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Once a fan favorite in Washington, Nate Schmidt will play a leading role for Vegas in Stanley Cup Final

Once a fan favorite in Washington, Nate Schmidt will play a leading role for Vegas in Stanley Cup Final

LAS VEGAS—Nate Schmidt has faced his former teammates before. Twice, in fact, with the Golden Knights downing the Caps in each of the teams’ regular season meetings.

This week, though, it’s going to be different.

This week, the stakes will be significantly higher as Schmidt lines up opposite the Caps, the organization that signed him as a free agent out of Minnesota, the one that patiently developed him, the club that liked where his game was headed…but not quite enough to protect him in the expansion draft.

“It was a little bit bittersweet,” Schmidt said of being left exposed. “You thought that you had done enough to put yourself in position to still be in Washington. At the same time, it was sad to leave a good group but [I’m] happy to have had an opportunity [here]. We could all start over [as Golden Knights]. The perception of your game could be remodeled and redone. That’s the coolest part about what we’ve been able to do in Vegas.”

It's safe to say that things worked out well for both Schmidt and the team he was forced to depart. 

Schmidt is the Golden Knights’ ice time leader, skating almost 25 minutes per game, or 2-1/2 minutes more than any other Golden Knight. The 26-year-old also ranks second among Vegas defensemen in points with six (two goals, four assists) in 15 games.

Alex Ovechkin and the Caps, meanwhile, are in the championship round for the first time since 1998. Overcoming the loss of Schmidt wasn’t instantaneous. Actually, Washington’s group of blue liners didn’t find their collective game until GM Brian MacLellan acquired Michal Kempny near the trade deadline.

Schmidt, a fan favorite in Washington who was also among the most popular players in the dressing room, said he’s exchanged text messages with several of his former teammates since the Caps eliminated the Lightning. But he was also quick to point out that it’ll be “all business” once the series begins Monday night at T-Mobile Arena.     

“When you face them in the regular season, you get the emotions out,” Schmidt said of getting used to playing the Caps. “I’m going to have a lot of fun with it. I hope that they’re ready for me to be me on the ice. It should be a great series.”  

Schmidt also joked that he’ll have his head on a swivel when Tom Wilson steps onto the ice.

In addition to attempting to avoid oncoming forecheckers, Schmidt also figures to see his share of Ovechkin. Asked how he plans to play the Caps' captain, Schmidt said he hopes all of his years practicing against No. 8 will serve him well in this series.

It’s going to be weird for Schmidt and his former teammates alike. And, at times, things could get a bit awkward. All that said, Schmidt says he can’t wait for the Final to begin, in part, because he knows so well what it means to both teams—and cities—to be here.

“I love it,” he said with his trademark smile. “It’s going to be great. At the end of the day, you want to so say it’s another game. But it means a lot to this city for us to be here. Who could have scripted this at the expansion draft last year? I don’t think anybody could have. It’s pretty special for both teams. For the proposed window to be back open again in Washington and for us to be here as an expansion [team].”

“This,” he added, “is what you play for.”

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Key Caps questions: How will Samsonov look in his first season in North America?

ilya_samsonov_scout_pruski.jpg
Scout Pruski

Key Caps questions: How will Samsonov look in his first season in North America?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals correspondent JJ Regan is here to help you through the offseason doldrums as he discusses key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: How will Ilya Samsonov play in his first season in North America?

What else is there to say about Samsonov's time in the KHL? In the limited action he saw playing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, he looked every bit the starting goalie the Caps hoped he would one day be when they drafted him in the first round of the 2015 draft. Now, finally, he is ready to start his North America career.

What makes the transition from Europe to North America difficult?

First, Samsonov is adjusting to a new country and a new language. Second, the workload in North America is much larger, even in practice.

"He probably saw more shots today than he saw in a month of practice in Russia and this was nothing," director of player development Steve Richmond said during development camp. "For me, that's the biggest thing for him is to learn how to practice in North America."

And then there's the rink size. The game is faster for goalies in North America because of the smaller rink. Scoring chances develop much more quickly and Samsonov will also be dealing with different angles. It also means dealing with a lot more traffic in front of the net. He is going to have to learn more how to track the puck through a screen and to react much more quickly.

I tried to watch Samsonov closely in development camp. His size definitely stood out. He takes up a lot of the net, but is still very athletic and very quick in and out of the butterfly. As big as he is, however, he seems to play very low to compensate for his size which leaves him vulnerable up high at times. He would make a handful of very good saves, then let in a soft one glove side or in the corners because he was playing too low.

Those areas of his game can be improved on with practice so long as you have the skill and Samsonov certainly has that.

Samsonov has been elite at every level he has played and there is no reason to think that won't continue in the AHL. Having said that, there is just too much he needs to adjust to expect him to be ready for the NHL at this point. He needs as much playing time as possible at the AHL level before he is ready. As long as that's where he spends the season, I expect him to put up similar numbers to the 2.31 GAA, .926 save percentage he managed last season in the KHL.

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Oddsmakers give three Capitals the chance to win MVP in 2018-19

Oddsmakers give three Capitals the chance to win MVP in 2018-19

There are no signs of Alex Ovechkin slowing down heading into his first season after winning a Stanley Cup. Bovada just released their latest odds for the Hart Memorial Trophy (the NHL’s Most Valuable Player Award) and Ovechkin was tied with the third-best odds to win in all of the NHL at 10/1.

He was joined by two other Washington Capitals, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov both at 50/1 odds. 

Here are all the odds for the top 11 players:

Connor McDavid          10/3
Sidney Crosby              13/2
Auston Matthews        10/1
Alex Ovechkin               10/1
Jon Tavares                   10/1
Taylor Hall                     15/1
Nikita Kucherov            15/1
Nathan MacKinnon      15/1
Mark Scheifele              15/1
Anze Kopitar                  18/1
Evgeni Malkin                18/1

The only two players ahead of ‘The Great 8’ are the 21-year-old McDavid and dreaded rival Crosby.

Even with the immense amount of alcohol that has been consumed in the past two months, Ovechkin is still commanding respect in Vegas. It is hard not to when he turns around these intense offseason workouts. At 32, Ovechkin led the NHL in scoring with 49 goals a year ago, the seventh such time he has done so. 

Already the 2018 Conn Smythe winner has three MVP trophies to his name (one more than Crosby) and there is no telling what to expect now that the 11-time All-Star has a Stanley Cup title. 

In his 11 years in the league, Backstrom has never received any votes for the Hart Memorial Trophy. Kuznetsov only has done so once and that was in the 2015-16 season. 

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