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Oshie is out, Smith-Pelly is in for Game 5: What that means for the Caps’ offense

Oshie is out, Smith-Pelly is in for Game 5: What that means for the Caps’ offense

ARLINGTON – The Capitals forward lines will look very different when they take the ice for Game 5 against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday. T.J. Oshie will be out after suffering an upper-body injury late in Game 4 while Devante Smith-Pelly, who was called up from the Hershey Bears on Friday, will be in.

“I do expect him to go right into the lineup,” head coach Todd Reirden said.

Smith-Pelly was one of the team’s playoff heroes in its 2018 Stanley Cup run, scoring seven goals in 24 games. After a rocky regular season, he was sent down to Hershey prior to the NHL trade deadline where he has scored six goals and eight assists in 20 games.

“To get his game back to where it was last year around this time, it was important for him to play a lot of minutes,” Reirden said. “He went down to Hershey, and he played a lot of minutes, helped them have success, helped them get into the playoffs. When an injury and a chance for him to step into our lineup was available, then we were going to recall him. That's been our plan all along. Now he'll get that opportunity."

Whether the Caps are getting playoff Smith-Pelly or the player who struggled this season remains to be seen, but his pending return seems to have provided a boost to the locker room.

“He was with us all the way last year, so that’s huge,” Chandler Stephenson said. “He knows playoff hockey.”

“He can step up in the important moments,” Jakub Vrana said. “He showed it last year and we’re happy to have him back.”

Getting that boost from Smith-Pelly is important for the team after losing one of its leaders and locker room personalities in Oshie.

Reirden said Oshie was still meeting with doctors and could not give a definitive timeline yet. He did say, however, that Oshie was out indefinitely and would not be playing Saturday.

"He's certainly, I feel, one of the top leaders in the entire league,” Reirden said. “Not just with how he plays, who he is as a human being on the ice, off the ice, role model. You can go on a lot of different ways with the type of person that T.J. Oshie is and not having him around your players is not great. That loss will be felt.”

The Hurricanes certainly will not be crying over the loss of Oshie, however, and it falls now on Reirden to adjust. That will be no easy task.

The Caps have been held to one goal in the past two games, have gotten virtually no secondary scoring in the first four games of the series and now will be without the team’s second-leading goal scorer from the regular season.

“It has been top heavy,” Reirden said of the offense. “Just even 5-on-5 scoring is not where we need it to be and particularly, obviously, the last two games. We've got to find ways to generate offense. It's always tougher to create in the playoffs. You know, teams don't give up quite as much on the rush. They're a lot more committed to not giving up odd-man rushes to the opposition. We've got to find a way to get in on the forecheck more and impose a little bit more of a physical style of play on their defense and that comes with our puck management and putting pucks in behind them. Then when we have space, we've got to use it.”

Friday’s practice was an optional skate meaning we did not get to see any lines or how Reirden may be planning to shift the offense. With Oshie out, this could give Reirden an opportunity to reunite the Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson line that was so effective in last year’s postseason. Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin, meanwhile, seem like the most likely candidates to move into a top-six role in Oshie’s absence.

Washington struggled immensely trying to replace a top-six right wing early in the season when Tom Wilson missed 16 games due to a suspension. Reirden tried to plug in Connolly, Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin, among others. Nothing seemed to work until Wilson returned.

The addition of Hagelin at the trade deadline means Washington is dealing with more offensive depth now than when Wilson was out. Plus, past experiences both from this season’s multiple injuries and last postseason give the team confidence that it can overcome any loss to the roster.

“We've been in situations where we've lost one of our leaders,” Vrana said. “We have a pretty good group of players here and anybody can fill-in and bring their A-games to the game."

“I think just a handful of games where we actually had our actual opening day roster that we wanted to have in front of us,” Reirden said. “It's something we've gone through a lot this year. We've done a good job, our team has of stepping up in those situations and taking advantage of the opportunity.”

Smith-Pelly will likely slot into the bottom-six upon his return to the lineup. Reirden acknowledged it had been a while since Smith-Pelly had played in the NHL and said he would ease him back in. But he is still expecting him to make a big impact, regardless of what line he plays on.

Reirden hopes that Smith-Pelly’s playing style can help improve the team in some of the areas it has struggled in the past two games.

