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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals - Can the Caps be dethroned?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals - Can the Caps be dethroned?

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 Washington Capitals.

It’s time for the Metropolitan preview you have all been waiting for, your hometown heroes, the Caps.

Washington learned firsthand how difficult it is to defend a Stanley Cup as they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes in what appeared on paper to be a favorable matchup. Now they head into the season with a different looking team, but not because of any knee-jerk reactions to an early playoff exit.

The entire offseason for the Caps has been dictated by the salary cap. With no money under the cap, general manager Brian MacLellan had to say goodbye to key pieces like Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, and Andre Burakovsky. The retirement of Brooks Orpik was also a key loss for the blue line.

Despite all the changes you have to give credit to MacLellan for managing to shed salary and still improve the team.

When you look at the numbers, Washington really struggled defensively last season. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps. Washington held the third-worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

As one would expect, this is leading to the team giving up more goals. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

To combat this MacLellan traded for Radko Gudas who was one of the Philadelphia Flyers’ best defensemen last season and who may prove to be an upgrade over Niskanen at this point in their respective careers. MacLellan also filled the hole on the third line left by Connolly with Richard Panik and added a pair of strong defensive fourth-line players in Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. The result should be better team defense and a stronger penalty kill.

The concern in losing players like Connolly and Burakovsky and focusing on the defense is that this team is not as offensively deep as it was. The entire top-six returns, but will Washington rely too much on its top scorers to carry the load? And can players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie who are all over 30 still carry that load? it is imperative that players like Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana continue their production from last season and Evgeny Kuznetsov returns to the Conn Smythe-worthy form we saw in the 2018 postseason that we only saw glimpses of last year.

As improved as the team looks overall defensively, a lot will be riding on Nick Jensen. He struggled after getting acquired at the trade deadline, but with Niskanen gone, he will be expected to take on a top-four role most likely alongside Dmitry Orlov. The loss of Orpik also means a regular spot for either Jonas Siegenthaler or Christian Djoos on the third pair with Gudas.

While money was an issue for the offseason, it will continue to hang over the team's head heading into training camp. The Caps remain over the salary cap and will have some tough moves to make. Chandler Stephenson will almost certainly start the season in Hershey, but that will not be enough. Will Djoos go to the AHL? Will we see Vitek Vanecek replace Pheonix Copley as Braden Holtby’s backup to save money? How will Holtby play on the final year of his contract? Will we see prospect Ilya Samsonov come into the NHL this year as next year’s potential replacement of Holtby?

Managing the salary cap is going to be a story all season long and this roster is still going to be shuffled in a fairly significant way even before the end of training camp just to get under the ceiling. That is something to keep an eye on in training camp.

And of course, there is coaching. Todd Reirden enters his second season as head coach. He navigated a rocky 2018-19 season very well leading the team to a division title, but the playoffs were a different story. Among the reasons for the team’s early exit were some curious decisions made by the coaching staff such as electing to play John Carlson on the left in response to the injury to Michal Kempny.

There are a lot of questions surrounding this team that could ultimately cost them their seat atop the division.

Having said all of that, even with how good the Metro will be this year and how much several teams have improved, Washington still maintains the best roster in the division from top to bottom and still should be considered the frontrunners for a fifth title. There are just a lot more potential pitfalls that could derail the season than we have seen in recent years.

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A 78 second rally turns a sure loss into the Caps first win at home

A 78 second rally turns a sure loss into the Caps first win at home

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.

Observations from the win

Maybe it’s not the goaltending….

We learned a lot from this game about the goaltending. First off, Braden Holtby is not the problem when it comes to keeping pucks out of the net. Obviously he has to be better than he was on Monday, but the defensive breakdowns from Monday were back again on Wednesday. The worst was a misplay by Siegenthaler who was far too slow to recognize Mikheyev streaking up the ice through the middle. When he received a pass from Kapanen it was already too late. Mikheyev easily skated around Siegenthaler to create the breakaway and the goal.

The second thing to note, Samsonov is very good and is going to be very good, but he is still raw and still developing. The biggest issue I see in his game is his tendency to overcommit. When the puck was on the side of the net, Samsonov would sell out  in anticipation of the shot. There was one instance in the first period where the puck was passed to John Tavares and Samsonov slid over so hard to cover it, he almost took himself out of the net completely. Tavares’ head was down as he tried to control the puck, but if he had his head up, he would have passed that puck back to the middle and it would have been an easy goal.

