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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Carolina Hurricanes - Will the 'Bunch of Jerks' have another magical run?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Carolina Hurricanes - Will the 'Bunch of Jerks' have another magical run?

 The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title. 

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.  

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Carolina Hurricanes. 

Let’s start with last year’s Cinderella story. The Carolina Hurricanes always seem to go big when they make the Stanley Cup playoffs. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does their history is spectacular.  

Last year was no exception. They rallied to knock out the defending champion Capitals in the first round with a double-overtime Game 7 road victory and followed that with a sweep of the New York Islanders. 

If Carolina lost its way in the Eastern Conference Final against Boston in a four-game sweep, it’s hard to be too down. The Hurricanes have emerging young talent all over the place and should be right back in the mix for a playoff spot, if not the division title. 

Carolina (46-29-7, 99 points) had a dream season. Their Storm Surge celebrations became a true NHL phenomenon. You had to watch their games just to see how they would entertain the swelling crowds in Raleigh after wins. That momentum carried over to the playoffs, a place they hadn’t been for a decade as the fanbase eroded waiting for something, anything to bring them back. 

The patience paid off. Analytics darlings for years with high shot totals and promising prospects, it all came together finally when they finally got above-average goaltending to go with the good stuff already in place.

Think they were a fluke? You’re wrong. Carolina smirked as the Montreal Canadiens tried to poach star center Sebastian Aho with an offer sheet this summer. The 21-year-old Finn might have some catching up to do in the locker room for signing with another team. But the Hurricanes quickly matched the five-year, $42.27-million deal and owner Tom Dundon basically mocked Montreal in his press conference afterward for the attempt. 

So Aho, one of the game’s bright young stars with 30 goals and 83 points last year, is locked in place. He centers a top line that is formidable with Teuvo Teravainen and trade acquisition Nino Niederreiter. That January deal with the Minnesota Wild was highway robbery. He had 30 points (16 goals, 14 assists) in 36 games with Carolina and 23 overall. 

Add in the wildly talented Andrei Svechnikov, who showed no fear, though few smarts in challenging Alexander Ovechkin to a fight in the playoffs, should find a home on the second line at age 19. He scored 20 goals as a rookie. That could be one of the biggest differences for Carolina, which used its vast amount of cap space to trade for Vegas’ Erik Haula, who could play center. That’s a great buy-low gamble. Haula missed most of last season with an injury but had 29 goals for the Golden Knights in 2018 when they went to the Stanley Cup Final. 

That would push veteran center Jordan Staal and – if he ever signs – right wing Justin Williams to the third line. Staal had a fine season as the two-way conscience of Carolina and Williams scored 23 goals at age 37. The former Capital is beloved in Raleigh. He was a key part of the 2006 Cup-winning team in his early years. Hard to imagine they don’t work something out for one more year. That third line is savvy and scary no matter who you put on the left-wing. If Williams chooses to retire, that would be a blow. 

Jaccob Slavin, 24, proved to be one of the best young defensemen in the NHL last year and Dougie Hamilton, 25, fit in well after a trade with Calgary last summer. Brett Pesce, also 24, anchors the second pair with Justin Faulk, the old man at 26. That’s a good, versatile group and their skating ability played a big part in the Hurricanes getting shots on goal from everywhere. At times it was hard for the Capitals to even get the puck during the road games in that playoff series. They couldn’t win any of them. 

Petr Mrazek had a nice season in goal (.914 save percentage), but he’s never been able to put together long stretches of top-level play. If there is a question here, it remains in goal. It’s been Carolina’s undoing before. Mrazek will share the net with James Reimer this year after Curtis McElhinney (.912 save percentage) departed. He played 33 games to Mrazek’s 40 so Reimer will likely have to give them a decent workload.

One thing to note: Carolina’s farm system remains excellent. The Charlotte Checkers won the AHL’s Calder Cup last season so there are pieces to bring up if injuries strike or players don’t perform – even in goal. 

Don’t be surprised again. If the Hurricanes struggle to match last year’s feel-good vibes, they remain a quality team with young talent that could take another leap forward. Depth on the back end might be an issue, the second line must gel and the goalies must shake their inconsistent history. But Carolina should be in the playoff mix all season and there are legitimate reasons to think they could win the division, too. 

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Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas details mental health issues on day he's inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

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Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas details mental health issues on day he's inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

WASHINGTON — The tears rolled down Tim Thomas’ cheeks. 

