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Stanley Cup Playoffs 2019: Six reasons the Hurricanes are a good first-round matchup for the Capitals

Stanley Cup Playoffs 2019: Six reasons the Hurricanes are a good first-round matchup for the Capitals

Though anything can happen in a playoff series and the NHL postseason can remind all teams to be careful what you wish for, here’s why a first-round series with the Hurricanes looks like a good one for the Caps.

After the long regular season, the Capitals’ defense of the Stanley Cup will begin in earnest on Thursday when Washington hosts the Carolina Hurricanes in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the NHL, any team can beat any other team on any given night and, as history has shown us, in any given series. The Caps will certainly have their hands full against a surprising Carolina team that managed to climb into the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Having said that, going into the final game of the season, the Caps could have played the Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins or Columbus Blue Jackets in the First Round. Carolina certainly appeared to be the most favorable matchup for Washington.

Though anything can happen in a playoff series and the NHL postseason can remind all teams to be careful what you wish for, here’s why a first-round series with the Hurricanes looks like a good one for the Caps.

Washington swept the regular season series

What happens in the regular season does not necessarily translate in the playoffs. The Caps know that better than most, but it is still encouraging for them to know that they beat Carolina in all four games they faced one another this season.

Two of those wins came just over a week ago when Washington faced the Hurricanes in a home-and-home. The Caps needed points to maintain their lead over the division while Carolina was still very much in the playoff hunt. Those were important games. Washington won both.

Carolina’s offense

For the season, the Hurricanes scored 2.96 goals per game. That’s the second lowest among playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. They certainly have some dangerous weapons with Sebastian Aho, Teuovo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov. Justin Williams’ playoff resume speaks for itself and Nino Niederreiter has found his offensive touch since getting traded from Minnesota.

Carolina, however, does not have the sort of offensive depth that can stretch a defense thin which is good news for a Capitals team that is still tinkering with its defensive pairings after the loss of Michal Kempny to injury. Facing one of the less potent offenses in the playoffs will be a good way for Todd Reirden to solidify the defense.

Even if the Hurricanes do manage to light up Washington’s blue line, the Caps are still a much deeper offensive team and should have no trouble keeping up.

A battle of first-year head coaches

Coaching in the playoffs is a completely different experience than in the regular season. Rather than having one or two nights to scout and game plan for an opponent, you have several days to focus on one and only one team. How you approach matchups, lines, defensive pairing, strategy all changes in the playoffs.

This will be Reirden’s first postseason as an NHL head coach. While he has successfully navigated the Caps to a division title, you would have to give the coaching edge in a series to a more experienced head coach. Instead, Reirden will be battling wits with Rod Brind’Amour.

Brind’Amour should be commended for the job he has done in Carolina this year, guiding the team back to the playoffs for the first time in a decade, but he will bring just as much NHL head coaching experience as Reirden will.

The goalies

Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney deserve a lot of credit for what they were able to accomplish this season. Mrazek most likely enters the playoffs as the team’s starter after an incredible stretch to close out the season. Since March 1, Mrazek started in 10 games and won eight with a .942 save percentage and 1.79 GAA. Those are some incredible numbers. In his limited playoff experience (11 games) he has also managed an impressive .927 save percentage and 1.98 GAA.

But with all due respect to Mrazek and McElhinney, anyone who believes going into this series that Carolina has the edge in net is fooling themselves. Perhaps Mrazek can stay hot and maintain that pace in the playoffs, but you would be hard-pressed to find a coach in the league who would take him over Braden Holtby, if given the choice. In fact, if you offered every playoff team that chance to switch goalie tandems with Carolina there are probably only two that would consider it (Calgary and San Jose). Holtby, meanwhile, is one of the top netminders in the entire NHL and has the third-best save percentage in playoff history (.929).

Strong goaltending is one of the reasons Carolina got into the playoffs, but the Capitals will still come into the series with an edge between the pipes.

The Caps are just as hot as Carolina

Sometimes success in the playoffs can come down to which team gets hot at the right time. One reason to be wary of this series is the fact that the Hurricanes are one of the hottest teams in the NHL…or at least it would be if the Caps were not just as hot.

