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Stanley Cup Final 2018: The ultimate Capitals-Golden Knights preview

Stanley Cup Final 2018: The ultimate Capitals-Golden Knights preview

It is perhaps the most surprising Stanley Cup Final matchup in league history.

Just when you thought the championship window was closed, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals finally exorcised their playoff demons to win the Eastern Conference and advance to the final. They will be playing the Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion team in its very first year in existence that did not even have a roster just one year ago.

Who could have seen this one coming back in September?

The Golden Knights continue to shock the hockey community with every series win. They swept the Los Angeles Kings, dispatched San Jose in six and needed only five games to eliminate the Winnipeg Jets, a team with the second-best record in the regular season who had just eliminated the first place Nashville Predators.

In their very first postseason, Vegas has carried the momentum of a spectacular regular season into a 12-3 record up to the Stanley Cup Final.

But while they may have momentum, the Caps have an air of destiny about them. Not only did they rally from a 2-0 series deficit to win four straight against the Columbus Blue Jackets, they also defeated their archnemesis and the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Against a heavily favored Tampa Bay Lightning squad, the Caps won three out of four road games including an emphatic 4-0 Game 7 win, thus erasing another playoff stigma for the franchise.

These two teams share some common history despite Vegas being in its inaugural season. Though general manager Brian MacLellan has certainly put his own touches on the Caps' roster and molded them into a champion, the core of Washington was still built by George McPhee. Now the Caps will take on a roster completely built from the ground up by McPhee as the general manager of the Golden Knights.

Will Vegas complete its Cinderella season or will the Caps hoist their first ever Cup at the expense of their former GM?

Stanley Cup Final: Washington Capitals vs. Vegas Golden Knights

Schedule

Game 1: Capitals at Golden Knights. Monday, 5/28 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 2: Capitals at Golden Knights. Wednesday, 5/30 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBCSN)
Game 3: Golden Knights at Capitals. Saturday, 6/2 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBCSN)
Game 4: Golden Knights at Capitals. Monday, 6/4 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 5 (if necessary): Capitals at Golden Knights. Thursday, 6/7 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 6 (if necessary): Golden Knights at Capitals. Sunday, 6/10 (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 7 (If Necessary): Capitals at Golden Knights. Wednesday, 6/13 (Broadcast on NBC)

View full detailed schedule here.

2017-18 Team stats

Washington Capitals

  • 49-26-7, 105 points, first in the Metropolitan Division
  • 3.12 goals per game (9th)
  • 2.90 goals against per game (16th)
  • 22.5-percent power play percentage (7th)
  • 80.3 penalty kill percentage (15th)
     

Vegas Golden Knights

  • 51-24-7, 109 points, first in the Pacific Division
  • 3.27 goals per game (5th)
  • 2.74 goals against per game (8th)
  • 21.4 power play percentage (9th)
  • 81.4 penalty kill percentage (11th)

Top Performers

Washington

Goals

Regular season
  1. Alex Ovechkin – 49
  2. Evgeny Kuznetsov – 27
  3. Nicklas Backstrom – 21
Playoffs
  1. Alex Ovechkin - 12
  2. Evgeny Kuznetsov - 11
  3. T.J. Oshie - 7

Assists

Regular season
  1. Evgeny Kuznetsov – 56
  2. John Carlson – 53
  3. Nicklas Backstrom – 50
Playoffs
  1. John Carlson - 13
  2. Evgeny Kuznetsov -13
  3. Nicklas Backstrom - 12

Points

Regular season
  1. Alex Ovechkin – 87
  2. Evgeny Kuznetsov – 83
  3. Nicklas Backstrom – 71
Playoffs
  1. Evgeny Kuznetsov - 24
  2. Alex Ovechkin - 22
  3. John Carlson - 16
  4. Nicklas Backstrom - 16

Vegas

Goals

Regular season
  1. William Karlsson - 43
  2. Erik Haula - 29
  3. Jonathan Marchessault - 27
Playoffs
  1. Jonathan Marchessault - 8
  2. Alex Tuch - 6
  3. William Karlsson - 6

