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Meet the three playoff rookies on a quest to help experienced Capitals go back-to-back

Meet the three playoff rookies on a quest to help experienced Capitals go back-to-back

ARLINGTON — A year ago at this time, Nic Dowd was watching the Stanley Cup playoffs from home while most of his current Capitals teammates were on the run of a lifetime. 

Nick Jensen, Dowd’s friend and college teammate at St. Cloud State, was in the same position back in Michigan. Neither player had ever reached the NHL postseason. Dowd’s Vancouver Canucks finished 14th in the Western Conference. Jensen’s Detroit Red Wings were 20 points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Neither could have foreseen the position they find themselves in now. Dowd and Jensen joined the Capitals this season – one via free agency in July, the other near the trade deadline in February – and are about to participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time. Washington plays the Carolina Hurricanes in a best-of-seven first-round series beginning Thursday.  

“I’m excited. I’ve never even come close to making it to clinching playoffs or even playing [big games],” Dowd said after a 3-2 win against the Hurricanes in Raleigh on March 28 secured a playoff spot.

Unlike last year’s team, which relied on six rookies or playoff neophytes who had never been in the postseason before, including Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson and Christian Djoos, this year’s Capitals returned almost intact and loaded with experience. Only center Jay Beagle, backup goalie Philipp Grubauer, forward Alex Chiasson and defenseman Jakub Jerabek did not return to the organization among the 26 players who were on the playoff roster. 

Forward Devante Smith-Pelly is in the minors with AHL Hershey, but began the year with the Capitals. So did defenseman Madison Bowey, who was traded to Detroit in the Jensen deal.   

Jensen and Dowd are joined by rookie defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler and goalie Pheonix Copley as the only Capitals who have never been in a playoff game. And even Copley was around the team all last spring as a third goalie, though he was never active. He did get to lift the Cup on the ice at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and take part in the victory parade. He is the clear backup to starting goalie Braden Holtby, however, and it would be a shock if Copley plays. 

Siegenthaler, for now, is the seventh defenseman, but could quickly be called upon if an injury hits the blueline. The Capitals have already lost Michal Kempny (torn hamstring) for the season. Siegenthaler appeared in 26 games this season as a rookie.  

“The players that were not involved in it I have dealt with individually and talked to them about getting them ready in some of their cases for their first playoff action,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s been something I’ve been talking to those players about for the last 10 games to get them ready. Talked to them about decisions they make with the puck and how important that is in their role and their responsibility. ‘We can’t have that type of mistake in a playoff game.’ And when they have a great shift that starts to give us momentum then I let them know those are the type of shifts that we need from our fourth line in playoff hockey.”  

So this will be new – at the NHL level at least. Jensen left St. Cloud State in 2013 after he, Dowd and their teammates reached the NCAA Frozen Four. He immediately joined Grand Rapids, the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, and was a black ace - a practice player who was scratched for games - on a team that won the Calder Cup. It wasn’t as sweet because he didn’t actually play, but there were lessons learned. 

“One of the biggest things I saw with that Grand Rapids team was perseverance. Get knocked down, getting scored on, but getting right back up and scoring again and staying with it,” Jensen said. “I think that’s a big characteristic of a winning team. Can you get back up? You’re not just going to drift through playoffs winning every game. There’s going to be tough spots and you’ve got to find a way to get out of them.”

That describes exactly what the Capitals did last year en route to the Cup. They were down 2-0 in the first-round series against Columbus and playing in overtime of Game 3, but found a way to win. They lost the first game in the second round against Pittsburgh by blowing a two-goal lead in the third period and lost Game 1 in the Cup Final against Vegas. Washington bounced back every time. It clinched all four series on the road.   

Dowd began his career with the Los Angeles Kings, who won the Cup in 2012 and again in 2014 while he was still at St. Cloud State. But Dowd did get his own taste of a long postseason run in 2015. He was a key part of a Calder Cup title by the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ AHL affiliate. Dowd had seven goals and six assists that spring in 19 games. But his first full NHL season in 2016-17, the Kings missed the playoffs by eight points. Dowd was traded to Vancouver early last season.

“They did win two Stanley Cups [in Los Angeles] before me so I know the atmosphere and the level play that is expected,” Dowd said. “It’s hard not to dream a little bit. But people keep talking about a long run. We’ve got to win the first series, we’ve got to win the first game and then the second game. I played in the American League playoffs and that took us two-and-a-half months and that was a grind. That’s as close as I can compare it to, but I’m sure the Stanley Cup playoffs will be an eye opener. I’m excited to get into it.”

