ve been in that situation before and we know that it doesn’t come easy,” Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. “We’re excited to get there and test ourselves because it’s going to be a good hockey game. It was a good series last year and they’ll be looking forward to playing us too. We’re just excited to play a game that’s similar to playoff hockey.”

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Free Agency Bracket: Noel Acciari vs. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

Free Agency Bracket: Noel Acciari vs. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin, and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s matchup:

Region: Fourth line forwards

Noel Acciari vs. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

2018-19 stats

Noel Acciari (27 years old): 72 games played with the Boston Bruins, 6 goals, 8 assists, 14 points, 12:59 TOI

Playoffs: 19 games played with the Boston Bruins, 2 goals, 2 assists, 4 points, 13:10 TOI

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (34 years old): 76 games played with the Vegas Golden Knights, 6 goals, 9 assists, 15 points, 12:26 TOI

Playoffs: 6 games played with the Vegas Golden Knights, 0 goals, 0 assists, 11:44 TOI

Hockey-Graph contract projections

Noel Acciari: 2 years, $1,180,934 cap hit

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare: 2 years, $1,450,996 cap hit

The case for Noel Acciari

Plays a lot bigger than his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame. A perfect fit at right wing on the fourth line for Washington. The native New Englander, who played at Providence, is a home-grown Bruin and might not want to leave home, but Boston also might not have the cap space to double the salary of an obvious fourth-line player. 

Acciari is renowned for his character and toughness. He was a college captain for Providence and helped the Friars win an NCAA title in 2015. There’s never been a shot he’s unwilling to block. Acciari sustained a broken sternum in the second round against Columbus and a blocked shot with his right foot in Game 7 of the Cup Final left him in a walking boot. 

Acciari’s offensive upside is limited, but he did have 10 goals in 2017-18. He was a key player for the Bruins in the past two Stanley Cup playoffs and chipped in two goals in this year’s playoff run that came within a game of a championship. Acciari would help on Washington’s penalty kill, too. In 111:52 he was only on the ice for 11 power-play goals against. Only two Boston forwards were on the ice more short-handed.   

The case for Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

A late bloomer who grew into a bottom-six role for the Philadelphia Flyers and, the past two seasons, the Vegas Golden Knights. Bellemare held his own as an above-water possession player on a team that dominated in that area. But even when taking into account his usage and that he ranked lower than most of his teammates in that area, he was still about break even. 

No other forward logged as much time on the penalty kill for Vegas (147:54) and it wasn’t close. The Knights gave up just 18 power-play goals with Bellemare on the ice and scored three short-handed goals. He had two shortys in his time with the Flyers.

Bellemare won’t give you much offensively. He’s never reached double digits in goals or 20 points in a season. He’ll also turn 35 late next season. But he’s played in the Stanley Cup playoffs three of his four NHL seasons (31 games) and the Capitals remember him from the Cup Final in 2018. Bellemare had two assists in that series. He’s difficult to play against, would provide a veteran presence missing on the fourth line and was primarily a center for the Knights so he has positional versatility. 

Who’s your pick? Vote here. 

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Breaking down all the implications of Carl Hagelin's new deal with the Caps

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Breaking down all the implications of Carl Hagelin's new deal with the Caps

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan had a difficult task this offseason of maintaining a roster that could still compete for the Stanley Cup despite facing a major salary cap crunch. The first big move came on Friday with the trade of Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for Radko Gudas which freed up a sizable amount of cap space. The second big move came on Sunday with the re-signing of forward Carl Hagelin.

Washington acquired Hagelin at the trade deadline and he fit in well with the team. Now the Caps have locked him up for the next four years with an $11 million deal.

There’s a lot to like about this move.

Hagelin is a good player who played a significant role with two Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins teams. He scored only 18 points last season, but 11 of those points came in 20 games with the Caps showing there was an obvious fit. He instantly became Washington’s best forward penalty killer as he logged 2:21 of shorthanded ice time per game with the Caps, the most among the team’s forwards.