Assists

Regular season
  1. David Perron - 50
  2. Jonathan Marchessault - 48
  3. Reilly Smith - 38
Playoffs
  1. Reilly Smith - 14
  2. Jonathan Marchessault - 10
  3. David Perron - 7
  4. William Karlsson - 7

Points

Regular season
  1. William Karlsson - 78
  2. Jonathan Marchessault - 75
  3. David Perron - 66
Playoffs
  1. Jonathan Marchessault - 18
  2. Reilly Smith - 16
  3. William Karlsson - 13

Goaltending

Washington

Regular season

Braden Holtby: 54 GP, 34-16-4 record, .907 save percentage, 2.99 GAA, 0 shutouts
Philipp Grubauer: 35 GP, 15-10-3 record, .923 save percentage, 2.35 GAA, 3 shutouts

Playoffs

Braden Holtby: 18 GP, 12-6 record, .923 save percentage, 2.04 GAA, 2 shutouts
Philipp Grubauer: 2 GP, 0-1 record, .837 save percentage, 4.55 GAA, 0 shutouts

Vegas

Regular season

March-Andre Fleury: 46 GP, 29-13-4 record, .927 save percentage, 2.24 GAA, 4 shutouts
Malcolm Subban: 22 GP, 13-4-2 record, .910 save percentage, 2.68 GAA, 0 shutouts
Maxime Legace: 16 GP, 6-7-1 record, .867 save percentage, 3.92 GAA, 0 shutouts
Oscar Dansk: 4 GP, 3-0-0 record, .946 save percentage, 1.78 GAA, 1 shutout
Dylan Ferguson: 1 GP, 0-0-0 record, .500 save percentage, 6.50 GAA, 0 shutouts

Playoffs

Marc-Andre Fleury: 15 GP, 12-3 record, .947 save percentage, 1.68 GAA, 4 shutouts

Head-to-head record

Capitals finished with a 0-2-0 record against Vegas

Dec. 23: 3-0 Vegas win

The Caps' first trip to Vegas was a rough one. Washington was taken complete surprise by the speed and forecheck of the Golden Knights who built a 3-0 lead in the first period and ride that all the way to the finish line.

Feb. 4: 4-3 Vegas win

Washington really struggled against the speed and forecheck of Vegas in a mistake-filled game. The Caps saw a 3-2 third period lead evaporate in a 4-3 loss.

X-Factors

1. Goaltending

The Caps have faced elimination only twice in the playoffs and Braden Holtby did not allow a single goal in either game. He enters the Stanley Cup Final having not allowed a single goal in 159:27. Andrei Vasilevskiy began to take over the series with his performance in Game 3, Game 4 and Game 5, but Holtby outplayed him to finish off the series in Washington’s favor. Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, has been the best player in the playoffs. Not the best goalie, the best player.

Both of these goalies are certainly capable of stealing away a series for their respective teams. Which one will outplay the other?

2. Time off

Rust is a real thing in hockey. Just any team when they come off a bye week. When the Caps and Golden Knights take the ice on Monday, May 28, it will be the first game for Vegas since May 20. That’s over a week off.

Yes, getting rest at this time of the year is important, but too much rest leads to rust and that should be a major concern for Vegas, especially for a team that was playing so well and has so much momentum.

3. The McPhee factor

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was the Caps’ general manager for 17 years starting with the 1997-98 season. He knows the players very, very well.

Nicklas Backstrom, Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Christian Djoos, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and of course, Alex Ovechkin were all drafted by McPhee. Jay Beagle was also signed by as an undrafted free agent. Does that give McPhee a bit of an edge when it comes to facing the Caps?

4. Speed

The Golden Knights are fast. When the expansion draft was all said and done it was clear McPhee had targeted two things specifically: defensemen and speed. The result is an exceptionally fast Golden Knights team that no one has been able to keep up with so far.

Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh were both fast teams as well and the Capitals were able to combat that with strong play in the neutral zone. The 1-3-1 trap has given opponents fits and generated a lot of odd-man breaks for the Caps. Will it be as effective against a speedy Vegas team?

Read the full article here.

