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The trade that saved the Caps' season

The trade that saved the Caps' season

In a series that features superstar offensive talent in Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, it was a defenseman with fewer than 150 games of NHL experience who opened the scoring.

Michal Kempny scored his first career playoff goal in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Friday to spark the Capitals to a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. With every passing game, the acquisition of Kempny continues to look more and more like a home run trade for the Caps who managed to shore up their blue line for a top-four defenseman.

And all it cost them was a third-round draft pick.

This year’s trade deadline was different than in years passed for the Caps. Unlike in 2016 and 2017 when general manager Brian MacLellan was only looking to strengthen already dominant rosters, this Capitals team had a real position of need on defense.

Would they trade for New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh? Would they find a way to bring in superstar Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators?

On FebruaryMacLellan made his move trading a third-round draft pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for Kempny.

It was a move met with a resounding, “Who?”

Just one year after bringing in the biggest name on the market at the trade deadline in Kevin Shattenkirk, MacLellan tried a different tactic. Even though the team had a much greater need on the blue line, they traded for Kempny, a player who had only played 31 games this season for a struggling Chicago team, and for Jakub Jerabek, another little-known defenseman playing for the Montreal Canadiens.

“You add a guy like Shattenkirk and it changes the dynamic at the backend,” MacLellan said to the media in April. “All of a sudden, [John] Carlson's not on your first power play. It changes the chemistry more so than what we've done this year. We had holes to fill this year and we filled with them with guys that aren't as high profile, but are just steady and provided the things we needed for our team. So it's worked out good.”

Jerabek has been a solid depth addition, but Kempny has been absolutely critical to the team’s success.

For much of the season, the Capitals had rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey in the top six. Djoos was in the top four playing alongside John Carlson.

Having two rookies on the blue line in the regular season is one thing, but having two in the playoffs is quite another. While both Djoos and Bowey played admirably in their rookie seasons, dressing both in the playoffs would present an obvious weakness for opponents to exploit.

If the Capitals hoped to have any postseasons success, they needed to find a top-four defenseman.

But those players don’t come cheap, especially at the trade deadline when it becomes a seller’s market. Washington also had little room to work with under the salary cap.

So MacLellan did not go after the big names that would have required him to trade off significant assets and/or roster players in order to acquire. Instead, he went after a value player who he expected big things from.

“It's a lot of different role for me, but I had a chance to play with the best players against best players, against top lines,” Kempny said after a practice in April. “I really appreciate it for that. I had good ice time. These things are good for me.”

Kempny, 27, did not even begin his NHL career until 2016. When he came to Washington he had only 82 NHL games of experience including one playoff game. He was in and out of the lineup in Chicago with only 31 games on the season and seven points.

But the Capitals did their homework and believed Kempny had the ability to not just fit into the lineup, but as a top-four defenseman and, just as importantly” cheap.

“[Kemny's] a good skater, a good puck mover,” MacLellan said. I know he was not always in the lineup in Chicago, but he was our No. 1 target going into the trade deadline.

The difference has been notable.

Before the Kempny trade, Washington was allowing 2.98 goals per game. After he was acquired, they allowed only 2.74 goals per game in the regular season. That number has further improved in the playoffs where the Caps are only allowing 2.62 goals per game.

“It's been huge,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He's come in seamlessly for us for the most part, adjusting. But you saw it the last series: He played big minutes against top players, be it the [Evgeni] Malkins and the [Sidney] Crosbys, and he's done a really good job. He's just one of those players that is efficient, effective, gets it done."

Kempny scored his first career playoff goal on Friday in Game 1 against the Lightning. He also recorded four shots on goal and two blocked shots.

In Kempny, the Caps found an under the radar top-four defenseman to shore up their defense. Without him, they would not be playing in the Eastern Conference Final and sit just seven wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

“When I came here, everything was new,” Kempny said. "New organization, new teammates. But I felt like every day better and better. I feel like home now. I think we have such a good group guys, I really enjoy it here."

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Wilson's return sparks Capitals to a 5-2 win at Minnesota

Wilson's return sparks Capitals to a 5-2 win at Minnesota

Tom Wilson stayed on brand in his return from a long suspension.

The Capitals’ big man scored a goal and took a penalty on the same play in his first game of the season, a 5-2 win against the Minnesota Wild Tuesday night. 

Wilson won’t get the 16 games back he missed for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist. But he tried to make up for it in his debut. 

Wilson scored Washington’s second goal at 19:32 of the first period when he drove the net hard and deflected a pass from teammate Dmitry Orlov past Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk. But this being Wilson, nothing is totally uncontroversial.  

The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder was moving fast. There was no stopping him. Wilson, with some help from Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, collided with Dubnyk. The puck was already in the net, but the referee decided Wilson needed to go think about what he’d done after Dubnyk got clocked in the head. It was a two-minute goalie interference call. 

That’s an odd play rarely called. Either the goal counts or it doesn’t, but maybe because Wilson had already scored before running into Dubnyk both calls could stand. 

“It was a first for me to score and get a penalty on the same play,” Wilson told reporters in St. Paul. “I was just going hard to the net and Snarls [Orlov] put it right on my tape. It was a great pass at full speed. I was trying to do everything I could to get out of the way. I’ll take the goal and the kill went out there and got it done. It was good to see.”