Since the All-Star break, Carolina has gone 22-9-1, just one point better than Washington’s 21-9-2. Since the trade deadline, the Caps and Hurricanes both earned 27 points, but Washington did it in one fewer game (Caps were 13-5-1, Hurricanes were 13-6-1).

It beats the alternative

On the last day of the season it came down to Carolina, Pittsburgh or Columbus in the First Round for Washington. While the Caps are a better team from top to bottom than the Penguins this season and should have the offensive depth to be able to beat a blue line with both Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson on it, it is still Pittsburgh and they still have Sidney Crosby. The unexpected always seems to happen in a rivalry and Crosby is a wild card in any playoff series he is in. The Penguins are always a tough out.

The Caps were one goal away from going down 3-0 in their first-round series against Columbus last season. Even after a year to think about it, they still seem pretty mad. Since then, the Blue Jackets added Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. They have the offensive depth to match Washington, one of the top defensive pairs in hockey in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones and one of the top goalies in the NHL. If Sergei Bobrovsky can ever figure out how to play in the postseason, they are going to be a formidable playoff team.

Considering this, Carolina looked like the best matchup overall for the Caps of those three teams.

But this is the NHL and this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Be careful what you wish for.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What is the Caps' biggest need?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What is the Caps' biggest need?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Douglas Forsyth writes: With the deadline quickly arriving, what is the number one thing the Caps will look to get? Maybe figuring out what’s wrong with our power play?

I would put defense as a much bigger priority than the power play. Besides, I don't think you are going to get personnel better for that top unit than it currently has and then you have to shoehorn whatever forward you get into a lineup that seems pretty much set.

No, it's definitely defense.

Brian MacLellan has acquired a defenseman every year since taking over as general manager and given that a right defenseman is the team's biggest need, I would not anticipate that changing this year.

Bill Bridges writes: Are there any pending UFA defensemen out there that Brian MacLellan could swing a deal for with picks and a prospect and maybe some retained salary?

The fact that no one ever seems to think they are out of the playoff race anymore thanks in large part to the three-point system (one point for overtime and shootout losers) complicates this as it limits your options. Who are the actual sellers? Now, considering MacLellan will probably be looking for a diamond in the rough type of player, perhaps teams who feel like they have something to play for would be more open to losing a depth piece, but that remains to be seen.

Take this with a grain of salt as I am not a scout and about 90-percent of the hockey I watch is of the Caps, but a guy like Tim Heed would make sense. He plays for San Jose so it is realistic that they would be open for business, his cap his $960,000 and he does not play a significant role on that team. Maybe the scouts hate him, but he is a righty and when he does play it's not sheltered minutes and he still has managed a Corsi-For percentage above 50.

Like I said, perhaps the scouts don't think much of his game, but that at least is an example of the type of player I think Washington is realistically looking at.

Amelia Byrne writes: What's the deal with the power play and when should we start to panic? The PP has struggled mightily since December - a problem that was evident at the end of last year's season. Now we are seeing too many short-handed goals. With so much talent, how is it possible that they are struggling so much?

When it comes to shorthanded goals, it's mental. Those goals are a result of a frustrated unit pressing too much to break out of the slump. These are just bad mistakes that you would not normally see. Washington has allowed five shorthanded goals this season and all five of them have come since December.

Last year the power play really struggled at breaking the puck into the offensive zone. That has not been the issue this year. Now they just don't seem to know what to do when they get set up.

The problem is that everyone knows what the Caps are trying to do and the power play does not throw enough wrinkles into the plan to catch PKers off guard. The Caps want to get the puck to T.J. Oshie in the slot or Alex Ovechkin in the office. That's it. That's the plan. So what do opponents do? They try to keep the puck from getting to either player. The Caps are far too slow and methodical with the puck with seemingly no sense of urgency and when they can't get the passes they want, there is a lot of stickhandling and slow passes back and forth until time runs out or they force a pass and it ends up going in the opposite direction.