Players to watch

1. Devante Smith-Pelly: Smith-Pelly had seven goals in 79 games in the regular season. Now he has four goals in just 19 playoff games.

Smith-Pelly has been one of those unlikely playoff heroes for the Caps this postseason with very timely performances such as scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Columbus Blue and scoring the goal that put the game away in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

2. James Neal: Neal came up just short of the Stanley Cup last season as a member of the Nashville Predators. He totaled nine points in 22 games during that run, a number he has already matched in just 15 games this postseason.

Vegas is a young team and their unprecedented success in the playoffs may make this feel like the first run of many for the Golden Knights, but not for Neal who is on the last year of his contract and came tantalizingly close to the Cup last season. He will play like there is no tomorrow because, for him, there may not be in Vegas.

3. Andre Burakovsky: The talent is there for Burakovsky and it certainly appears that the injury that kept him out earlier in the playoffs is largely behind him. His issues have always been mainly between the ears. In a series against a fast team with strong depth, he can be an absolutely critical piece for the Caps. Hopefully, his Game 7 performance gave him the confidence he needs to continue to be effective.

4. Ryan Reaves: Reaves was largely an afterthought in a complicated trade between Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators, but he has carved a nice role for himself on the Golden Knights’ fourth line and even scored the goal that sent Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final against the Winnipeg Jets.

Reaves is also an agitator on the ice, but what do the Caps do against a player like that when their normal fighter plays on the top line? We may see Reaves and Wilson come to blows this series, but it won't be very often because that is a bad tradeoff for the Caps.

5. Brooks Orpik: The elder statesman of the blue line, Orpik is the only player on the Caps with a Stanley Cup to his name and is the only one who has any idea what this experience is going to be like for the team. Despite being the favorite whipping boy for the proponents of analytics, his physical play has been effective this postseason. The focus he placed on the skating in the offseason has paid dividends so far in matchups against the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Golden Knights will be the fastest team they have played yet.

Read the full article here.

Keys to the series

Figure out how to beat Marc-Andre Fleury

No player has been as important to his team this postseason as Fleury is to the Golden Knights. His personal numbers are staggering. Through 15 games, he has a .947 save percentage and has recorded four shutouts. Vegas has lost only three playoff games thus far, but, as dominant as they have been, they certainly are not blowing away the competition. Of their 12 wins, ten of them have come with a margin of victory of two goals or less.

Fleury is the absolute key to the Golden Knights’ success. It’s easier said than done, but if the Caps find a way to beat him consistently, Vegas becomes exponentially more beatable.

Win the neutral zone battle

The Golden Knights are an incredibly fast team. Just to get to this point, the Caps had to beat two other speedy teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They did it primarily by slowing down the offense in the neutral zone with a 1-1-3 trap. As fast as the Penguins and Lightning were, however, the Golden Knights are even faster. Will the trap be as effective against Vegas?

Limit obstruction penalties

When playing against a team with speed, penalties often become a major issue. When trying to defend against fast players, if you get caught flat-footed or out of position, this tends to lead to obstruction penalties like tripping and hooking. 

Vegas’ power play has not been lights out by any means, but you cannot continually give the opposition chances to score by frequently having a player sent to the penalty box.

Get off to good starts

Vegas is 10-1 in the postseason when scoring first. Just getting the puck and keeping up with a team as fast as the Golden Knights is exhausting. Having to then find a way to then beat Fleury when he has a lead to protect is all the more daunting.

Depth scoring

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant likes to roll his four lines. It makes sense since the drop-off between his top line and fourth line is not as dramatic as it is on most NHL teams. The Caps may have a stronger top six, but Vegas can take advantage of other teams’ bottom six.

Washington will probably get more production from its top six than Vegas will, or at the very least it will be a push. The question is what kind of production will each team get from the bottom six? If the Caps have the edge in depth production as well, they will be in good shape.

Read the full story here.