It was far from Wilson’s only contribution in his first game back. He also fought Marcus Foligno at 11:58 of the second period on the faceoff after Minnesota cut a Washington lead to 3-1. He didn’t back down when asked to go by Foligno. 

“He’s a key player for our team, brings so much energy both on the ice and off the ice,” forward Andre Burakovsky said. “Huge lift for the team to get him back earlier. Didn’t expect that and I think he had a really strong game today. Obviously, he got the goal in his first game back and then some dirty works. Obviously, I think he’s a huge guy for us in PK and it showed today.”

Wilson didn’t get the assist on the goal that put the game away. Alex Ovechkin found Orlov for a one-timer on a pass from the left faceoff circle to the right. But it was Wilson driving hard toward the goal that kept a Wild defenseman with him and allowed Orlov the space to finish Ovechkin’s pass. Those little things have been missed in the 16 games Wilson was suspended. He was relentless. 

One big issue for the Capitals: The penalty kill. Wilson has been a big part of that group in recent years and without him – and, to be fair the departed Jay Beagle and the injured Brooks Orpik – Washington entered the game 29thin the NHL in penalty kill percentage (71.7 percent). Wilson wasn’t eased into anything. He played 5:23 on the penalty kill and the Capitals killed five of six Wild power plays. 

[Wilson] does a lot not just on the ice, but in our room. Adds a ton of energy. Well respected player for how he trains,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden. “Going through a tough time and obviously kind of a surprise for us to get him back today. We were hoping to at any point here and we were able to take advantage of a fortunate bounce for our team before even the game started. But I didn’t expect him to have as strong a game as he did." 

"Obviously able to convert on a great play on a line rush, but just the other things he did. Our penalty kill, the opposition scores a goal and, you talk about shifts after goals, not giving the team any more momentum than they’ve already gotten and he gets in a fight there. There’s a lot to like about Tom Wilson and I thought he had a strong game. It was great to have him back.”

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4 reasons the Caps beat the Wild

4 reasons the Caps beat the Wild

Think the Caps missed Tom Wilson? It sure looked like it.

Washington looked like a completely different team with Wilson back in the lineup Tuesday in a dominant 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild.

Here are four reasons the Caps won:

Tom Wilson

Wilson made his season debut Tuesday after his suspension was reduced by a neutral arbitrator earlier in the day. Wilson’s addition to the lineup had two effects. One, it made the lineup a lot deeper. Without Wilson, Todd Reirden was having trouble putting together the right lineup. Several players cycled on the top line and every line behind the top had to shuffle. Wilson came back onto the top line and immediately the rest of the lineup fell into place.

The top line looked better, the second line looked better and the third line looked better with their regular lineups back intact.

Wilson’s return also brought a lot of energy to the team and that was evident from the very start of the game. The Caps outshot Minnesota 12-6 and took the 2-0 lead in the first period of the game. Compare that to the rather lethargic game we saw on Sunday, clearly, Wilson brought a spark.

Oh, yeah, Wilson has also had a pretty darn good game too. He scored in the first period of the game in a typical Wilson play. He completely blew past Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter and tipped in a pass from Dmitry Orlov as he crashed the net on goalie Devan Dubnyk.

Somehow Wilson was also given a goalie interference penalty… but the goal still counted? Regardless of what was an obvious reputation penalty, it was a good return for Wilson, who also had a fight with Marcus Foligno and helped set up Orlov’s second goal by crashing again and drawing the defense over to him.

Dmitry Orlov

Orlov broke a 19-game goal drought with a goal just 7:23 into the game.

Lars Eller had the puck and cut to the blue line in the offensive zone turning to the middle. Minnesota got caught puck watching as the defense shifted with Eller, leaving Orlov open on the left. Eller found him and Orlov took advantage of the extra space to score his first goal of the season.

Orlov would add an assist on Wilson’s goal and a second goal in the third period off a beautiful pass from Alex Ovechkin.

The typically reliable defensive pairing of Orlov and Matt Niskanen struggled at the start of the season prompting Todd Reirden to switch up the pairs and place Orlov with John Carlson. Clearly, the move had the desired effect in Tuesday’s game.

The schedule

Tuesday’s game was the Wild’s first at home since Oct. 27. Minnesota was coming off a seven-game road swing and they looked a bit weary at the start of the game. As mentioned above, the Wild were outshot 12-6 in the first period and then 15-8 in the second.

Really, this game was a perfect storm. Not only were the Wild tired from a lengthy road trip, but they also were dealing with a Caps team that was pumped up by the return of Wilson.

Part of what made Sunday’s loss to Arizona so disappointing was the fact that the Coyotes were on the second leg of a back-to-back with their starting goalie on IR. The Caps were not able to take advantage, but they certainly took it to a vulnerable, road-weary team on Tuesday.

The penalty kill

Washington’s porous penalty kill was the reason the Caps lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets Friday and a major reason they fell to Arizona. The PK finally stood tall on Tuesday as the Caps were able to kill off four out of five penalties on the night. The lone power play goal the team gave up came in the third period when the Caps were already up 5-1 and the game was no longer in doubt.

You can add the penalty kill to the long list of things that Wilson instantly improved in his return. Wilson logged 16:47 of total ice time on Tuesday and 5:23 of that came on the penalty kill.

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