Honored with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the former Boston Bruins goalie, a Stanley Cup champion, one of the greatest American players of all time, spoke of the hard end to his playing career and the brain damage he sustained playing the sport he loved. 

While playing for the Florida Panthers in 2013-14, his final season, Thomas sustained a concussion that December which left him debilitated. It was an injury “that changed my life,” Thomas said. 

Speaking publicly for the first time since retiring from hockey in 2014, the reclusive Thomas, a Michigan native who now lives in Idaho with his family, described a darkening spiral. He awoke the morning after his concussion and couldn’t decide what he wanted to eat, where he wanted to go. He couldn’t plan a schedule. Thomas survived by just following the team schedule put together by the Panthers - and later, the Dallas Stars after a trade. 

One year after retiring, Thomas found he couldn’t keep up with the sport on television or in person. He underwent a CereScan, which measures the flow of blood to the brain by using radioactive isotopes. Thomas claims the numbers showed two thirds of his brain was getting less than five percent of the necessary blood flow and the other third was getting about 50 percent.    

“I've struggled mightily with how do I process the experience that I've been through and rectify that with the love of the game that I had my whole life until I crashed, so to speak,” Thomas said. “That happened. I still haven't worked my whole way through that process.”

Thomas was a late bloomer. He played four years at the University of Vermont and after turning pro bounced around minor leagues in North America and played in Europe, too. He was 31 before he earned a roster spot with Boston and 33 before he was the unquestioned No. 1 goalie. 

But he went on a brilliant seven-year run, winning the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie in 2008-09 and 2010-11. That year he led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. He also played for 2010 U.S. Olympic Team in Vancouver, which won the silver medal. Hockey brought him immense joy and he was thrilled to be honored with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.       

"I can see the positive sides of the whole hockey life and everything. It doesn't take away from that,” Thomas said. “I guess, I don't know where I stand completely on the game of hockey at the levels where people are injuring themselves to the levels that they actually are and my involvement in that.”

That will take some time. The pain is still raw. Thomas’ wife and children suffered because he was suffering with his mental health. He couldn’t communicate with anybody for a few years. He didn’t call his dad - or his old teammates, who were still stuck in that hockey life he had left behind. He just didn’t want to bother anybody. His love for the game was part of the heavy price paid.  

“There was a time period, yeah, where I hated the game,” Thomas said. “I didn't sit there and (say) I hate it. My rebound effect was like, this wasn't worth it. That's where I was then. Where I am today is past that. I ended up learning so many lessons out of the experience.”

But that doesn’t mean normal. Thomas isn’t sure what that word even means at this point. He’s endured ups and downs and only started to feel like his old self about two years ago. Oxygen therapy helped, Thomas said, and he believes plenty of special mineral water did, too. He wouldn’t have been able to make the trip to Washington to take part in this ceremony otherwise. Better doesn’t mean fully healed, though   

“I still can’t choose,” Thomas said. “I’m so much better, but I wake up every day and basically I have to reorder everything in my mind for the first couple hours of the day and then make a list and try to make some choices to get some stuff done, on which I have gotten to the level that I can.”

Thomas spoke haltingly to the gathered reporters. He paused, choked up multiple times and tried to keep his composure. The tears rolled down his cheeks anyway. On what was a monumental day honoring his accomplishments on the ice, this was as big a part of his story as any of that. After six years, he is finally able to talk and he hopes current hockey players can learn from his struggles with mental health.   

"I didn't want to talk about this. I didn't want to talk,” Thomas said “I didn't want to tell the world this stuff. Not untill I felt ready, and I didn't feel ready yet. But here I am.”

The book “Game Change” written by former Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden helped, Thomas said. That story details the struggles of longtime NHL defenseman Steve Montador, who died in 2015 at age 35 and who researchers later determined had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neurological disease caused by repeated head injuries.

Learning about Montador’s issues made Thomas realize he wasn’t unique, he wasn’t alone. He’s channeled the competitive drive that allowed him to become an elite NHL goalie and channeled that into learning about mental health. 

On Tuesday, Thomas attended his first NHL game since leaving the sport in 2014. Ironically, his old Bruins were in Washington to play the Capitals and the 2019 inductees were honored before the game. Thomas had only seen former teammate Johnny Boychuk a few years back, but otherwise had fallen out of touch with most others.