Expert picks

Joe Beninati, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals play-by-play announcer: Capitals in 6
Ryan Billie, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals senior TV producer: Capitals in 7
Tarik El-Bashir, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals Insider: Capitals in 7
Rob Carlin, NBC Sports Washington on-air host of Capitals GameTime and Capitals Extra: Capitals in 6
Al Koken, NBC Sports Washington Capitals on-ice reporter:  Capitals in 6
Courtney Laughlin, Caps FaceOff and Caps Overtime panelist: Capitals in 6
Craig Laughlin, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals color commentator: Capitals in 6
Alan May, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals analyst: Capitals in 6
Grant Paulsen, host of Caps FaceOff and Caps Overtime: Golden Knights in 6
JJ Regan, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals Digital Producer: Capitals in 6

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS:

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Capitals potential trade deadline target: The case for and against depth defense

Capitals potential trade deadline target: The case for and against depth defense

The Washington Capitals are the defending Stanley Cup Champions and are all-in on going for the repeat. Does that mean we could see a trade before the trade deadline?

With the NHL trade deadline rapidly approaching on Feb. 25, there are a number of players believed to be available. But who makes sense for the Caps?

This week, we will be exploring a possible trade deadline target from Monday through Friday and look into why they do and do not make sense for Washington to pursue.

Today’s target: Defensemen Nick Jensen (28, Detroit Red Wings), Ben Lovejoy (34, New Jersey Devils)

Why it makes sense:

Brian MacLellan has added at least one defenseman at the trade deadline every year as the Caps’ general manager and considering the team’s defensive struggles this year in addition to their home run acquisition of Michal Kempny for cheap last season, this seems a much more likely scenario than paying big for a big-name target.

If MacLellan is looking for a low-risk, high reward addition, Jensen seems to fit the bill. He does not add much offensively but is very stout defensively and a strong skater. He is also a right-shot defenseman which adds to his value. Adding a right defenseman gives Washington a bit more flexibility in their defensive pairings.

Right now, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen and Madison Bowey are the only right-handed players among the team’s eight defenseman (including Jonas Siegenthaler, though he is in Hershey). If Washington were to lose either Carlson or Niskanen to injury, they would be very thin on the right.

It doesn’t get much cheaper than Jensen’s total cap hit of $812,500. Washington could conceivably afford to add him without giving up a roster player to free up cash.

Lovejoy is also a right-shot defenseman, though he is older and more expensive than Jensen. While Jensen is a No. 4 or 5 defenseman and could play on either the second or third pairing, Lovejoy would strictly be a depth move. Because of that, however, and the fact that he is on the final year of his contract with a New Jersey team that is not headed to the playoffs this season, the Caps could probably get him with a very cheap trade.

Todd Reirden has some familiarity with Lovejoy as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Teams tend to go through a lot of defensemen on lengthy playoff runs. Adding some depth on the blue line certainly couldn’t hurt.

Why it doesn’t make sense

The Red Wings are reportedly interested in re-signing Jensen so he may not even be available. If Detroit is indeed interested in bringing him back, then his price tag on the trade market just went up. Washington would have to sweeten a trade to the point that the Red Wings decide it makes more sense to trade him than to re-sign him.

Lovejoy is older, slower, has a larger cap hit and just is not as good as Jensen. Unless the Caps take a swing at Jensen and miss, there is no real point in going after Lovejoy or giving up pretty much anything to get him. He just would not add that much to Washington’s lineup.

Experience is a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s great that Reirden knows Lovejoy and could potentially know how best to utilize him. On the other hand, coaches sometimes can rely on what’s familiar too much.

Lovejoy should not be playing over Christian Djoos or Jonas Siegenthaler, but he is a right-shot defenseman and has experience so it would not be a big surprise to see Lovejoy get into the lineup on a semi-regular basis. If Washington were to add Lovejoy and was playing more than some of the Caps’ younger talent, they would have actually made themselves worse, not better.

Verdict

The addition of Jensen would be a huge boost for Washington and, in my opinion, he should be at the top of the trade deadline wish list for MacLellan. Even if it means overpaying slightly in a trade to get Detroit on board, this looks like it would be a great move.

The same can’t be said for Lovejoy. Depth defense is important, but I would not play him over Djoos, Siegenthaler or Bowey. What is a ninth defenseman worth? Probably less than what New Jersey would ask for him.

