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NHL restart schedule: Capitals return to the ice Aug. 3 against Lightning

NHL restart schedule: Capitals return to the ice Aug. 3 against Lightning

In one fell swoop, the NHL and its players union voted Friday to approve a package deal that included both the NHL’s return-to-play plan and a new Collective Bargaining agreement. The tentative agreement reached upon Tuesday became official when it was approved by the NHL’s Board of Governors and received a simple majority in the player vote.

The 24 teams that qualified for the expanded Stanley Cup playoffs will begin formal training camps Monday in preparation for an Aug. 1 start to the postseason. The Capitals have already guaranteed themselves one of the top four spots in the East and will play in a round-robin tournament to determine seeding before the first round.

RELATED: NHL, PLAYERS UNION AGREE ON SEASON RESTART PLAN IN NEW CBA

Here’s what Washington’s postseason schedule will look like in the seeding round and when they would be on the ice if they make it all the way:

Aug. 3 – Capitals vs. Lightning (seeding game)

Aug. 6 – Capitals vs. Flyers (seeding game)

Aug. 8 – Bruins vs. Capitals (seeding game)

Aug. 11 – First round of Stanley Cup playoffs begins

Aug. 25* – Second round of Stanley Cup playoffs begins

Sept. 8* – Conference finals begin

Sept. 22* – Stanley Cup Finals begin

Oct. 4* – Last possible day of Stanley Cup Finals

*Date still tentative

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What is the Capitals' optimal lineup?

What is the Capitals' optimal lineup?

The regular season is over, the time for experimenting is done. The playoffs are finally upon us and the Capitals are going to have to be at their best in order to win the Stanley Cup, and that includes in their lineup. A team as deep was Washington has plenty of options of who to plug into the lineup, but now it is time to put out the best options available.

Here's what my optimal lineup would look like heading into Round 1.

Forward lines

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

13th forward: Travis Boyd

Eller is not available for Game 1, but when he returns he obviously will take back his spot at center on the third line.

This one's not that hard. On the top line, some may quibble with Kuznetsov considering his inconsistent play over the course of the season and in the round robin, especially in the wake of Todd Reirden reuniting the Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie line against the Boston Bruins. My feeling on that trio is that, while it was great a few years ago, in this day and age of the NHL it is too slow.  Take the New York Islanders, as an example. Is there anyone on tjat line that can keep up with a player like Mathew Barzal? That would be a tough matchup. I'm not saying they can never play together or be an effective line, it's a good option to have if you need to change things up in a game, but I would not look to it as my go-to top line.

Kuznetsov has to be better in the defensive zone, but I still look to him as the best option on the top line at this point.

The rest of the lines are pretty obvious. The only other perhaps debatable pick is Boyd as my first player to plug into the lineup. The team's first-round draft pick from 2019, Connor McMichael, is with the team in Toronto and people want to see him play, but in all honesty, he would not be my first, second or perhaps even third choice. McMichael is a 19-year-old who weighs 181 pounds and has no NHL experience and you want to plug him into the lineup for the first time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Adjusting to the NHL is much more difficult than people realize and this is not a situation that would set McMichael up for success.

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Boyd is the pick here. He has been the 13th forward for much of the season and has remained productive when called upon, scoring three goals and seven assists in 24 games. He also scored a goal in one of his two appearances in the round robin.

Defensive pairs

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

7th defenseman: Martin Fehervary

Carlson's status heading into the playoffs remains unclear, but it should come as no surprise to see him on the top pair here.

When Kempny is at his best, he and Carlson are a great top defensive pair. We have not seen Kempny and Carlson together at all in the round robin, but Kempny looks more composed than he did during the regular season. Whether he continues to look that way in the playoffs remains to be seen, but having seen Kempny-Carlson in the past, that is definitely the team's best defensive pairing.

I am very skeptical of Orlov playing on the right. He is a left-shot defenseman so it is not his natural side and he did not look comfortable there when Reirdien plugged him on the right side during the regular season. I am not sure he is a great fit, but Nick Jensen is so much better on the third pair than the second so I will trust the coaches and put Orlov on that pair with Dillon.

