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With NHL season paused, a ranking of Capitals' best wins of 2019-20: No. 10

With NHL season paused, a ranking of Capitals' best wins of 2019-20: No. 10

While we wait for the NHL to hopefully resume its season, NBC Sports Washington is looking back at the 20 best wins of the Capitals' season so far. Mark Zaner, producer for Caps Faceoff Live and Caps Overtime Live, has watched every game. His rankings continue with No. 10, a 5-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 7 that featured a satisfying blowout and a three-point game from…Judge Judy?

You can re-watch the game tonight on NBC Sports Washington at 8pm. 


The Capitals showed up to play in the first period and turned a rivalry game into a rout. The Caps fourth line started the scoring less than two minutes into the game. Richard Panik won a chase for a loose puck in the corner and found Garnet Hathaway behind the net. Hathaway fed a wide-open Nic Dowd for the opening tally. 


Right before intermission, Washington struck twice. First it was Jakub Vrana to Nick Backstrom for his 12th of the season. Then it was the fourth line again. Nick Jensen set up Panik near the crease to make it 3-0. 


Pittsburgh started the third period with a man-advantage. Four Pens attackers got too close to the goal line. Carl Hagelin started a 2-on-1 rush by chipping the puck to himself off the board. Hagelin and Dowd played give-and-go before Dowd grabbed his second goal of the contest and his third short-handed goal of the season. 


Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each scored to make things interesting late, but T.J. Oshie put the game away for good with 6:48 remaining. Dowd had a three-point night for Washington while Braden Holtby made 26 saves in a 5-2 win. 


The Backstrom goal was a total team effort that involved all 200 feet of the rink. It started with Backstrom in the defensive end, poking the puck away from Malkin in the corner. Michal Kempny corralled it and started the breakout to Oshie. Oshie slipped a cross-ice pass to Vrana. During the transition, Backstrom flew down the middle of the ice ahead of the Pittsburgh defense. Vrana hit him with a perfect tape-to-tape pass for the score. 



The Capitals were fresh off two losses to the Flyers and Rangers. The Flyers came in to D.C. and handed the Caps a lopsided 5-2 loss. Washington then went on the road and allowed Mika Zibanejad to score five goals in an overtime loss. Those two losses, combined with the Flyers winning eight straight games, allowed Philly to tie Washington on top of the Metro Division. The Caps absolutely had to have this game to stop their slide. 

Let’s go back to the game summary for a minute. Look at the names that populate it. Dowd, Panik, Jensen, Hagelin. As I noted in entry No. 11, when the Caps third and fourth lines contribute, they usually win. Washington is 5-1 when Dowd scores. They are 6-1 when Panik scores. This is how you win playoff series. This is how you go deep in the playoffs. Secondary scoring makes this team tough to beat. 


By the middle of February, Ilya Samsonov had become the de-facto starter. Less than three weeks later, Holtby had his role as the No. 1 goaltender back. He did it by having several games like the one against Pittsburgh. Despite being down early, the Penguins had several opportunities in the second and third period to chip into the lead. Holtby didn’t let them score until late in the game. He even came up with a big stop on a penalty shot right before second intermission. 


We know that hockey players love nicknames. But how in the world did Dowd end up being called “Judge Judy”? It came up in a locker room dispute over a friendly game of sewer ball. Alex Ovechkin was upset with the way that Dowd was officiating the game. Ovechkin derogatorily called him “Judge Judy” and the moniker stuck. Before the game against Pittsburgh, Dowd received a signed autograph picture from the real Judge Judy Sheindlin. Maybe it will become Dowd’s lucky charm. 


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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."


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.


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.


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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