CAPITALS POTENTIAL TRADE TARGETS:

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Grading the past trade deadline moves of Brian MacLellan's tenure with the Capitals

Grading the past trade deadline moves of Brian MacLellan's tenure with the Capitals

ARLINGTON -- It is that time of year. 

The NHL season is approaching the final 25 games, general managers have a good sense of how good their team is and how much help they need to reach the playoffs, to make a deep run, to win a Stanley Cup. 
 
The trade deadline is Feb. 25. In most cases the decision to add has been made already. It’s just a matter of finding a match. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan has played it several ways during his four previous cracks at the deadline. He has tweaked at the margins of a loaded team, he has swung for the fences to push a Stanley Cup contender over the top and he has made small moves that helped swing a season. With 10 days to go before the deadline, here is a look at MacLellan’s first four trade deadlines.  

2015

In his first year as GM, with a new coaching staff and some upgrades on the blueline with Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, MacLellan was in a pickle. The Capitals were solidly in a playoff spot, but not really a good one. They owned the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference on Feb. 24 with 20 games to go. They had 76 points and were nine clear of the Boston Bruins, who held the second wild-card berth. 
 
Washington was going to be in the tournament. MacLellan needed to figure out if it was worth pushing to get better. The Capitals were in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, but only four points behind the first-place New York Islanders (Huh…sounds familiar). The New York Rangers (80) and Pittsburgh Penguins (79) were in between.     
 
The moves:
MacLellan acquired defenseman Tim Gleason from the Carolina Hurricanes for defenseman Jack Hillen and a 2015 fourth-round pick on Feb. 28. He was desperate for a healthy body on the blueline. Dmitry Orlov wasn’t coming back from a wrist injury and Nate Schmidt was recovering from a broken shoulder blade suffered in the minors. Neither player was a proven commodity yet anyway. Cam Schilling was playing on the third pair. MacLellan decided he needed a veteran. 
 
Gleason was 34 and past his prime, but probably better than the alternative. Schmidt wasn’t quite ready for prime time and didn’t appear in the playoffs. Gleason played in 17 games down the stretch and in all 14 playoff games as Washington advanced to the second round against the New York Rangers before suffering a crushing overtime defeat in Game 7. Gleason played just a handful of shifts in Games 6 and 7 against the Rangers. He retired after the season.
 
On March 1, MacLellan made maybe his worst trade. Trying to upgrade his forward depth, he gave up 2015 second and third-round picks for Calgary Flames forward Curtis Glencross. At age 32, he, too, was fading. Twice a 20-plus goal scorer for the Flames, Glencross had just nine goals when the Capitals acquired him. But his best days were only three years earlier and he seemed a good fit.  He played 18 regular-season games to get acclimated and had four goals and three assists. But he was basically a fourth liner in the postseason with just one goal in 10 games. He was scratched four times, including Game 7 against the Rangers. 
 
If your key trade pickup can’t get in the lineup with a trip to the Eastern Conference final on the line, that’s a giant fail. The Capitals finished second in the Metro and made a great playoff run anyway, but MacLellan didn’t do much to help this group at all. Glencross and Gleason never played again. And the cost was almost wiping out the entire 2015 draft. The Caps did have an extra second-round pick (Jonas Siegenthaler) and held onto their first rounder (Ilya Samsonov).  
 
Grade: D 
 
Analysis: The intention was good given the Capitals were coming off a year out of the playoffs and didn’t look like a championship team. MacLellan tweaked the margins of his roster, which proved to be better than expected come playoff time. Gleason was a warranted move that didn’t work out. The team gave up way too much for Glencross, who was clearly not the same player he’d been. That should have been more obvious.

2016

What to get the team that has everything? A group of emerging young players combined with stalwarts Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson, summer trade acquisition T.J. Oshie and free agent Justin Williams, Mr. Game 7 himself, fueled the NHL’s best team. Ten days before the Feb. 29 trade deadline the Capitals had a ridiculous 90 points with 25 games to go. They were way ahead in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy. 
 
