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‘We DC family:’ After Nationals supported the Caps’ Cup run, Caps eager to return the favor

‘We DC family:’ After Nationals supported the Caps’ Cup run, Caps eager to return the favor

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Hockey games are obviously a lot different for Capitals players than it is for Capitals fans. When it comes to the Washington Nationals, however, the Caps are fans just like anybody else.

While the Caps are focused on the NHL season, they have also been keeping close tabs on the Nationals and their playoff run. Wilson was in the crowd at Nationals Park for Tuesday’s NLCS-clinching win.

“I was there for the first inning and it was loud, it was wild,” he said. “Balls dropping like that, it's crazy.”

It is not uncommon for local teams to support one another, but the bond between the Caps and Nationals seems to run much deeper than just geography.

“It's great,” Alex Ovechkin said. “Happy for team, for boys and for city. They fight hard and hope they going to win it all. We're going to cheer, we're going to be with them and wish them luck.”

As the Caps headed to Dallas for a quick two-game road trip early in October, all the players came to the plane wearing Nationals shirts to show their support. After each game, the team MVP is presented with a Nationals batting helmet in the locker room.

The roots of the relationship between these two teams can be traced back to their previous history of postseason failures.

A Caps team with superstar Alex Ovechkin and a loaded roster could never get past the Pittsburgh Penguins or the second round of the playoffs. The Nationals, meanwhile, suffered their own setbacks as they continually failed to advance past the NLDS despite a dominant rotation and strong lineup.

So as the Caps finally broke through in 2018 and went on a deep run, whether it was because they saw some of themselves in the Caps, it was cathartic to see a team from Washington actually win or because they just like hockey, the Nationals became the Caps’ biggest supporters.

That did not go unnoticed by the Capitals.

“You notice it for sure,” Wilson said. “I think I remember a tweet when I was in Vegas and I think [Max] Scherzer was pitching that game and he was commenting about not having to bat so he could check the score. You see that stuff, it's fun to share the times in D.C. together.”

Scherzer also took to Twitter the day after Washington won the Cup.

“Their support to us over the years has been awesome,” Wilson said. “A bunch of guys in that locker room that I have a ton of respect for.”

Of course when the Caps brought the Cup back to Washington, Nationals Park was one of their first stops. Ovechkin threw out the first pitch and the Nationals fans may have been outnumbered in their own ballpark by all the fans clad in Capitals gear.

The Caps’ win was seen as a turning point for D.C. sports, the moment the curse of Washington sports which had not seen a championship in hockey, baseball, football or basketball since 1992 was finally broken. Sure enough, the Washington Mystics won its first title in franchise history in 2019 and the Nationals are now the first baseball team from Washington to reach the World Series since 1933.

After overcoming the NLDS hump, it became impossible not to notice the similarities between the Nationals’ current run and the 2018 Caps.

“I think there's a bit of an up and down season and a group that really came together,” Wilson said. “I think you hear that out of their locker room a lot. Guys kept coming together throughout the year and wasn't always pretty and it wasn't always happy and fun, but perseverance and look where they are now. That's a special thing when a group of guys can come together and do what they've done. We had a similar thing. Each guy in the room, you wanted to win so badly for. You get a similar feeling as to how they talk about each other through the media and through what I've heard.”

“When any athletes in your town -- obviously the Mystics win a championship, the Nationals doing what they're doing, what we were able to do a couple years ago -- it just changes how everyone carries themselves around town,” Reirden said. “Sports are obviously a hobby for people to watch and a point of relaxation and it's been fun for everyone to kind of go through it. I think more importantly is probably how it's happened. It's not been a quick path and on any of our three teams involved so it's made it more special.”

But the job is not done.

The Nationals now must wait for a winner to emerge from the ALCS which currently stands with the Houston Astros leading the New York Yankees 2-1. Then it is on to the World Series.

One more series and four more wins separate the Nationals from the ultimate goal and you can bet the Caps are going to be cheering for them the whole way.

The Caps haven’t forgotten the support the Nationals gave them in the playoffs back in 2018. Now, they are ready to return the favor.

“It's a pretty cool time to be a sports fan in DC,” Wilson said. “We're just a tiny part of it, but we're taking a back seat. We're supporting them, we're hoping that they can get it done because once you get a taste of it, it's a lot of fun and they've got a bunch of great guys in that room that we're extremely happy for.”

