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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Columbus Blue Jackets - With all of the departures in free agency, who steps up?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Columbus Blue Jackets - With all of the departures in free agency, who steps up?

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 Columbus Blue Jackets.

A Blue Jackets team that had never won a playoff series in its history was faced last summer with the proposition of seeing its two best players, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, walk at the end of their contracts. Instead of trading them both for what he could get and starting over, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen kept the core together for one more run.

The phrase “one more run” suggests that Columbus was close to competing before, but again, the team had never won a playoff series. As the season wore on, there was a significant chance they may not even make the playoffs. Kekalainen doubled down and traded for Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid and Keith Kinkaid at the trade deadline. The result was the best season in franchise history, a second-round playoff exit instead of the usual first-round flop.

But now it is time to pay the piper.

Kekalainen’s gamble did not result in a Stanley Cup. To be fair, it did result in a stunning upset over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but in the end that is all Columbus has to show for going all-in last season.

Gone now are Panarin and Bobrovsky, as expected, as well as all of their trade deadline acquisitions. To replace them, the team added...Gustav Nyquist. That’s it.

Nyquist is a solid top-six forward who is coming off his best season statistically, but he alone will not make up for the loss of so many key players.

Let’s be clear, despite all the losses the cupboard is not totally bare in Columbus. Pierre-Luc Dubois scored 27 goals and 61 points in just his second NHL season and could be poised for a breakout third year. Cam Atkinson scored 41 goals last season. Josh Anderson saw his production jump with career-highs in goals, assists and points.

Plus, on the blue line, the Blue Jackets still have Seth Jones. Zach Werenski remains unsigned, but Kekalainen believes he will be under contract by training camp. Werenski-Jones is one of the best defensive pairs in the league.

The loss of so many players means freeing up cap space and Columbus suddenly has a lot of money to work with. The Blue Jackets currently have over $15 million in cap space and will still have a great deal of flexibility once Werenski signs. There is a lot this team can do with that space down the line.

When Kekalainen pushed all his chips to the center of the table, there were plenty who applauded his boldness. Perhaps because of that, there was pushback against the assumption that Columbus would bottom out after this season. Certainly, there is enough talent there to ensure this team does not completely fall apart. To think that a team that barely squeezed into the playoffs and has won one playoff series in its history somehow got better or will be just as good next season, however, is laughable and you need only look at the goalie situation to realize it.

The Blue Jackets will enter the season with a goalie tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Korpisalo has never played in more than 31 games in a single campaign and is coming off a season in which he managed a 2.95 GAA and .897 save percentage. Congratulations, Columbus, that is your No. 1 goalie heading into the fall. Merzlikins has no NHL experience and he has spent his entire professional career playing in Switzerland. There is potential there as he has put up solid numbers in Switzerland, but this season is going to be a bit of trial by fire for him.

Even if Columbus is not terrible next season, they will still struggle to stay out of the basement of the Metropolitan Division because of how competitive the division is. Almost every team got better this offseason, some significantly so. The Blue Jackets, who made the playoffs by two points, got worse. Plus, they have a head coach in John Tortorella who tends to have a short shelf life as he begins to wear on his players. How hard is this team going to be fighting for him in the dog days of January when the team sitting seven points out of a playoff spot with three teams ahead of them in the standings for the last wild card?

This is not a case of addition by subtraction. Columbus lost a lot of good players and it seems very unlikely that they will somehow emerge a better team this season as a result.

The Blue Jackets will be lucky to make the playoffs this year, but more likely they will get lost in the competitive Metro Division and see themselves fall well outside of the postseason race.

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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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Capitals at Lightning: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, How to Watch

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Capitals at Lightning: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, How to Watch

After winning in a thriller on Wednesday over the Boston Bruins, the Capitals look to make it two wins in a row and five of their last six when they travel to Tampa on Saturday to face the Lightning.

Earlier this season, the Capitals edged the Lightning 4-3 in an overtime thriller, a contest that saw Washington come back from a 3-1 third period deficit.

Washington currently leads the Eastern Conference with 51 points, while a slow start to 2019 leaves the Lightning with just 33.

Here's how to catch the action. 

Capitals-Lightning: How to Watch

What: Game 34 of the NHL regular season

Who: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning

When: Wednesday, December 14, 2019, at 7 p.m.

Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Florida

TV Channel: Capitals-Lightning game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports channel finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals-Lightning on NBC Sports live stream page.

Radio: Caps Radio 24/7

Capitals-Lightning TV Schedule

6:00 PM: Caps FaceOff Live

6:30 PM: Caps Pregame Live

7:00 PM: Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

9:30 PM: Caps Postgame Live

Capitals-Bruins Lightning Injury Report

Capitals: None

Lightning: Braydon Coburn, D (lower body, out indefinitely)

Capitals-Lightning Players to Watch

T.J. Oshie, W, Capitals: Oshie dazzled in the Caps victory on Wednesday, finishing with a pair of goals, including this beauty. After not scoring in the four games prior, Oshie will look to continue his hot hand into Saturday's contest against Tampa.

Steven Stamkos, C, Lightning: After a six-game stretch without scoring, Stamkos has found the back of the net four times in the past three games. He'll look to avenge a pointless showing that he had during the Lightning's November loss to Washington.

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