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Stanley Cup Playoffs Power Rankings: Mission accomplished… so far

Stanley Cup Playoffs Power Rankings: Mission accomplished… so far

Two games into the playoffs, and the Capitals could not be doing any better. At least in terms of the series.

Two games, two wins. You can’t ask for any better than that.

But it hasn’t been exactly pretty.

Twice the Caps jumped out to big leads, twice the Carolina Hurricanes clawed their way back, twice Washington had to hold the Hurricanes off for a narrow victory. 

There are things not to like about how the Caps are playing, there are things they need to improve, there are players that need to play better. All of that is true, but let’s take a step back and look at what’s happening around the league.

By the end of Sunday’s action, every team had played at least two playoff games. In all eight series, only two teams managed to win the first two games at home: Washington and the New York Islanders. That’s it. The biggest shock is that the Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning did not just lose their first two games at home, they have been pushed to the brink of elimination by the Columbus Blue Jackets through three games.

So while the Caps can and will need to play better than they looked in the first two games of the playoffs, you cannot be too hard on them because they found a way to win both games. That’s more than you can say about the Lightning, Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets or Nashville Predators.

SEE THIS WEEK’S STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF POWER RANKINGS HERE

Here are a few recent observations and thoughts on the Caps.

  • Let’s start with the positives. A team will not be successful in the playoffs if its best players don’t show up and so far, both Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been brilliant. I wrote about them on Sunday. Everything the team needs from them, they are providing. Ovechkin is passing well, has been all-in on the backcheck and has been a physical wrecking ball. Backstrom is winning big faceoffs, has been great on the penalty kill and has been a scoring machine.
  • They haven’t needed it so far, but Washington has gotten essentially zero secondary scoring from their bottom six. Here are the goal scorers through the first two games: Backstrom, Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, Brooks Orpik and an empty-netter from Lars Eller. Washington will need to see production from the bottom-six in these next two games since they will be in Raleigh where the Hurricanes will be able to better control the matchups.
  • After being a major factor in Game 1, the power play dried up again in Game 2. The issue was a familiar one: Forcing the puck to Ovechkin. If the power play is going to continue to rely on Ovechkin to be its only weapon, Carolina is going to continue to cover him closely. What really made it curious was the fact that on Saturday, Ovechkin was passing up the one-timers. Either they were not being delivered to him like he wanted or he just wasn’t feeling it. Either way, Carlson kept forcing it to him and Ovechkin kept passing it up. Carlson was left the most open on the power play in Game 2. He needs to start firing some of those shots from the blue line to keep the penalty kill honest.
  • The defense is an issue. Here’s the good news. Washington has been searching for the best replacement for Michal Kempny on the top pairing since he left and they have found out who that is. The bad news is that it is Brooks Orpik and you cannot rely on him to play top pair minutes. You are basically asking him to play about 25 minutes per game and that’s just too much for a 38-year-old. But Nick Jensen has not looked comfortable on the top pair even though he is playing on his natural right side and Christian Djoos has not played well. Unless Todd Reirden wants to experiment with breaking up the Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen pair, we are going to continue to see Carlon with Jensen and then Orpik moved up with Carlson at various points of the game.
  • Djoos played 7:48 in Game 1 and 5:44 in Game 2. That Game 2 total includes five seconds in overtime so he actually played 5:39 through regulation. Reirden said after Game 1 that this was just situational, but when you have a defenseman playing less than six minutes, it suggests a lack of trust. It also puts a strain on the other defensemen, especially the top guys. I asked Reirden on Sunday that if Djoos’ use has been situational and this series looks like it could be a close one, would he consider putting in Jonas Siegenthaler who has a more defensive skillset? Reirden said he liked the six guys they had, but acknowledged Djoos would have to play more. So it certainly looks like Reirden is set on the current six as the team’s top six on the blue line. But how long will this current set up of a fluid top pair and playing Djoos for five to eight minutes a night really last? It does not seem like a sustainable plan.

The Caps certainly have some things they need to improve on, but they have won both of their games and are in control of their series with the Hurricanes.

Here is where they stand among the other playoff teams in this week’s Stanley Cup Playoffs Power Rankings.

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Capitals and Bruins put on a show worthy of Stanley Cup playoffs

Capitals and Bruins put on a show worthy of Stanley Cup playoffs

WASHINGTON — There are only a handful of nights like Wednesday during the course of an NHL season. 
 
Players and coaches grind their way through 82 games with one running into the next. Sometimes, for the very best teams, the Stanley Cup playoffs can seem like a desert mirage off in the far distance. 
 
The Capitals and Bruins reminded us what the spring will bring during Washington’s 3-2 win on Wednesday. The NHL’s two best teams gave us physical play, great goaltending and world-class skill all in one wildly entertaining package. 
 