RELATED: HOLTBY PLAYING HIS BEST HOCKEY AT THE PERFECT TIME

The one player whose name you may notice is missing is Radko Gudas. Gudas' play has deteriorated over the course of the season. At one point, he looked like the best option to play the right side of the second defensive pair. Now, however, he entered the round robin as the team's No. 7. He played the first two games due to Carlson's injury and gave up an egregious turnover against the Philadelphia Flyers that led to a goal. He was replaced by the rookie Martin Fehervary in the next game.

Fehervary played only 15:14 against the Boston Bruins, but recorded a game-high seven hits and looked comfortable playing on the right, which is important considering Gudas is a righty. Based on what we saw from Gudas in the Philadelphia game vs. Fehervary in the Boston game, I would think Fehervary is the better option. The only caveat to this is that if the team is in a heavy, more physical matchup, Gudas may seem like the safer pick, but Fehervary has shown he is not afraid of a physical game.

Goalie tandem

Starter: Braden Holtby

Backup: Vitek Vanecek

Holtby as the starter is not even worth discussing with Samsonov out. The question is between Vanecek and Pheonix Copley. I see the ceiling for both players being about the same as NHL backups. Copley has the experience and managed a 16-7-3 record with a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA in the NHL just last season, but I did not think he looked all that comfortable in net. Many of his best saves in the season were created by his own misplays or slow reactions. He was a fine, dependable backup, but at the very least his play left the door open for someone to supplant him and someone did in Vanecek.

Vanecek was the better goalie in Hershey this season and Reirden made the gutsy call of making Vanecek the backup. Not being at practice, I can't see what Reirden sees, but I have seen both netminders play in the past and I have enough questions about Copley that Reirden's decision to name the inexperienced Vanecek as the backup is enough reason for me to think he is the better option.

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Capitals and Islanders have produced legendary Stanley Cup playoff moments

Capitals and Islanders have produced legendary Stanley Cup playoff moments

The Capitals and Islanders have played seven times in the Stanley Cup playoffs with the eighth on tap starting Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto in the midst of a pandemic.

This isn’t where we thought we’d be early in the 2019-20 NHL season. It still doesn’t seem real with neutral sites and empty buildings. But this matchup is one we thought would happen last spring. One goal was all that stood between a rematch between New York and coach Barry Trotz and the team he led to the Stanley Cup the year before. 

Alas, the Capitals gave up a goal in Game 7 at home to the Carolina Hurricanes and never got the chance. The Islanders were swept right out of the postseason and we were denied a fascinating matchup between Trotz and Todd Reirden, his assistant coach in Washington for four years.

Little did we know we just had to wait a little longer. The Capitals and Islanders have history far beyond just their coaches. Some of the NHL’s most memorable moments took place in the Stanley Cup playoffs between these Metropolitan Division rivals. Here is a look back at some of the best:

April 10, 1983
The Capitals were just happy to be here. Two years after the desperate “Save the Caps” campaign kept hockey in Washington, their first playoff series came against the three-time defending champions. The Islanders kept their crown.

The plucky Caps weren’t quite ready. But they took Game 2 at famed Nassau Coliseum and were tied 1-1 at Capital Centre in Game 4 when New York, led by Mike Bossy, scored three straight times. Washington kept fighting with a Kent Houston goal at 11:34 of the third period to make it 4-3 before the champs put them away with a second Bossy goal with 2:46 to play.  

April 16, 1985
The first true Caps playoff collapse. The two teams met in the second round of the 1984 playoffs after Washington won its first playoff series. And while the Islanders’ dynasty came to an end that year, it wouldn’t be until they were dethroned by Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers.

The old crew still had enough to dispatch the Capitals in five games. But in 1985? No that was different. An aging New York fell behind 2-0 in a best-of-five series with overtime losses at a rocking Capital Centre. This felt different. Washington was the better team during the regular season – third-best in the NHL. 

But a pair of losses at Nassau set the stage for Game 5 at Capital Centre. For the third year in a row, the Capitals fell short. A goal in the first, a goal in the second and New York was up 2-0, the crowd was tight. That’s familiar. It all started back then and took Washington another 33 years to shake the demons. A Bobby Carpenter goal 29 seconds into the third period gave the Capitals life, but veteran goalie Billy Smith stopped 39 of 40 shots. New York only had 22. The first of many shocking playoff collapses. 