MacLellan didn’t want to mess with team chemistry so he added defenseman Mike Weber in a Feb. 23 deal with the Buffalo Sabres and upgraded his fourth line by grabbing Daniel Winnik from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Brooks Laich, defenseman Connor Carrick and a 2016 fifth-round pick. It wasn’t much of a price. Laich was on his way out after years with the team, Carrick, 21, was way down the organizational depth chart. Winnik had two goals and three assists in 20 games down the stretch playing a bottom-six role. He was a bust in the playoffs without a point, but his time would come the following year. 
 
Weber made it into the lineup just 10 times in March and April and appeared in two playoff games. The Capitals had Carlson, Niskanen, Orlov, Schmidt and a hobbled Karl Alzner. Taylor Chorney was the primary fill in when Orpik missed six playoff games thanks to a concussion in the first round against Philadelphia and a three-game suspension in the second round against Philadelphia. 
 
Washington made it to Game 6 against the Penguins before falling in overtime in a bitter disappointment. MacLellan had chosen not to take a swing at a big-name defenseman and the suspension/injuries to Orpik and Alzner (groin), who didn’t miss a game but played hurt, left the blueline thin in a titanic series. At the time it was hard to blame MacLellan. It still is. But he would internalize the lesson the next year: You can’t ever have enough depth on defense. 
 
Grade: C
 
Analysis: Not making a move was understandable given how good Washington was at that point. It was a championship-caliber team. But Weber was a non-factor and while Winnik was a nice addition he wasn’t going to tilt the scales against a team like the Penguins. When injuries and bad luck struck, the Capitals weren’t quite good enough to match the Penguins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.  

2017

Maybe the Capitals weren’t quite as good as the previous year. But they had 85 points in 58 games 10 days before the March 1 trade deadline, had a small lead over the Penguins and again were the favorites to win the Presidents’ Trophy. Who’s complaining? MacLellan could have gone down the same path and stayed pat. If anything he had more reason to do so. 
 
Winnik scored a career-high 12 goals on a killer fourth line with Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson. The addition of Lars Eller in a trade over the summer solidified the third-line center role and they were as deep as any team at that position with Backstrom and Kuznetsov. Brett Connolly had a career-high 15 goals and he and Andre Burakovsky (12 goals) provided depth scoring. Even with Alex Ovechkin’s relatively meager 33 goals the Capitals were fine. Oshie had 33. Williams and Marcus Johansson had 24, Backstrom had 23. The top five defenseman (Carlson, Orpik, Orlov, Niskanen, Alzner) were back and Schmidt proved he could handle a bigger role in an injury-shortened 60 games. Where’s the hole to fill?
 
The move: MacLellan, though, remembered how close his team had been the year before and another series against the Penguins seemed inevitable. He made one deal and it was a doozy. Washington, the best team in the league for the second year in a row, traded for St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, the best available at his position. 
 
An offensive wizard, Shattenkirk had already topped 40 points in a season for the fifth time in six seasons – and the only time he didn’t was in a lockout-shortened 2012-13. The Capitals suddenly looked unbeatable. Given that St. Louis had waited so long to trade the pending free agent, it had little leverage. MacLellan gave up forward prospect Zach Sanford, center Brad Malone and a 2017 first-round draft pick. If every you’re going to give up a first that’s the time. 
 
But there was an unseen cost: Shattenkirk was a power-play specialist. It was a waste to not use him there. That meant Carlson had to give up his job with the top unit even though he was good at it. It meant the defensive pairs were altered even though they were working. Thrust into an absolute pressure cooker, deemed the player that would push Washington over the top and get it a Stanley Cup for the first time, Shattenkirk never seemed comfortable. Shattenkirk had two goals and 14 assists in 19 games playing with elite talent. But while a very good puck-moving defenseman, he was prone to mistakes as he learned a new system with new teammates. He also was nowhere near in top condition, which limited him and surprised Washington. 
 