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How the Caps turned a sure loss into their first home win in under 90 seconds

How the Caps turned a sure loss into their first home win in under 90 seconds

WASHINGTON -- Another sloppy defensive performance looked like it would doom the Capitals, but a furious three-goal rally in the second period turned what looked like a sure defeat into a stunning 4-3 victory, their first at home this season, over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday.

Toronto took an early lead off a short-handed goal from Kasperi Kapanen. Jonas Siegenthaler then was slow to react to a streaking Ilya Mikheyev who torched him to put the Leafs up 2-0. Jakub Vrana made it 2-1 late in the first, but Toronto looked like they had this game well in hand.

But the Caps rallied and completely turned things around in a stretch of just 1:18 in the second period. Here's how.

Brilliant skating by Kuznetsov

Kuznetsov passed the puck up to the offensive blue line. A skating Carl Hagelin tapped it to John Carlson who entered the zone, pulled back and handed it off to Kuznetsov who took over.

When Kuznetsov gets the puck there are three Maple Leaf players in front of him. He pumps the legs once and then glides in on net and somehow he is behind all three players and in alone on Michael Hutchinson.

Kuznetsov’s speed virtually never changes during the play. There’s no frantic, choppy acceleration, just a smooth glide that allows him to skate in, wait out Hutchinson and tuck the puck around his outstretched pad all in seemingly one fluid motion.

The forecheck pays off 11 seconds later

T.J. Oshie beat out Morgan Rielly in a footrace for the puck in the offensive zone. He circled in the corner to protect the puck with his body from Rielly. He was able to find Nicklas Backstrom in the high slot and Backstrom snapped the puck in.

In a period of just 11 seconds, the Caps had changed the score from 2-1 Leafs to 3-2 Caps.

The flustered Leafs

Momentum is a real thing. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. That was on display in the second period when the Leafs were on their heels after coughing up two quick goals. Just 18 seconds after Backstrom’s goal, Nicholas SHore was called for interference on Oshie.

Do you know how you get two goals and draw an interference penalty in less than a minute? By keeping possession of the puck. Toronto could not get its hands on it at all until Cocy Ceci did on the penalty kill...and promptly threw the puck into the crowd on an attempted clearance from the defensive zone resulting in a delay of game penalty.

A 5-on-3

Ceci’s penalty came just nine seconds after Shore was booked resulting in a two-man advantage for 1:51. The Caps were too hot at that point to not convert. The power play moved the puck very effectively and, critically, managed to retain possession after every shot. The Leafs just could not get there in time to clear it allowing the Caps to take their time, set things up and attack.

The power play shifted with Carlson making his way over to the Ovechkin spot. Ovechkin was fed the puck at the point, faked the slap shot and instead tapped the pass over to Carlson. Carlson did his best Ovechkin impression and fired the one-timer past Hutchinson. That goal made the score 4-2 and capped off an incredible 1:18 stretch in which the Caps turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead, thus ultimately snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Toronto would score a late goal in a comeback attempt but ultimately fell short.

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Capitals score three goals in 90 seconds to take the lead over Toronto

Capitals score three goals in 90 seconds to take the lead over Toronto

The beginning of Wednesday's clash with the Maple Leafs was not pretty for the Capitals.

A pair of goals by Toronto gave them an early lead midway through the first period. But a snipe by Jakub Vrana towards the end of the first frame cut the deficit in half entering the first intermission.

But during the second period, all of a sudden, a switch flipped for the Capitals attack. Washington found the back of the net three times in under 90 seconds, turning a one-goal deficit into a two-goal lead.

The first came from Evgeny Kuznetsov, who finished with a beautiful move to sneak the puck past Maple Leafs' goalie Michael Hutchinson's glove.

Just 11 seconds later, Nicklas Backstrom found the back of the net on a beautiful wrister from T.J. Oshie to put the Capitals ahead.

To complete the trifecta, John Carlson's one-timer from Alex Ovechkin went right in between Hutchinson's legs, giving the Capitals a 4-2 lead. 

At the end of the second period, the Capitals hold the same 4-2 lead. Just 20 minutes separate the Capitals from their fourth victory of the season.

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