Tuesday, Thomas got to catch up with Bruins staffers still with the organization and also ex-teammates Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Kreiji. Those five are still with Boston and they were on the ice with Thomas that memorable night in Vancouver eight years ago when they won the Stanley Cup together. 

Seeing them again was a blast, even if for a short time - a chance to immerse himself in a game that had given him so much but for a long time has been lost to him. 

"Being welcomed back into the arms of the hockey family has been great,” Thomas said. “It's reminded me of all the great people that I crossed paths with all throughout my career. It's been very impactful."

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Capitals and Bruins put on a show worthy of Stanley Cup playoffs

Capitals and Bruins put on a show worthy of Stanley Cup playoffs

WASHINGTON — There are only a handful of nights like Wednesday during the course of an NHL season. 
 
Players and coaches grind their way through 82 games with one running into the next. Sometimes, for the very best teams, the Stanley Cup playoffs can seem like a desert mirage off in the far distance. 
 
The Capitals and Bruins reminded us what the spring will bring during Washington’s 3-2 win on Wednesday. The NHL’s two best teams gave us physical play, great goaltending and world-class skill all in one wildly entertaining package. 
 
“No matter where you are in the standings, games against those teams, Boston, Tampa, games like that, in a way they are measuring stick games,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “You want to see how you measure up to what they are bringing that particular year or that particular time during the season. Tonight was no different.”
 
Oshie scored twice – one after a spectacular inside-out move that stands as Washington’s goal of the year so far. John Carlson continued piling up the points with an assist and the game-winning goal in the third period off a pass from Nicklas Backstrom. 
 
These Capitals, playing against a Bruins team that came within a game of the Stanley Cup last season, continue to show they measure up. The roster has turned over some, but the fight hasn’t gone out of the 2018 championship team yet. 
 
“The crowd was into it a little bit more than your average game,” Carlson said. “I think both teams were flying around, going that extra step to hit someone all the time and that sort of thing. It was a fun game, it was fun to play in. Still not playoffs.”
 
No, not yet. Carlson has been through all this before. He has played on three teams that won the Presidents’ Trophy (2009-10, 2015-16, 2016-07) and none of them made it out of the second round of the playoffs. 
 
The Capitals are just happy to be where they are, now five points clear of Boston for the NHL’s best record and with a nine-point lead in the Metropolitan Division over the New York Islanders and the rest of their rivals. 
 
But they know none of it will matter in mid-April. The slate gets wiped clean and they will have to beat the Islanders or the Hurricanes or the Flyers or maybe the Penguins – isn’t it always the Penguins - four times in seven games. And then they’d have do it again with one of those teams in the second round. Only then would they even get a crack at these Bruins - or maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning - once more in the Eastern Conference Final. 
 
There are still 49 games to go before all of that and upsets are a fact of life in the playoffs so you might as well enjoy the journey to get there. So far, Washington (23-5-5, 51 points) is off to the second-best start in team history through 33 games. 
 
Only the 2015-16 Presidents’ Trophy winner was better at 25-6-2 with 52 points. That group also led the Islanders by nine points in the Metro Division race at this point in the season. It’s a comfortable place to be and a nice cushion for the endless, cold nights of winter when illness or injuries strike and the schedule wears you down and you lose a couple of games in a row and frustration sets in. 
 
That will happen at some point for these Capitals. It’s inevitable over the course of a long season. But if Wednesday tells them anything, it’s that they still have that reserve of confidence to rally even against the very best teams in the league. 
 
Down 2-1 in the second period, Oshie banged home his own rebound when left alone in front. And 3:30 later he undressed the Boston defense and beat goalie Jaroslav Halak with a backhand roof shot that left the crowd unhinged and Washington ahead.  
 
It wasn’t an easy game. The Capitals had to kill five Boston power plays and their video department helped save the game by getting a Bruins goal overturned on replay after a missed offsides call. That kept the score 1-0. Washington might “own” Boston at 16-1 in the past 17 games, but no one thinks that would mean much in any playoff series. Instead, nights like this are a dress rehearsal for the games that matter most. 
 
“Our team usually plays better against teams like that, teams that work hard, play an honest, hard game structurally,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “It's fun for us to play in those games, especially in the regular season. It kind of feels more like a playoff style. We've been fortunate to have success, but there's been a lot of real close games against them the last little bit, games that make us better in the long run."

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