The amount of room teams give Nicklas Backstrom on the power play is criminal and it is because he does not shoot enough. He has to shoot more to force the penalty kill to cover him. The same goes for Evgeny Kuznetsov. When teams have to account for shots from those two shooting, things will open up for Oshie and Ovechkin.

If that does not work, my second solution would be to redistribute talent among the two power-play units and have a second unit that could actually be a threat to score. With all due respect to Brendan Leipsic, if he's the guy Kuznetsov is trying to set up in the Ovechkin spot, it's no wonder why Washington leans as heavily on the top unit as it does.

The Kuznetsov/Vrana switch is grasping at straws. Vrana on the goal line does not take advantage of his shot while Kuznetsov does not have enough snipers to set up on the second unit. It is not a viable solution. If you want to shake things up, maybe move Vrana to Ovechkin's spot on the second unit where he will better be able to shoot, switch Oshie with Wilson to give the second unit another weapon and have Kuznetsov in Backstrom's spot on the half-wall to run the power play. That way you have some scorers on that second unit and you are better utilizing each player's skillset.

Shawn Collins writes: You know what I wanna see a few games of? Flipping the forwards on the third and fourth lines. Send Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik down to the 4th and put Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway up with Lars Eller. I love Leipsic's pop/energy when he's on the ice and he and Hathaway seem to have a thing. Eller may be a good glue for them. The third line has kinda been a mess all year.

If you want to experiment, now is the time to do it I guess, but I don't know what everyone's rush is to move the fourth line up. You have arguably the best fourth line in hockey. That's an asset. Why then try to force fourth line players into a third-line role? Leipsic and Hathaway may be top-tier fourth line players, but they are definitely fourth line players. 

I also do not want to mix things up for the third line right now, right when it seems to be finding its groove as a shutdown line. No, I'm keeping things the way they are on offense and trying to build as much momentum for that third line as possible.

Dana Ziegler writes: If Braden Holtby does not stay beyond this season and Ilya Samsonov becomes the top goalie, who will earn the backup position? Would they bring Pheonix Copley back up or Vitek Vanecek? Or would they look to bring in someone new?

I would anticipate somebody else. While I do expect Samsonov to be the No. 1 next season and Holtby will be gone, I don't think the plan is just to hand Samsonov the crease and expect him to start 55+ games. Remember, as good as he is and as heralded as he is, he has never been the outright No. 1 in his professional career in the U.S. or Rusia. My guess would be that the team looks to bring in an experienced back up and they go with a tandem next season.

Some possible free agents who could possibly fit that role would be Jaroslav Halak, Jimmy Howard or Thomas Greiss.

Fred W. writes: Could you compare/contrast Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev?

Fehervary and Alexeyev are actually roommates in Hershey. Alexeyev is a little bigger at 6-foo-4,  201 pounds as compared to Fehervary's 6-foot-2, 194 pounds and has more North American experience having played in the WHL. There is nothing about Alexeyev's game that is great, what makes him an intriguing prospect is that he seems to be really good at just about everything. He is a mobile skater, he can play a physical game, win board battles, has some offensive upside and is good at distributing the puck. He seems like an all-around good defenseman. What's more is his maturity is off the charts. I have spoken with him a few times and he does not strike you as a 19-year-old kid.

To me, I look at this player as someone who is greater than the sum of his parts and that's why I think some scouts undervalue him.

Fehervary is also very composed and confident, but does not come with the same quiet swagger that Alexeyev has. He is much more of a defensive player with less of the offensive upside Alexeyev brings. While Alexeyev went the junior hockey route, Fehervary has been playing in the pros for years in Sweden. He is used to playing against bigger bodies and is used to playing a physical game against big men. That's impressive as sometimes when kids go pro young, they rely on skill and shy away from physical play. Fehervary does not. He's used to it. I really like how he closes the gap against forwards quickly. He seems like a very smart, cerebral type of player.

Between the two, I think Alexeyev has the higher upside, but Fehervary's game is further along right now. I see both as a top-four and I think there is at least some slight potential for Alexeyev to be a top-pair player.

Raymond Selke writes: How does a team acquire a surplus of cap space throughout the year?