"I don't think we've been as physical on our forecheck as we could have hoped after four games of evaluating,” Reirden said. “Some of it is that we're not getting in enough to forecheck and when we are, we haven't been as physical as maybe we have been in past series in a prior time. This is an impact that [Smith-Pelly] can have. They're a high shot-volume team as we talk about, so in D-zone coverage he's an excellent shot-blocker, pays the price that way. And when things get more difficult, he seems to relish in that and step up to the plate and obviously delivered some big goals for us. Those are some things we're looking for.”

But Washington’s success will not be dependent solely on the addition of Smith-Pelly. The rest of the forwards know they have to step up as well.

“I haven’t found the net lately, I know that,” Vrana said who has yet to score this series. “I’ve been working on it in today’s practice and tomorrow is a new game. Come with a positive mind and go period by period and focus on winning the game.”

“I think there's another level from everybody,” Reirden said. “Some guys have played better than others, but I don't think we're at our peak by any means yet.”

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Defensive breakdowns, Evgeny Kuznetsov benched and the Capitals' penalty kill put to the test

Defensive breakdowns, Evgeny Kuznetsov benched and the Capitals' penalty kill put to the test

The Philadelphia Flyers' dominance over the Capitals carried over from the regular season into Thursday's 3-1 round robin win, as Washington was eliminated from contention for the top seed in the East.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

The Flyers forced the Caps into defensive breakdowns

The first of Philadelphia's three goals was a bad turnover by Radko Gudas. The other two were defensive breakdowns forced by the Flyers' movement in the offensive zone.

In the second period, Kevin Hayes had all eyes on him as he stickhandled around in Washington's defensive zone. He battled with Jonas Siegenthaler in the corner, then retreated to the top of the circle, closely followed by Siegenthaler. Dmitry Orlov stayed on Scott Laughton. That left room for Travis Sanheim who skated in behind the right side of the defense. Hayes found him with a seam pass and he beat Holtby one-on-one for Philadelphia's second goal.

That player in the top left doing a double-take? That's Evgeny Kuznetsov. He was in front of the net, skated away and reacted to Sanheim going in on net too late. More on him later.

In the third period, Orlov went behind the net after Travis Konecny who passed it off to Hayes. Siegenthaler went after Hayes while Konecny stopped behind the net. As Hayes stickhandled on the right, Laughton charged in from the left where there was no defense to be found. Kuznetsov recognized the net was open and parked in front, but was too far up and was caught standing when Hayes made the seam pass. Laughton put the puck into the net before Kuznetsov even reacted.

"It's a breakdown in coverage and they take advantage of it," Reirden said. "It's individual responsibilities that happen from mistakes prior to that. That's how goals happen and we have to execute better with the puck to give ourselves the chance to play in the offensive zone. We need to be better, we need more from everybody right down our list."

In both situations, the defensive was drawn away from the front of the net. It was Kuznetsov's responsibility to cover the front for the defense and he did not do a good enough job. Both mistakes resulted in goals.

And we know these plays were breakdowns by Kuznetsov because....

Reirden was displeased with Kuznetsov

Kuznetsov got tangled near the end of the first period and was slow to get up and skate to the bench. He returned for the start of the second period, but played only three shifts in the third. Because of what happened in the first period, I assumed this was because of an injury and I asked Reirden for an update on Kuznetsov's status after the game.

"How we break down ice time and use certain guys, we're going with who's playing the best at that time," Reirden said. "We need a different level of play and we know we have it. It's not a secret. We have a different level of play and we need to get to it if we want to have success. We need more from everybody and we didn't have that."

What Reirden appears to be saying here while trying not to single out Kuznetsov is that Kuznetsov was benched.

Kuznetsov's last shift came with 11:23 left in the third period. That was the Laughton goal in which Kuznetsov was caught standing in front of the net.

Too many penalties

I'll keep this one short because it's fairly obvious. You can't give up six power plays in the first two periods of a game and hope to win. And those penalties were blatant.

No, it's not just because it's the round robin

Sorry, you can't explain this loss away by just saying it was the round robin and the Caps are looking past this towards the playoffs.

Yes, Washington was without Carlson who is being held out, we believe, as a precaution, but Philadelphia started Brian Elliott in net over starter Carter Hart and James van Riemsdyk was out for them. Both teams made roster decisions with an eye on the playoffs, but one of them played much better than the other. I don't think Thursday's game was a product of the Caps not taking a round robin game seriously, it was just a bad game.

