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NHL Power Rankings: Did the Capitals send a message with their win over Tampa Bay?

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NHL Power Rankings: Did the Capitals send a message with their win over Tampa Bay?

Whatever happened in Saturday’s game, one team was going to walk away feeling confident and talking about sending a message while the other would be left saying it was just one game. The Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning have met three times in 15 days with Tampa Bay winning the first two. Either the Lightning were going to sweep the season series or the Caps would win the last matchup for the final exclamation point.

No team knows better than the Caps that what happens in the regular season does not necessarily carry over into the playoffs, but just the way they were able to control Tampa Bay on Saturday makes you wonder if perhaps Washington could have injected a little bit of doubt into the minds of the Lightning.

The Caps dominated Tampa Bay in a way that few teams have this season. The Lightning are the top team in the NHL by far and have already clinched the top spot in the division, the conference and the league. In fact, the Presidents’ Trophy was awarded to Tampa Bay prior to Saturday’s game. That was about as good as things got, however, as the Caps dominated from the drop of the puck to the final horn. They looked bigger, faster and better than the top team in the league and it felt like they were reminding both the Lighting and the rest of the league that they are still the defending champions and the road to the Cup still runs through Washington.

Considering Tampa Bay lost to the Caps last season, you have to wonder if this loss will leave more than just a bad taste in their mouth. Will they be able to simply dismiss it and move on or when every team is starting to look ahead to the postseason, did the Caps plant a tiny seed of doubt into the minds of the Lightning?

SEE THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

Here are a few recent observations and thoughts on the Caps:

  • Remember when Alex Ovechkin scored 33 goals in 2016-17 and we thought his days as a 50-goal scorer were over? I am done predicting that. One day, age will catch up with him as it does for everyone, but he is superhuman and clearly it is going to take longer to catch up with him than anyone expected. Let’s just enjoy the ride.
  • Carl Hagelin has been such a great pick up. Everyone knew he was a good penalty killer and brought speed, but he is so much more than that. He makes an impact just about every time he is on the ice. One shift in particular stood out to me on Saturday. He carried the puck into the offensive zone by himself as the Caps were on a line change. He got caught in a board battle with Victor Hedman, one of the top defensemen in the league, won the puck and passed it back to the blue line. That started an offensive cycle that resulted in T.J. Oshie’s first goal. It would have been easy for Hagelin to dump it in or lose the puck to a top-notch defenseman, but he did not take the easy way out and he never gave up on a play that looked dead at the start. He won the puck back and kept the offensive play alive. He is a great player and someone the Caps should really try to re-sign in the offseason.
  • The key to fixing the power play is to shoot more. Washington’s power play works when opposing teams have to account for all five weapons they employ on the ice and not just Ovechkin. Lately has been to get the puck to Ovechkin which has led to teams covering him more and more. Ovechkin from the office just has not been there of late because everyone is cheating to him and getting in his shooting lane or the passing lane between him and John Carlson. On Saturday, Tampa Bay started covering Ovechkin closely giving Carlson a lane on net so he fired the puck towards the goal and T.J. Oshie deflected it in. If the other four players shoot more, that will result in more opportunities for Ovechkin. No one should take this advice more than Nicklas Backstrom.
  • Braden Holtby is probably not going to get much love for the Vezina this year and people are not going to be talking much about him heading into the playoffs. The last few games, however, he is playing as well as any goalie in the league. He is going to be a force to be reckoned with once the postseason starts.
  • When figuring out just what to do with the defense heading into the playoffs, I think you can take playing Nick Jensen on his off-side off the table. The goal Carolina Hurricanes forward Warren Foegele scored Thursday against Jensen pretty much sealed the deal. Sometimes players can give up big plays, it happens, but it was the way that it happened that caught my eye. Jensen was caught on the left and looked completely lost on how to defend. He held his stick out in front of him with both hands swinging wildly then reached with his arm and not the body when Foeegle was turning the corner on him. Jensen clearly is not comfortable on his left and it showed. There are three games left in the regular season before the playoffs, now is not the time to force a round peg into a square hole.

There is just one more week remaining in the regular season. Find out where the Caps stand compared to the other team in the league here in this week’s NHL Power Rankings.

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Capitals GM Brian MacLellan does not see why the 2020 Stanley Cup deserves an asterisk

Capitals GM Brian MacLellan does not see why the 2020 Stanley Cup deserves an asterisk

The 2020 season is unlike any other and because of that, it has brought up debates that we typically do not see in a season. From year to years, no one really questions whether the winner of the Stanley Cup was somehow invalid. If you win four best-of-seven series, clearly you deserve to be the last team standing. But now that the NHL has a playoff format for when the league resumes play, there are those who believe this year's Stanley Cup deserves an asterisk.

That notion is ridiculous., but don't take my word for it. Listen to someone who has won the Cup twice.

Brian MacLellan won the Cup in 2018 as the Capitals general manager, but he also won it as a player in 1989 with the Calgary Flames. Obviously the way in which a winner will be determined this postseason is different than a normal year, but to MacLellan, he feels winning the Cup would mean just as much as in 2020 as it would any other year.