What you are referring to is commonly known as "banking" space. How does a team bank space and is somehow able to afford players at the deadline that they could not before?

A better way to understand the salary cap is to think of it in terms of being on pace to spend to the cap.

Here is a very basic example to illustrate how it works.

Let's say I give you $100 to last you from Monday to Friday. The league breaks the season down day-by-day so while the overall cap ceiling is $100, the magic number is $20. According to the rules, you can't spend more than $20 per day because that would put you on pace to spend more than $100. But what if you only spent $5 on Monday and Tuesday? You have only spent $10 of your allotted $100 leaving you with $90 left. Now you can spend up to $30 per day for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday because you "banked" space. The overall amount you could spend did not change, but since you didn't spend to the max, the amount you can afford later in the season increases.

The salary cap runs daily throughout the season. The season is divided into 180 days and a player's daily cap hit is their overall cap hit divided by 180. Whatever you don't spend on any given day is money that you will have to use later on.

Shawn Collins writes: Is it a foregone conclusion that Dmitry Orlov will be exposed in the draft?

The expansion draft is not until the summer of 2021. Nothing is a foregone conclusion in sports that far out. You know who I thought could be going to Vegas a year before that expansion draft? Tom Wilson. By the time the actual expansion draft rolled around, that was laughable. That's how much things can change in a year.

John Carlson is pretty much a given to be protected. I assume Jonas Siegenthaler will be as well. That makes it a toss-up between Orlov and Michal Kempny for who will be the third defenseman protected from Seattle.

Nathan S. writes: Are there ping pong tables at Medstar for Caps players to use the way there used to be at Redskins Park?T

The players' area at MedStar is actually closed off to the media so I do not know exactly what they have. Since I know this question is related to the Redskins banning ping pong, the answer is that yes, they have games, for the players to play, I just don't know what.

Marie Keller writes: What's the story about Ovi's yellow shoelaces?

According to Theo Fleury, Ovechkin told him he was the inspiration.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

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2020 NHL All-Star Game: Schedule, Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

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2020 NHL All-Star Game: Schedule, Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

The 2020 NHL All-Star Game takes place on Saturday, Jan. 25, following the three-on-three tournament format that was first used in 2016.

For the second year in a row, Washington captain Alex Ovechkin chose to sit out the game, even though he was elected as Metropolitan division captain by the fans. Ovechkin said he wanted to rest his body for the second half of the season.

Also for the second year in a row, some women's hockey stars will play a key role in the All-Star weekend events. The Elite Women's 3-on-3 game will be played on Jan. 24 during the NHL All-Stars Skills Competition and will feature the American All-Stars and Canadian All-Stars battling it out in a 20-minute three-on-three tournament. 

This year, even with Ovechkin sitting out All-Star weekend, the Capitals will have three representatives on the Metropolitan roster: forward T.J. Oshie, defenseman John Carlson and goalkeeper Braden Holtby. Though Holtby and Carlson made the team initially, Oshie was selected to his first All-Star appearance as part of the NHL's Last Man In Fan Vote.

Here's how to watch the 2020 NHL All-Star Game, plus information on the teams and the schedule of events:

NHL All-Star Game Schedule

NHL All-Star Skills Competition: Friday, Jan. 24, 8 p.m. ET

NHL All-Star Game Tournament: Friday, Jan. 25

Semifinal Game 1: TBD vs. TBD, 8:15 p.m. ET

Semifinal Game 2: TBD vs. TBD, 9:15 p.m. ET

Final Game: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 10:15 p.m. ET

How to Watch the NHL All-Star Game

Where: Enterprise Center, St. Louis, Missouri

What: 65th Annual NHL All-Star Game

When: Saturday, January 25, 2020, at 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: NBC

Live Stream: Stream live on NBCSports

NHL All-Star Captains

Atlantic Division: F David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

Metropolitan Division: D Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

Central Division: F Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

Pacific Division: F Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

NHL All-Star Rosters

Atlantic Division: roster

Metropolitan Division: roster

Central Division: roster

Pacific Division: roster

NHL All-Star Game History

Record (since 2016): Pacific 2, Metro 2, Atlantic 0, Central 0

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