RELATED: CAPS VS. ISLANDERS GAME 1 - WHAT TO EXPECT NOW THAT THE GAMES MATTER

April 18, 1987
The Easter Epic. One of the great games in NHL history. The Capitals finally beat the Islanders in the first round in 1986 in a three-game sweep. This time they were up 3-1 in a best-of-seven first-round series and headed home to finish it off. Uh oh. “3-1” and the Caps never have mixed. They have blown that lead five times now. It’s only happened 28 times in league history.

But this was the very first. A game that began on a Saturday evening, ended at 1:56 a.m. on Easter morning. It is now the 11th longest game in league history after Tuesday night's five-overtime fiasco between Tampa Bay and Columbus. They played 68:47 of overtime into Easter morning before Pat LaFontaine’s spinning shot from just inside the blueline beat Washington goalie Bob Mason, who stood in shock in the crease for 10 seconds before dropping exhausted to a knee while the Islanders celebrated. It remains one of the sport's iconic moments. 

April 28, 1993
The Capitals and Islanders needed a break from each other after playing five years in a row in the postseason. Six years later they met again under different circumstances. The 1992 Capitals had blown their second 3-1 series lead to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins. But they returned a solid team that finished second in the Patrick Division, a slight favorite over New York, hoping for another shot at Pittsburgh. 

Instead, an insanely frustrating series followed. The Islanders won Games 2 and 4 in double overtime and Game 3 in regular old overtime. Just like that they were up 3-1. Washington staved off elimination at home in Game 5. But Nassau Coliseum was a House of Horrors. There would be no Game 7. 

Dale Hunter opened the scoring for the Capitals in the first period. But the Islanders were up 3-1 after the second period and the old barn was roaring. Another goal made it 4-1 and with 8:31 to play, Pierre Turgeon put Washington away with a fifth goal. The crowd had been chanting “Nah-Nah-Nah-Nah, Hey-Hey-Hey, Goodbye!” The season had slipped away again. Hunter then lost his mind.

 After a Hunter turnover, Turgeon deked on goal and scored, skating with his arms raised looking up into the crowd. He never saw Hunter following him like a shark for three seconds. He never sensed the check that was about to come well after the goal that buried him into the boards. The Islanders won the series. But Turgeon missed the ensuing series against the Penguins with a separated right shoulder. New York won that anyway before its Cinderella run ended in the Eastern Conference Final against eventual champion Montreal. 

Hunter was hit with a 21-game suspension to start the following year and it’s still considered among the dirtiest hits in NHL history. 

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April 28, 2015

The Islanders and Capitals took another long break from each other but that was mostly because New York stunk. It made the playoffs just six times in the next 20 years and didn’t win a series.

That looked to change in 2015 – Trotz’s first with Washington – when a back-and-forth series with an overtime win for each team went to a Game 7. Given the Alex Ovechkin-led Caps had lost a Game 7 at home in 2008 (Flyers), 2009 (Penguins), 2010 (Canadiens) and 2013 (Rangers), the home crowd was a little tense.

 A 1-1 game for most of the third period became unbearable. It took a young Russian with a flair for the dramatic to make the difference. No, not Ovechkin. Evgeny Kuznetsov had his back to the play near the right circle against the boards, baited Frans Nielson to skate up behind him and then turned on a dime and blew toward the center of the ice. 

No one stopped him. Kuznetsov took the puck across the middle and almost down to the opposite goaline, waiting for Jaroslav Halak to sprawl to the ice – the man who stunned Washington in goal for Montreal in that crushing 2010 series. The lead held for the final 7:18 and for once a Game 7 didn’t end in tears for Capitals fans. That would happen in the second round when the Rangers rallied from a 3-1 series deficit and won Game 7 in overtime. You can’t win them all. 

Kuznetsov insisted to NBC Sports Washington's Rob Carlin this past spring that it is that Game 7 goal against New York that remains his favorite and not the Game 6 OT winner against Pittsburgh during the Stanley Cup run in 2018. Whether that's just kuzy being Kuzy, who knows? They're both epic and wonderful moments in franchise history. 

Playoff series No. 8 between the Capitals and Islanders has enough storylines to fit in a Stanley Cup Final. Let's see if they can add another memorable chapter to 37 years of history starting Wednesday afternoon. 

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