“No matter where you are in the standings, games against those teams, Boston, Tampa, games like that, in a way they are measuring stick games,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “You want to see how you measure up to what they are bringing that particular year or that particular time during the season. Tonight was no different.”
 
Oshie scored twice – one after a spectacular inside-out move that stands as Washington’s goal of the year so far. John Carlson continued piling up the points with an assist and the game-winning goal in the third period off a pass from Nicklas Backstrom. 
 
These Capitals, playing against a Bruins team that came within a game of the Stanley Cup last season, continue to show they measure up. The roster has turned over some, but the fight hasn’t gone out of the 2018 championship team yet. 
 
“The crowd was into it a little bit more than your average game,” Carlson said. “I think both teams were flying around, going that extra step to hit someone all the time and that sort of thing. It was a fun game, it was fun to play in. Still not playoffs.”
 
No, not yet. Carlson has been through all this before. He has played on three teams that won the Presidents’ Trophy (2009-10, 2015-16, 2016-07) and none of them made it out of the second round of the playoffs. 
 
The Capitals are just happy to be where they are, now five points clear of Boston for the NHL’s best record and with a nine-point lead in the Metropolitan Division over the New York Islanders and the rest of their rivals. 
 
But they know none of it will matter in mid-April. The slate gets wiped clean and they will have to beat the Islanders or the Hurricanes or the Flyers or maybe the Penguins – isn’t it always the Penguins - four times in seven games. And then they’d have do it again with one of those teams in the second round. Only then would they even get a crack at these Bruins - or maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning - once more in the Eastern Conference Final. 
 
There are still 49 games to go before all of that and upsets are a fact of life in the playoffs so you might as well enjoy the journey to get there. So far, Washington (23-5-5, 51 points) is off to the second-best start in team history through 33 games. 
 
Only the 2015-16 Presidents’ Trophy winner was better at 25-6-2 with 52 points. That group also led the Islanders by nine points in the Metro Division race at this point in the season. It’s a comfortable place to be and a nice cushion for the endless, cold nights of winter when illness or injuries strike and the schedule wears you down and you lose a couple of games in a row and frustration sets in. 
 
That will happen at some point for these Capitals. It’s inevitable over the course of a long season. But if Wednesday tells them anything, it’s that they still have that reserve of confidence to rally even against the very best teams in the league. 
 
Down 2-1 in the second period, Oshie banged home his own rebound when left alone in front. And 3:30 later he undressed the Boston defense and beat goalie Jaroslav Halak with a backhand roof shot that left the crowd unhinged and Washington ahead.  
 
It wasn’t an easy game. The Capitals had to kill five Boston power plays and their video department helped save the game by getting a Bruins goal overturned on replay after a missed offsides call. That kept the score 1-0. Washington might “own” Boston at 16-1 in the past 17 games, but no one thinks that would mean much in any playoff series. Instead, nights like this are a dress rehearsal for the games that matter most. 
 
“Our team usually plays better against teams like that, teams that work hard, play an honest, hard game structurally,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “It's fun for us to play in those games, especially in the regular season. It kind of feels more like a playoff style. We've been fortunate to have success, but there's been a lot of real close games against them the last little bit, games that make us better in the long run."

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Capitals at Lightning: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, How to Watch

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Capitals at Lightning: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, How to Watch

After winning in a thriller on Wednesday over the Boston Bruins, the Capitals look to make it two wins in a row and five of their last six when they travel to Tampa on Saturday to face the Lightning.

Earlier this season, the Capitals edged the Lightning 4-3 in an overtime thriller, a contest that saw Washington come back from a 3-1 third period deficit.

Washington currently leads the Eastern Conference with 51 points, while a slow start to 2019 leaves the Lightning with just 33.

Here's how to catch the action. 

Capitals-Lightning: How to Watch

What: Game 34 of the NHL regular season

Who: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning

When: Wednesday, December 14, 2019, at 7 p.m.

Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Florida

TV Channel: Capitals-Lightning game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports channel finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals-Lightning on NBC Sports live stream page.

Radio: Caps Radio 24/7

Capitals-Lightning TV Schedule

6:00 PM: Caps FaceOff Live

6:30 PM: Caps Pregame Live

7:00 PM: Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

9:30 PM: Caps Postgame Live

Capitals-Bruins Lightning Injury Report

Capitals: None

Lightning: Braydon Coburn, D (lower body, out indefinitely)

Capitals-Lightning Players to Watch

T.J. Oshie, W, Capitals: Oshie dazzled in the Caps victory on Wednesday, finishing with a pair of goals, including this beauty. After not scoring in the four games prior, Oshie will look to continue his hot hand into Saturday's contest against Tampa.

Steven Stamkos, C, Lightning: After a six-game stretch without scoring, Stamkos has found the back of the net four times in the past three games. He'll look to avenge a pointless showing that he had during the Lightning's November loss to Washington.

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