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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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Should Caps' Braden Holtby, other soon-to be free agents consider skipping NHL restart?

Should Caps' Braden Holtby, other soon-to be free agents consider skipping NHL restart?

When the 2019-20 NHL season does come to a conclusion, whenever that may be, Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby will become a free agent shortly after. Holtby, one of the league's better netminders, is expected to earn a lucrative contract this offseason.

With all the moving parts to the resumption of the NHL season -- the league and NHLPA have yet to come to an agreement on a hub city (or cities)-- and the rising cases in coronavirus cases nationwide, it's unclear when the league will return. Training camps open on July 10, yet the NHL and NHLPA are in the midst of finalizing a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that has raised questions about when the games will resume.

But, when hockey does return, it's worth wondering if Holtby should consider skipping the remainder of the season. NBC Sports Washington analyst Craig Laughlin explained on The Sports Junkies Wednesday why Holtby and other soon-to-be free agents could consider opting out of the restart.

"What happens to Braden Holtby?" Laughlin said. "Does he want to risk the opportunity to play rather than risk health, even getting injured during this time when he's up for a very lucrative long-term deal? Those are the players that may have to think about the return."

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In both the MLB and NBA, several players have decided to forgo the rest of the season due to concerns about the coronavirus. Wizards sharpshooter Davis Bertans, who is a free agent after this season, opted-out of the restart to preserve his health with a large payday looming. Several other NBA players have decided to skip out on Orlando, too. Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross have both declined to participate in the 2020 MLB season for the Nationals.

Yet, in hockey, it may be different. The league is resuming its season with a modified 24-team playoff, meaning there are no regular-season games remaining. With the season so close to finishing, the decision for Holtby to leave his team as they begin a Stanley Cup run could be a difficult one.

While Holtby does have personal reasons to skip out on the season's resumption, Laughlin doesn't envision him, or any other hockey players, voluntarily choosing to sit out.

RELATED: WHAT IF THE SEASON NEVER PAUSED?

"I don't think so," Laughlin said on players opting out. "I don't think that's going to happen. I think the players generally want to play. I really do think, when it's all said and done, they will all be back and participating for the Stanley Cup."

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The biggest 'what ifs' for the 2019-20 Capitals' season: What if the team stuck with Copley as backup goalie?

The biggest 'what ifs' for the 2019-20 Capitals' season: What if the team stuck with Copley as backup goalie?

We are looking at some of the biggest “what ifs” for the Capitals for the 2019-20 season.

Today’s what if: What if the Caps stuck with Pheonix Copley as their backup goalie over Ilya Samsonov?

Often times the most important stat for a backup goalie is wins. With an established No.1 netminder, as the Caps have had in Braden Holtby, the most important job of a backup is to be able to step into the lineup and win games. If not, it forces a team to overwork its starter. Pheonix Copley was able to go 16-7-3 in 27 games for Washington in 2018-19 , his first full NHL season. Because of that, it would have been absolutely understandable had the team decided to use him as the backup behind Holtby again this season. As much as Ilya Samsonov has been heralded as the next starter of the franchise, he came into 2019-20 with zero NHL experience.

Yes, with Holtby on the final year of his contract, it was important to get Samsonov playing time this season, but this was viewed as a legitimate competition in training camp. What if Samsoinov just did not look ready yet?

The first thing that would have happened is the team would have had to make a move to clear salary. Copley's cap hit is $1.1 million, slightly higher than Samsonov's $925,000. With the team so close against the cap, once Evgeny Kuznetsov returned from suspension and Michal Kempny returned from injury, the team would not have had enough cap space with Copley on the roster. All this likely would have meant was seeing the Chandler Stephenson trade happen a lot faster than it ultimately did in December.

The impact may not have been all that different in terms of roster makeup, but the team likely would have struggled on the ice. This is not to disparage Copley who has proven himself to be a capable backup, but along with his strong record last season, he also had a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. Those two numbers are not nearly as impressive. With the team struggling at times this season, that likely would have translated to more losses with Copley in net. Considering Washington ended up winning the Metropolitan Division by a single point thanks in large part to the NHL have to pause and then cancel the remainder of the regular season, the Caps would almost certainly be lower in the standings.

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Perhaps Copley would have been able to improve on his numbers and overall performance in a second NHL season, but would he have been able to give Washington the 16-6-2 record, .913 save percentage and 2.55 GAA that Samsonov provided? Probably not.

RELATED: WHAT IF THE SEASON NEVER PAUSED?

That fact is that with Holtby's contract situation, we would have seen Samsonov in the NHL at some point in the 2019-20 season and the team's struggles probably would have prompted a recall as a way to shake things up while also getting a look at what he could provide in the NHL going forward.

Copley starting the season as the backup would have delayed the inevitable Samsonov call-up that had to happen this season, regardless of how well Copley managed to play behind Holtby.

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