“He's extremely athletic,” Todd Reirden said after the game. “You go back to some other guys that are his size from his homeland that are active like that, one of the things they have to do when they come over is be a little bit more under control just because of the puck movement and the skill level of guys changing pucks side to side that you don't take yourself out of plays.”

To his credit, Samsonov settled down after the first period, which Reirden also noted. I wonder if it will be hard on goalie coach Scott Murray to coach two players with such contrasting styles. Holtby is the exact opposite of Samsonov with calm, cool movements that some detractors incorrectly identify as a disinterest.

So what do you do Friday? You put Holtby back in. If you don’t then you are needlessly creating a goalie controversy. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t play the backup two-straight games, but it means a heck of a lot if you go back to Samsonov after an OK, but not great game. There’s no need. Go back to Holtby and hope that he has had enough time to reset and go forward knowing you can be comfortable putting in Samsonov 25-30 games.

John Carlson is incredible

The debate is now over. For years there were still the people who would cling to their old bias and reach out to me on Twitter complaining Carlson was overrated because they saw him turn the puck over that one time a few years ago.

Carlson went from good to great in the Stanley Cup year, to elite in 2018-19 and now he has gone even beyond that. This is a superstar player.

WIth one goal and two assists, Carlson now has 14 points on the season (and was briefly leading the entire league in points). From where I was sitting in the press box, I was essentially directly down the line from him on the Jakub Vrana goal. Carlson had the puck and it looked like he had no outlet to pass whatsoever. He faked the shot, and suddenly I saw the seas part and there was a direct lane to Vrana for the one-timer. I saw it as it happened, but Carlson clearly saw it before it happened and anticipated that play. It was brilliant.

But you already knew he was good on offense. The knock on him has always been his defense, but we need to get over that. Morgan Rielly is a highly regarded defenseman across the league and someone, with 72 points last year, who received some votes and consideration for the Norris last season. No one could have watched Wednesday's game and come away thinking that Rielly is more important to his team than Carlson is. If you did, you were watching a different game than I was.

Carlson is an elite defenseman and I will say it now, he will be a Norris finalist this season.

Turning point

It took the Caps 78 seconds to turn a game that looked similar to Monday’s debacle into a win. Evgeny Kuznetsov glided into the offensive zone faster than anyone on the ice could skate and tucked the puck around the outstretched pad of Michael Hutchinson. Just 11 seconds later, Nicklas Backstrom cashed in on the hard forechecking work of T.J. Oshie. The flustered Leafs took two penalties giving Washington 1:51 of a 5-on-3 power play which Carlson scored on. Suddenly a 2-1 deficit for the Caps turned into a 4-2 lead all in a stretch of just 78 seconds.

Play of the night

Kuznetsov passed the puck up to the offensive blue line. A skating Carl Hagelin tapped it to 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 Hutchinson with relative ease.

This is art.

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.

Stat of the night

With one goal and two assists, Carlson now has 14 points on the season. At the time, that led the NHL. Both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl passed him later on Wednesday with multi-point performances, but for a few hours, Carlson was the league-leader in points.

Quote of the night

Todd Reirden on how he felt when the team went down 2-0:

“I have to tell you tonight I wasn't concerned when we were down 2-0. I thought they converted on a couple chances but I had a good feeling about our team tonight, that there was no panic, we stayed with our game, we built and built and built, shift after shift and it was a matter of time. I was confident in our group tonight. Despite what happened last game, I felt felt strong about it.”

So while Twitter was imploding and people were gathering the pitchforks and torches in the first period, Reirden had no doubt. That’s why coaches don’t read Twitter.

Fran predictions

Vrana had one goal and another hit the post. So close!

This could explain what happened in those 78 seconds.

Ovechkin (1 assist), Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) and Oshie (1 assist) did combine for four points. Carlson meanwhile had one goal and two assists. Nice job!

The cow was in section 225 or, as I like to call him, Sir Loin.

Wrong.

What the heck are “lizard” and “spock?” Is this a thing? Have I been playing rock, paper, scissors wrong?

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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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