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A more mature Jakub Vrana is taking his fourth line demotion in stride

A more mature Jakub Vrana is taking his fourth line demotion in stride

After a rough performance against the Dallas Stars on Saturday, Jakub Vrana found himself moved from the top line to the fourth for Monday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers.

There was a time in his career in which Vrana would not have handled such a move very well, but on Monday a motivated Vrana played like he had been shot out of a cannon and scored less than three minutes into the game.

“That says a lot to me about him as a young player maturing,” Reirden said after the game. “That was a strong statement by him.”

Vrana’s reaction to getting bumped to the fourth line shows just how much he has matured as a player since being drafted in 2014.

As a first round draft pick, Vrana hit a wall while playing with the Hershey Bears. He had the talent to be an NHL player, but could not crack the Caps’ loaded lineup. Frustration over being stuck in the AHL translated into poor play leading to instances in which then head coach Troy Mann would scratch Vrana from the lineup altogether.

Vrana has demonstrated he has the talent to be a top-six talent in the NHL, but with multiple turnovers and an uneven performance on Saturday against the Stars, Vrana was moved down to the fourth line.

Unlike how he responded to being stuck in the AHL, the move from the top line to the bottom motivated him to work harder.

“If you have a game like I had, you have to forget it right away,” Vrana said Tuesday after an optional skate for the team. “I know it's really hard for some players. Obviously you think about it, right? It's not easy to forget. But you have to find a way back your confidence [sic]. The best way to find it is on a training pitch. I just tried to work hard.”

With the way he played, it is likely Vrana won’t be stuck in the bottom-six for very long.

The maturity of Vrana’s mentality and the skill he continues to show have not been lost on Reirden.

“I talked to him earlier [Monday] and I wasn't in the least bit concerned about his game,” Reirden said. “Showed him some video earlier and just explained -- again for me communication with players is really important and letting them know why you had certain ideas on what you're going to do and explaining to them what's expected. That's today's player. Good or bad, you have to tell them ok you're going from the first line to not the first line. How are you going to react?”

Vrana found instant chemistry Monday playing alongside his former Hershey teammate Travis Boyd. Considering how well the Vrana, Boyd, Devante Smith-Pelly line looked on Monday, it would not be surprising to see it again for Wednesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But as good as it looked, that fourth line is not likely to remain intact for long. With four goals and seven points on the season, Vrana continues to show off his top-six skill. Now he also has the maturity he needs to consistently perform at the NHL level.

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Why the Capitals' new penalty kill strategy continues struggling

Why the Capitals' new penalty kill strategy continues struggling

After the first day of training camp in September under new head coach Todd Reirden, he made clear one of the changes he wanted to see this season.

“I think you look at certain areas that you like to improve on,” Reirden said. “You look at where things settled out for us last year in the regular season statistically and then particularly as we went through the playoffs areas you can get better. There is always room to get better, and those were some spots I thought we could make some adjustments to in the penalty kill and some other things that you’ll maybe see as we move forward. I would say that would be the biggest difference there.”

Washington’s new-look power play, however, has gotten off to a rocky start and cost the team two losses in their last four games, despite giving up only two goals at five-on-five. 

The Capitals penalty kill is down to 71.7-percent, which ranks 29th in the NHL. During the last four games, Washington gave up six power-play goals, including two against an Arizona Coyotes team -- which handed the Caps their most recent loss, 4-1, Sunday -- that ranks in the lower half of the league in its power play efficiency and was playing on the second leg of a back-to-back. 

“Obviously, we’re struggling there, and it’s something that we’ve got to be better at,” Nicklas Backstrom said.

The addition of players like Evgeny Kuznetsov (1:16 of penalty kill time on Sunday) signaled a more aggressive style of penalty killing, one in which teams have to account for Washington’s offensive threat even while on the power play. You can see that more aggressive style at work as the Caps clearly try to push the puck into the offensive zone more so than in years past.

Thus far, however, the team has struggled to find a balance between pushing the offense while not leaving themselves vulnerable defensively. That was evident Sunday on Arizona’s first goal.