“We D.C. family and we have to support each other,” Ovechkin said, “Doesn't matter it's Nationals, Redskins, Wizards or the Mystics. We respect everybody and we respect each team and we cheering for them.”

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What does the Caps' future in net look like?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What does the Caps' future in net look like?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 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.

Joshua Cohen writes: How will the Caps keep our best players after their contracts expire after this year?

Justin Cade writes: At this point, what do you think the chances are the Nicklas Backstrom will be in a Caps sweater next season and beyond?

Charles Gabriel writes: With Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana needing new contracts in two years, and Evgeny Kuznetsov showing he can be the same kind of center needed to play with Ovechkin, do the caps consider not signing Backstrom or Holtby this season?

William Dunlap writes: Do you think the Caps will move on from Holtby after this season?

Samuel Resnick writes: How much do you think it will cost to resign Holtby or Backstrom?

Clearly the contract situations for Backstrom and Holtby is on everyone's mind. I do not see the team letting Backstrom walk. It may cost the team more money than perhaps Brian MacLellan would otherwise want to spend on a 32-year-old forward because, at $6.7 million per year, Backstrom has been a steal for a long time now. The Caps will have to pay up. But so long as Backstrom wants to be back, I think the team will do everything it can to get this done.

Holtby, on the other hand, is more complicated. He is due a raise from his $6.1 million per year cap hit. That is too much money considering the team is so tight against the cap, his replacement is already in the NHL and the Seattle expansion draft essentially makes it impossible to keep both Holtby and Samsonov together since the team will only be able to protect one from Seattle.

Craig Boden writes: With the Braden Holtby contract up next year and 3 young goalies in the system, (Ilya Samsonov, Pheonix Copley, and Vitek Vanecek) what does the Capitals Goalie tandem look like for the 2020/21 season?

As noted above, I believe Holtby is gone and Samsonov will take over as the No. 1. As for who his backup will be, I actually would not be surprised to see the team look outside the organization to find a high-end backup given Samsonov's inexperience. Someone like a Thomas Greiss or...ahem...Jaroslav Halak who will come in as the backup, but will still be expected to play heavy minutes. I am not sure the team will have enough confidence in a Samsonov/Copley or Samsonov/Vanecek tandem given  the inexperience there.

Alex Graninger writes: Why was Ilya Samsonov chosen over Vitek Vanecek?

Because Samsonov is better. The Caps have thought so for a long time. Why else would they draft Samsonov in the first round of the 2015 draft just one year after drafting Vanecek in the second round?

Dan Graninger writes: What happens if the Capitals move Ilya Samsonov down to the AHL for the expansion draft and bring up Vitek Vanecek instead, protect Holtby and leave Vanecek unprotected? Also, what are the chances that, if the Caps keep Holtby and Samsonov and only protect Holtby that Seattle would even pick Samsonov? Granted a lot could happen in Samsonov’s play between now and the draft, but surely there’s bound to be other goalies that aren’t protected by other teams who have more experience and are better than Samsonov, right?

Whether Samsonov is in the NHL or AHL is irrelevant. The Caps could send him to the ECHL and he would still be available in the expansion draft. The rules leave all first and second-year players exempt, but this is based on their professional contracts. The AHL is a professional league and playing there counts towards a player's eligibility.

As for the second part of your question, if Samsonov is left exposed I would put the chances he is taken near 100-percent. Barring some sort of catastrophic injury or precipitous fall-off in play, an expansion team is not going to pass on the chance to take a young starting goalie. Granted, we all thought Vegas would take Philipp Grubauer in the 2017 expansion draft and they took Nate Schmidt instead, but not everyone was sold on Grubauer as a No. 1 NHL goalie. I don't think there is much question as to Samsonov's potential.

Trenten Stemple writes: Will we see Phoenix Copley back in the lineup this season?

It's very doubtful. Between Copley, Vanecek and Samsonov, Copley has the largest cap hit at $1.1 million which is a major obstacle for the team this year. In addition, he is the only one of the three who is not waiver exempt. He had to clear waivers to get to the AHL at the start of the season so that means he can only be in the NHL for 10 games and 30 days before having to clear again.