"It's going to be different, it's going to be unique," MacLellan said Friday in a video conference. "The format's unique, but I still think players are competitive. You get in that environment, you're going to want to win. Organizations want to win."

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You may be thinking to yourself, "what is he supposed to say?" but really, he had an opportunity to voice a dissenting opinion throughout the process. When the league voted on the 24-team playoff proposal, only two out of 31 teams voted against it and the Caps were not among them. MacLellan could have said this year is different or that it won't feel the same and, as someone who has won the Cup both as a player and a general manager, his opinion would certainly carry some weight.

But that's just not how MacLellan feels about it.

"Once we get into it and it gets competitive, I don't think players are going to sit there [and think] this is not the same," he said.

MacLellan added, "I don't know that it lessens it because we've had a break, we've had a situation that's come into society, come into sports."

Considering the winner of the 2020 Cup will have had to wait through a season pause of several months, played through a training camp, most likely live in seclusion in a hub city for several weeks throughout the postseason, won at least four rounds of playoff hockey (five if a play-in team goes all the way) and do all of it in the midst of a global pandemic, why would anyone think to win the Cup this year could somehow be less difficult or satisfying?

"It'll be different," MacLellan said, "But I think the satisfaction of winning a championship, playing with your team, playing with your teammates, getting through hurdles that you have to go through in the playoffs, I think that's all going to be very satisfying."

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With the NHL limiting teams to 28 skaters for the playoffs, what will the Caps' roster look like?

With the NHL limiting teams to 28 skaters for the playoffs, what will the Caps' roster look like?

In a typical NHL postseason, all roster limits and salary cap restrictions are lifted. This year, however, is no normal postseason and teams are going to have prepare for having a limited number of players on the road.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the NHL has advised teams to prepare for a 28-man roster plus unlimited goalies for training camp and the playoffs. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan confirmed this in a video conference on Friday.

"We got the roster number the other day of 28 plus unlimited goalies," MacLellan said. "So we're in discussions now on how we want to use those extra players and what's the best way we can organizationally."

It should be noted that "unlimited" goalies is a bit of a misnomer because all teams will only be allowed to bring a maximum of 50 people to their hub cities for the playoffs. So sure, bring as many goalies as you want, but for each goalie you bring that's one less staff member who will be able to go.

In a typical postseason, teams will recall several players from the minors to serve as "black aces," who are depth practice players. Several practices in the postseason are optional so having black aces ensures that regardless of the NHL regulars who wish to take part in a practice, there are still enough players to work with whether it be a goalie to shoot on or maybe shooters for a goalie to face against. Black aces also provide depth which is important for the grueling Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the players themselves, it provides younger prospects a valuable learning experience for what the postseason is like and how the veteran players approach it.

With a limited roster and limited personnel, however, MacLellan likely will not be able to bring all the players he normally would want to. Here's a projection of what a 28-man roster may look like for Washington.

The regulars

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Ilya Kovalchuk
Richard Panik - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway
Travis Boyd

Brenden Dillon - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Jonas Siegenthaler - Michal Kempny
Radko Gudas

When the NHL season was paused, there were 21 skaters on the roster. That number is down to 20 after Brendan Leipsic's contract was terminated. There is no reason to think any of the other 20 will not be with the team for the postseason.

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Possible Black Aces

With 20 players, that leaves just eight slots left for black aces. Here are the most likely candidates:

Shane Gersich
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby
Brett Leason
Beck Malenstyn
Connor McMichael
Liam O'Brien
Garrett Pilon
Brian Pinho
Mike Sgarbossa
Joe Snively
Daniel Sprong
Alex Alexeyev
Martin Fehervary
Lucas Johansen
Tyler Lewington
Bobby Nardella

Of those players, my best guess for the eight the team will take would be Gersich, Malenstyn, McMichael, Sgarbossa, Sprong, Alexeyev, Fehervary and Lewington.

First off, MacLellan named McMichael specifically as a player the team was considering taking. I don't think he does that if he was not fairly certain McMichael was going to be included. Malenstyn said in a video conference after the AHL season was officially canceled that he had been told by the team he was going to be a black ace. As for the rest, considering there is a fairly limited number of roster spots, I think the team would lean very largely on players who are more likely to be plugged into the lineup in case of injury. That means guys like Sgarbossa and Sprong would get nods over some prospects like Jonsson-Fjallby or Snively or, on defense, Lewington would be added over prospects like Johansen and Nardella.

Goalies

Braden Holtby
Ilya Samsonov
Pheonix Copley
Vitek Vanecek

Teams will always have a third goalie when possible in the playoffs and Copley also confirmed he will be a black ace in the video conference with Malenstyn. The only question is if the team would bring Vanecek as well just to be safe. With all the unknowns of the coronavirus, it would not be surprising to see MacLellan err on the side of caution and bring a fourth netminder. It may just depend on what other personnel the team may want to bring and if there is space in the 50-person limit for a fourth goalie.

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