The Capitals finished the regular season 14-6-1. They again won the Metro and the Presidents’ Trophy. But Shattenkirk epitomized their issues. The crushing weight of pressure and expectation proved too much. They survived a feisty Toronto Maple Leafs team in the first round in six games, but fell behind 3-1 in the rematch with Pittsburgh in the second round. Shattenkirk actually had a huge goal with the overtime winner on the road in Game 3. He had a goal and five assists in 13 postseason games. He was good. But he wasn’t the guy to push Washington over the top. The Caps rallied to force a Game 7, but came unglued when Pittsburgh took a lead in the second period of the deciding game and looked lifeless as their season ended in a 2-0 loss. 
 
Grade: A- 
 
Analysis: You have to make this trade. Banners fly forever, the Capitals were the best team in the league and you never know when injuries will hit. Shattenkirk’s presence altered the roster’s chemistry, though, and it was already a fragile group given the expectations. They knew multiple players would be gone after the season thanks to free agency and a salary-cap crunch. It didn’t work out. It was worth the risk.     

2018

A mood of total grief took over after that devastating loss that lasted for months. Johansson was traded for draft picks (New Jersey Devils), Williams (Carolina Hurricanes), Shattenkirk (New York Rangers), Alzner (Montreal Canadiens) and Winnik (Minnesota Wild) left in free agency and Schmidt (Vegas Golden Knights) was swiped in the expansion draft. There was little room to do anything except sign its own players to extensions (Oshie, Kuznetsov, Orlov) and try to fill out a weakened roster. MacLellan didn’t even give coach Barry Trotz a contract extension so he was a lame duck. 
 
Yet despite all of that, the Capitals STILL were in first place in the Metro 10 days before the Feb. 26 deadline. They had 73 points and weren’t going to win a Presidents’ Trophy. Even taking the Metro looked dicey with the Penguins just a point back. But they were in the mix again. Ovechkin looked on his way to 50 goals (he fell one shy), Kuznetsov had 83 points, Backstrom had 70 and Philipp Grubauer helped make up for Braden Holtby’s up-and-down regular season in goal. The blueline was shakier than it had been in a while with Orpik forced into a top-four role with Niskanen, Carlson, who led all NHL defensemen in points (68) and Orlov. 
 
A nice rookie season from Jakub Vrana (13 goals, 14 assists) helped make up some of the goals lost and Connolly (15 goals) was productive again . But for the first time MacLellan had all kinds of holes to fill. For more than half the season he was playing two rookies (Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos) as the third pair. Vrana and Burakovsky were plugging holes at wing on the second and third lines, but the fourth line around Beagle was always in flux. 
 
The moves: This time MacLellan’s scouts searched for an underutilized player who could help stabilize the Capitals’ weaknesses. They figured they were good enough at forward. But they saw Michal Kempny was playing limited time with the Chicago Blackhawks and frustrated. On Feb. 19, just a few days after getting blown out in Chicago, they traded for him. It took a few games, but Kempny is a good skater and he and Carlson became an excellent tandem. Niskanen and Orlov took on tough assignments and thrived. That allowed Orpik to play with one of the rookies on the third pair. Another minor trade for Jakub Jerabek gave Washington depth to go with Bowey and Djoos in case of injuries. 
 
Kempny wasn’t the best player available. On most other playoff teams he’d have made a limited ripple. But he was a perfect puzzle piece for the Capitals. Sure, other things had to go right. Trotz pulled Grubauer as the starting goalie two games into the playoffs and Holtby responded beautifully. The stars almost all dominated. Unsung heroes like Devante Smith-Pelly came through. Eller’s overtime goal prevented an 0-3 deficit against Columbus in the first round. But the overall stability of the blueline made all of those things possible and Kempny was the trade that made that happen. They won their first Stanley Cup. 
 
Grade: A+
 
Analysis: MacLellan’s scouts found him an underutilized piece that fit. He wasn’t a big name like Shattenkirk and he wasn’t an over-the-hill veteran that could help some, but not enough in a close series against a good team. Those are the type of trades that make contenders into champions. If it was easy to replicate they’d do it every year. Luck plays a huge role. But with his defending champs again in the playoff mix and again with some issues to sort through, MacLellan needs another one of these deadline deals to give his team the best chance to repeat.

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