Getting Samsonov playing time is more important than trying to squeeze Copley back into the roster. This would only happen if there was an injury.

Kaitlyn Carter writes: Who do you think is the most underrated and under talked about player on the team?

Michal Kempny. John Carlson is the best defenseman on the team, there is no doubt about that. But when Kempny was lost for the playoffs and the start of this season, he left a gaping hole on the defense that they just could not figure out how to plug. Kempny is the team's top defensive defenseman and it is fair to say the Caps don't win the Stanley Cup without him in 2018.

Kert Shipway writes: Why is the power play not working? It appears to me they are not moving as much as other successful teams.

The Caps' power play currently ranks 5th in the NHL at 24.3-percent. Seems to be working just fine to me.

Matt Greffen writes: Who do you think is the most valuable player we have acquired during the off season? Either through trade or a prospect we recently brought up to the Caps?

Radko Gudas. He has proven himself to be a very capable defenseman and is now playing in the top four with Dmitry Orlov. Considering the struggles Nick Jensen has had, where would this team be had they just traded Matt Niskanen for draft picks and not acquired the right-shot Gudas in the deal?

Ultimately, I like Gudas on the third pair and not in the top four. I think that could get exposed in the playoffs. For now, however, it works and the team is fortunate to have him.

Alex Graninger writes: The Caps penalty kill is on fire right now -- what are they doing right? How can they keep this up for the rest of the season once other teams start figuring out how to adjust their power play units to score against the caps PK?

The penalty kill has found the right mix of speed, skill and defense. The team just could not get that formula right last season and tried players ill-suited for the job such as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. The team is showing great situational awareness by getting into passing lanes, knowing when to block shots and knowing when to carry the puck and when to clear it.

Jonas Siegenthaler has been a huge boost for the defense and has more short-handed ice time than any player on the team. He deserves a lot of credit for the team's improvement there.

Also of note, and this goes to the second part of your question, no team in the NHL has blocked more shots than the Caps to this point. Because of that, I think you may see the penalty kill regress midway through the season when those shot blocks really start to wear a team down. Maybe Tom Wilson won't be as eager to throw himself in front of a shot on a Monday night in January as he is now.

Having players like Wilson, Hagelin and Lars Eller up top, however, always keeps the threat of a counter in the minds of the power play. That prevents teams from being as aggressive as they would otherwise hope. I think the penalty kill is in good shape to remain in the top 10 for much of the season.

Nick C. writes: With all the upgrades to the Caps’ PK and defense, do you see Brian MacLellan making a move before the deadline if needed?

Jake Livermon writes: Being so tight against the cap, my general line of thought is that the Caps will be silent in the trade market around the deadline. What if any moves do you think Brian MacLellan will make around the deadline?

I touched on this a bit above, but the biggest need this team has is a top-four right-shot defenseman. Gudas is fine for now, but the playoffs always expose a team's weaknesses and that second pair looks like the biggest hole in the lineup for me. The third pair has also been a bit inconsistent, but moving Gudas down to that pair should help solidify it if the team can find someone to plug on the right next to Dmitry Orlov.

The question is where the heck will they find the cap space?

That's a tough question to answer. They couldn't even find the cap space on Friday to skate four full forward lines. Forgetting the fact that top-four defensemen are hard to find, especially righties, figuring out how to fit one under the cap could be tough. The team may have to make another Kempny swing-for-the-fences type of deal and trade for a cheap defenseman that MacLellan thinks has a high upside.

Alex Graninger writes: The Bruins played awesome hockey in October, but now seem to be lacking. Will the Caps’ play decline after having such a great October? Why? How can the Caps prevent a decline from happening?

Every team in the league will have peaks and valleys over 82 games. It's inevitable. Very rarely do you see a team like Tampa Bay last year that was the best in the league pretty much from start to finish. Some would argue that was actually bad for them and that you need that adversity to prepare you for the playoffs, so be careful what you wish for.

I do not anticipate that the Caps will be able to keep this pace up the entire season. It is hard for players to go 100-percent every single game with their hits, their board battles, their shot blocks, etc. It takes a toll. They play too physical a brand of hockey to keep that up through June. In December I anticipate things to drop off a bit heading into January before starting to pick back up again in mid to late February.

Jim Bartlett writes: When will they get rid of fighting in hockey?