While on the penalty kill, three Caps players joined the rush for an offensive opportunity that ended with Darcy Kuemper saving a shot from John Carlson. The Coyotes turned a big rebound into a rush in the other direction, and the Caps were caught completely out of position. While the penalty killers nearly got back in time, they had no time at all to set up the penalty kill, and Arizona capitalized with a few quick passes.

“It’s just a bad read by us,” Backstrom said. “Too many guys attacking there instead of maybe playing it out and waiting for it to be five-on-five. We saw an opportunity. It’s easy to say that after, too. But, yeah, there’s absolutely an area that we can be better at.”

If the Caps want to find a way to be offensively dangerous and also defensively sound on the penalty kill, they need look no further than their opponent on Sunday. Not only do the Coyotes boast the top penalty kill in the league with a success rate of 91.8-percent, but they have also tallied an incredible nine shorthanded goals already this season. They have found a formula that works for them in both ends of the ice, something that clearly has proven elusive for the Caps.

It should be noted that Washington is also missing Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik from the lineup, three players who were major contributors to the penalty kill last season. While Beagle has moved on to the Vancouver Canucks, they will be getting Wilson and Orpik back at some point. Their addition will provide a boast, but for now, the Caps need to find a solution and fast because the penalty kill is clearly costing them points in the standings.

“I think there's some ways of evaluating it that it's getting better, but it's not getting it done,” Reirden said after Sunday’s game. “You can continue to look at it different ways. We have some different personnel in that situation, a different way of going about things on the penalty kill, but right now it's costing us games. We can't expect to win when you're giving up penalty kill goals like we are at the rate we are right now.”

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NHL Power Rankings: Caps finish off a sluggish home stand

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NHL Power Rankings: Caps finish off a sluggish home stand

One of the major talking points of the offseason was whether or not the Caps could avoid the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover. Well despite all the planning by the team on how to avoid it and all the talk about how they would avoid it, guess what? At 7-6-3, they find themselves right smack dab in the middle of it.

Washington’s title defense has gotten off to a sluggish start and the team now finds itself tied for fifth in the Metropolitan Division with 17 points.

SEE THIS WEEKS’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE 

Here are a few observations from the past week:

  •  People won’t want to hear it, but the Caps did show improvement in the two areas that were the biggest question marks heading into their five-game home stand, goaltending and five-on-five defense. Braden Holtby looks much improved from the start of the season giving credence to his claim that he plays better when he can get into a rhythm of playing frequently. As for the defense, Washington has allowed two five-on-five goals in their past four games. Any team would take that, but the Caps walked away with only two wins in those four games. That leads me to my next point…
  •  The penalty kill is atrocious right now. While the defense has allowed two five-on-five goals in the past four games, they also allowed six power play goals over that same stretch. When Todd Reirden said in training camp that he wanted the penalty kill to be more aggressive offensively, I think he envisioned something like what we see from Arizona right now. The Coyotes have the best penalty kill in the NHL (91.8-percent) and also have scored an absurd nine shorthanded goals already this season. The Caps have not figured out how to be aggressive offensively while not leaving themselves vulnerable defensively and that directly led to Arizona’s third goal on Sunday. Reirden and assistant coach Scott Arniel may need to study the Coyotes’ PK a little bit to figure out how they have been so dominant on both ends.
  •  Another issue the Caps face is on offense as they can’t score without the power play. In their last three games, they have scored only twice at five-on-five. For the season, Washington is 0-4-1 in games in which they have not scored at least one shorthanded goal.
  • If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s this: the Metropolitan Division may be bad this year. The Metro division has won the Stanley Cup in each of the past three seasons, but the division as a whole looks like it’s taken a step back. Pittsburgh just snapped a five-game losing streak, you or I could play goalie for Philadelphia right now (and we’d probably be an upgrade), it’s only a matter of time before both the Islanders and Rangers bottom out, Columbus has been wildly inconsistent, Carolina can’t score and New Jersey has lost nine of its last 11 after starting 4-0. So don’t despair Caps fans, there’s still plenty of time for Washington to turn things around.
  • After a sluggish week at home, where do the Caps stand among the rest of the NHL? 

FIND OUT HERE IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS

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