The Swedish forward is also incredibly versatile and can fit into any he is plugged into. That is a valuable asset considering the team may not have enough cap room to fill all its holes this offseason.

What Hagelin is best known for, however, is his speed. Now opposing teams will have to contend with the speed of players like Hagelin, Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov all while worrying about the physical play from players like Tom Wilson and Radko Gudas.

All that, and it came at a pretty great price.

After finishing up a four-year contract with a $4 million per year cap hit, Hagelin’s new deal carries a very modest cap hit of just $2.75 million.

Given his pedigree and his skillet, it seems likely there may have been a market for Hagelin’s talents had he reached free agency. The interview period in which free agents are free to talk to other teams does not begin until June 23 so this new contract prevented Hagelin for exploring other opportunities.

As good as this deal is, however, there are some problems with it as well that carry implications across the roster.

Just because Washington got Hagelin for cheap does not mean they did not overpay. Signing free agents frequently results in a team overpaying as the market tends to bump up the value of desirable players. MacLellan has, throughout his tenure, sought to keep cap hits low by offering long-term deals. Hagelin is no exception.

Hagelin will turn 31 in August. For a player whose main asset is speed, four years is a long term to give him. As smart a player as he is, once his speed begins to falter with age it will significantly hinder his effectiveness as a player.

You may not consider 31 to be old, but it is old enough that the team should be concerned by how he will look in the last few years of his contract.

Washington now has nine forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season. According to CapFriendly, the Caps sit at about $10.7 million under the projected cap ceiling of $83 million. Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos are both restricted free agents and expected to return. If Vrana takes a bridge deal, he will likely take a $4 million cap hit while Djoos should come in at about $1 million. That gives the Caps about $5.7 million to sign another three forwards and that’s assuming the salary cap is $83 million. According to Elliotte Friedman, after the combine, several teams believe the cap will actually be closer to $82 million which would, of course, mean less room for Washington to maneuver.

On the surface, $5.7 million appears to be plenty, but things are much tighter considering Brett Connolly is an unrestricted free agent and Andre Burakovsky is a restricted free agent. Just to qualify Burakovky would require offering him one year at $3.25 million. Suddenly that $5.7 million does not appear to be all that much.

At the very least, the Caps are going to be limited in what they can offer a player like Connolly and that will make it difficult to re-sign him.

“I was able to produce here, for sure,” Connolly said on breakdown day. “But it was in a limited role. So, part of me wants to challenge myself again and take that next step in my development. I'm 26, I feel I'm in the prime of my career, my body feels great. There's going to be opportunity out there, I know that.”

 Connolly turned 27 in May and is coming off a season in which he scored 22 goals, 24 assists and 46 points, all career-highs. Given the talent Washington boasts on its roster and their salary cap, there will be teams out there willing to offer Connolly a bigger role and more money than what the Caps can in free agency and that was before Washington re-signed Hagelin.

The problem here is that offensive depth is an issue for the Caps and one that Connolly directly addresses. In their playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington scored 20 goals in seven games. The team’s bottom-six forwards accounted for only five of those goals. That is just not enough. Of those five goals, one of them was an empty-netter and one came on a penalty shot. Of those three remainings, two were scored by Connolly.

Now the team may have no choice but to see its biggest bottom-six offensive threat leave in free agency and MacLellan has limited money with which to pursue free agent forwards leaving no clear solution for how to replace Connolly’s production. It is not going to come just from getting a full season from Hagelin.

Hagelin does a lot of different things really well on the ice. Producing offensively isn’t one of them. His career-high in goals is 17 which he last scored in 2014-15. Last season, he had five.

Yes, Hagelin is a very good player who adds speed, helps the team’s penalty kill and comes in at a great cap hit. What he does not address, however, is one of the team’s biggest weaknesses and his signing will make it very hard for the Caps to fix that weakness this summer.

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