Not a fan of what happened on Monday, huh?  When I was young I thought fighting would be a part of hockey forever. Now, I believe we will see an end to fighting in the next 10-15 years. The culture is shifting. We have already seen the effect it has had on the NFL. There was a point where the NFL looked untouchable in terms of its popularity and hold over America. While it still remains the top sports league by far, it has certainly fallen a notablycloser to the pack in recent years as America just does not have the same appetite for big hits as it once did. That  is true in hockey as well where the game has become much faster and more-skilled than it was 10 years ago.

With what we know about concussions and head injuries, the end to fighting is, in my mind, inevitable. Everything the NHL does to promote player safety is undermined by the fact that this is a league in which punches thrown could earn you a stern talking to from the refs and nothing more. That's not true in any other sprot. It is fro hockey. You can say phsycial play has always been a part of hockey culture, but at some point you have to realize the culture is changing.

I'd give it 10-15 years, long enough for the younger generation to take more control of the game from the older generation that will never give up hockey fights unless they are forced.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

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Capitals await word on possible Garnet Hathaway suspension

Capitals await word on possible Garnet Hathaway suspension

ARLINGTON — Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway was still waiting to hear about a possible suspension following his spitting incident Monday in a 5-2 win against the Anaheim Ducks
 
Hathaway spit on defenseman Erik Gudbranson in the final minute of the second period against the Ducks at the tail end of a brawl seconds after Chandler Stephen’s goal made it 3-0. The NHL Department of Player Safety is not involved in any decision for supplemental discipline. Instead, the NHL’s Hockey Operations Department will make the determination. Washington coach Todd Reirden said he was disappointed in Hathaway's action, but defended the player's character, too, after the game Monday. 

"I definitely appreciated that and it went a long way," Hathaway said. "Just to echo what [Reirden] said, that is not how I see myself either. Not the kind of character I want to uphold either. So it is something I regret and it was nice Todd said that stuff."
 
The Capitals play the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Tight against the salary cap and already playing with a short roster, coach Todd Reirden said there are moves coming to ease that crunch whether Hathaway is suspended or not. 
 
"I think you always have to prepare,” Reirden said. “We're going to be making a few transactions here later today and tomorrow morning, and it'll all kind of combine into the decisions that we make."
 
One move could be placing forward Carl Hagelin on long-term injured reserve. He sustained an upper-body injury in a Nov. 7 game against the Florida Panthers. Hagelin must miss 10 games and 24 calendar days, however, to make that move retroactive. He skated again in a light blue non-contact jersey at practice on Tuesday. 
 
That almost certainly rules Hagelin out for the Rangers game. That would be his seventh game in a row out of the lineup. Because of the 10/24 rule and a compressed schedule, Hagelin would actually have to miss through the Nov. 30 game against the Detroit Red Wings, which would be an 11th game missed.
 
The Detroit contest is the beginning of a four-game road trip that continues in California. Hagelin would be eligible to play again Dec. 3 at the San Jose Sharks.   
 
Another option is a player with a more concerning injury. Fourth-line center Nic Dowd had a serious cut on his left hand against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 13. He has missed three games in a row, but the injury is considered more serious. Dowd would not be able to return until a Dec. 9 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. 
 
“He's a little bit more serious than we anticipated, so he's still not on the ice,” Reirden said. “I'm going to wait to get final word from our trainer and I'll speak on that when I have that news.”
 
Dowd has a salary-cap hit of $750,000. Hagelin is at $2.75 million. The Capitals are down to $259,059 current daily cap space, according to the web site CapFriendly.com, and has been juggling players between the NHL and AHL roster (goalie Ilya Samsonov, defenseman Tyler Lewington, Travis Boyd, Vitek Vanacek, Liam O’Brien) thanks to the untimely injuries to Dowd and Hagelin. 
 
A possible Hathaway suspension complicates that further. The Capitals are headed to New York on Tuesday afternoon, but NHL executives are busy with the General Managers' meetings in Toronto so it is possible they don't find out for sure until Tuesday night or even Wednesday morning. 
 
“I haven't really thought about it, but you never want to sit and leave guys hanging and not be able to help out,” Hathaway said. “So this is a group that it would be unfortunate if I wasn't [playing], but they are a team that can handle themselves and not worried about them in the outcomes of games." 

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