Turning point

When Tampa Bay went up 2-0 against the Caps on Monday, the Caps ramped up the intensity and rallied to tie the game before the end of the second period. When Philadelphia went up 2-0 on Thursday, the goal was completely deflating and I don't think anyone watching the game had any real confidence the Caps were going to be able to rally from this one. Hayes just stickhandled as much as he wanted until the seam opened up for Sanheim. That 2-0 lead felt like 5-0 at that point.

Play of the game

The game was leaning more and more in favor of the Flyers in the second period, but a 3-on-1 opportunity for Philadelphia could have made things even worse if not for the pad save by Braden Holtby.

Stat of the game

Washington's lone goal on the night came from Travis Boyd. It was his first playoff point.

Boyd played in two games during the 2018 Cup run but did not record a point in either game. While this may be the "round robin" and not a playoff series, these points do technically count as playoff points.

Quote of the game

Reirden summed this one up pretty well: "You need everybody’s top game. And we didn’t have that tonight. That’s really, to me, the story of this game, is that we need more from everybody.”

To end on a lighter note, Boyd was asked about his goal and said, "First playoff goal, I guess I will take that."

T.J. Oshie then cut in saying, "Many more to come."

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Flyers continue their dominance over the Capitals in round robin win

Flyers continue their dominance over the Capitals in round robin win

The Philadelphia Flyers had the Capitals' number in the regular season and that carried over to the postseason even five months later. Travis Boyd scored the Caps' lone goal in a lackluster performance as they fell 3-1 to the Flyers on Thursday. The loss means Washington will finish third or fourth in the round robin.

Here's why the Caps lost.

Too many penalties

Washington did not give up a single power play in the first round robin game against Tamap Bay. The team certainly made up for lost time on Thursday with a parade to the penalty box. The Caps faced six power plays all through the first two periods. This was not just a case of referees calling the game tight, these were blatant, obvious, bone-headed penalties.

The penalty kill was actually very good and finished perfect on the day, killing off all six power plays. That's good, but the effect of taking so many penalties was evident. Washington was chasing the play, the offense had no rhythm and no momentum.

On Monday, a T.J. Oshie fight sparked the team to rally from a two-goal deficit. On Thursday, the team was playing physically, but it was just reckless and completely took them out of their game.

RELATED: ALL OF THE ROUND ROBIN SCENARIOS TIED TO CAPITALS VS. FLYERS

Faceoffs

You can't score if you don't have the puck. Metrics like Corsi are used to measure possession and in that category Washington broke even at 50-percent. But in another possession metric, Washington was blitzed: The faceoff.

When a team wins a faceoff, they begin the play with possession and Philadelphia got the better of the Caps by a wide margin, winning 67-percent of the faceoffs.

The Flyers were the best faceoff team through the regular season and that was evident on Thursday as they dominated the Caps at the dot.

A bad turnover

Radko Gudas will want this one back. With the puck on his stick behind the goal line, Gudas put on the brakes to shake off the pressure from Travis Konecny. Konecny skated by, but Gudas put the puck on his backhand and tried to pass it through Kevin Hayes who easily picked it off along the boards. Suddenly the Caps were out of position and Konecny was wide open in front of the net. He took the pass, delivered a pretty no-look spin pass behind him to Scott Laughton for the slam dunk.

Nicklas Backstrom clipped the skate of Braden Holtby on the play, not allowing Holtby the chance to stretch out for the save attempt on Laughton, but frankly, he was not going to get there anyway.

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The Flyers' movement

Philadelphia generated a lot of room in the offensive zone with the constant movement of its forwards. This seems obvious -- it's hockey, after all -- but the Caps' defense could not keep up.

Hayes had all eyes on him as he stickhandled around in Washington's defensive zone. He battled with Jonas Siegenthaler in the corner, then retreated to the top of the circle, closely followed by Siegenthaler. Dmitry Orlov drifted up and to the left, Siegenthaler's side, as Hayes continued to stickhandle. That left room for Travis Sanheim who skated in behind the right side of the defense. Hayes found him and he beat Holtby one-on-one for Philadelphia's second goal.

In the third period, Orlov went behind the net after Travis Konecny who passed it off to Hayes. Siegenthaler went after Hayes while Konecny stopped behind the net. As Hayes stickhandled on the right, Laughton charged in from the left where there was no defense to be found. Kuznetsov recognized the net was open and parked in front, but was too far up. Laughton put the puck into the net before Kuznetsov or either of the two defensemen could even react.

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