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What we learned: Caps-Hurricanes game 1

What we learned: Caps-Hurricanes game 1

The Capitals left Capital One Arena on Thursday with a 4-2 win and in the end that was the most important thing. A 3-0 lead against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of a Stanley Cup playoff first-round series threatened to melt away. Washington held on down the stretch. It leads the series 1-0. That’s new! Last season the Capitals lost Game 1 to Columbus, Pittsburgh and Vegas, but won the Stanley Cup anyway. It’s tough to always crawl out of a hole and just because they did it then doesn’t mean they want a repeat. 

There were plenty of nuggets to take from Game 1. Many positive, but not all. Here are a few observations. 

 The Capitals blueline remains a work-in-progress

Last year, The Capitals had 20 games to get trade deadline pickup Michal Kempny plenty of time with defensive partner John Carlson. But Kempny is gone now, lost for the season with a hamstring injury. And the effort to find some stability there has a ways to go during 5-on-5 play. 

 Carlson started the game with Nick Jensen (10:10), spent time with Christian Djoos (:46) – that led to a goal in the third period, which appeared to be on Carlson - and also Brooks Orpik (5:45). Only the Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen pairing stayed intact. They played 18:12 together. Capitals coach Todd Reirden wasn’t messing with that duo. 

 But there are complications. Players downplay it, but Carlson has to shift to the left side when he’s with Jensen and back to his natural right side when with Orpik. That affects all kinds of things from the angle you take to your footwork to how you make an outlet pass. Jensen took shifts with Orpik (2:06) and Djoos (2:24) and that latter duo was scored upon, too. 

 Capitals played a hard, physical game. Now they need to do it smarter

There were plenty of big hits in the first period from forwards Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin and defenseman Brooks Orpik. That’s been Washington’s calling card the past few seasons. It is a big, heavy team that can wear down an opponent. We saw it in the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay last spring. But they didn’t have the puck enough in Game 1 and they didn’t get it into positions where the Carolina defensemen would pay the price to retrieve the puck near their own net. 

“When we’re playing our best hockey, we’re able to get in and forecheck with a physical presence and a physical element,” Reirden said after practice on Friday. “That’s all players. Not just certain guys.”

That means T.J. Oshie, whose relentless play helped fuel last year’s championship run. Even Andre Burakovsky laid low a couple of Hurricanes players on Thursday. Reirden really does mean everyone. You will know the Caps are playing well in Game 2 on Saturday if they’re more committed to putting pucks in places where the Hurricanes will feel the heat. 

 Carolina goalie Petr Mrazek is boom-or-bust 

The Hurricanes goalie has had big games against the Capitals before, especially when he played for the Detroit Red Wings. The Caps did what they had to do early in the game, which is crucial to tweak Mrazek’s confidence. As he gains steam, he can make some impossible saves look easy. Nick Backstrom used a tricky move to set up Mrazek’s own defenseman as a screen on his goal in the first period. It looked like a shot he should have stopped from the top of the right faceoff circle. But Mrazek isn’t a big man. He couldn’t see the puck. He didn’t even react. You can argue that one is on him. The result is the same. An early, deflating goal for Carolina to allow. The Caps power play went to work after that and it was 3-0. 

But it never got to four until the net was empty and nerves were tight. That’s because he stayed calm on a Nic Dowd breakaway at 2:29 of the third period with the score still 3-0. Dowd was angry at himself. “Oh, you mean the one I shot right into his chest?” But he also spoiled Carl Hagelin at 3:31 of the third. Again, it was a breakaway. Hagelin’s shriek of frustration could be heard in the press box at the top of the arena. His backhand move didn’t work. Then at 4:55 of the third, Jakub Vrana finds Brett Connolly all alone in front. 

 Game over, right? Nope. Mrazek holds his ground, makes a pad save and calmly sticks with it as Lars Eller slams a rebound at him. The Capitals paid for that sequence. Instead a 4-0 lead, the Hurricanes quickly pushed the puck up ice and Andrei Svechnikov bull rushed around John Carlson and scored. Just like that Mrazek had some confidence despite the loss. Now – does it carry over to Game 2?

Special teams might spell the difference in this series

The Capitals best players played with an intensity on the power we haven’t seen in a long time. They seemed to glide through stretches of the regular season certain their talent would lead to goals. It doesn’t work that way, though. You have to go after pucks, you have to make quick decisions. They did that on goals by Backstrom – the Hurricanes were too preoccupied with Ovechkin to notice him all alone at the left post – and Ovechkin, who was so hungry for a loose puck he knocked Tom Wilson to the ice getting there. 

The Hurricanes need to get better in a hurry here. They had a power-play advantage late in the game down 3-2 and couldn’t convert. They managed just three shots on three power-play chances. That last one, hurt, though. Let’s let Hurricanes forward Justin Williams explain in his own inimitable way:

“The power play was crap and the penalty kill was crap also,” Williams said. “I mean, listen, they’re going to get opportunities, obviously, but there’s a couple little things we looked at to do the best we can to nullify that and a couple things we looked at on the power play as well to be more impactful.”

 Williams added: “I say it every time: shots, tips, screens, rebounds. That’s what a power play is about. Your best players are usually on the ice and they need to make plays for us. So, when it’s not successful, you look at yourself in the mirror, you look at video, you check it out and say, ‘All right, this is what I can do better.’ And that’s what we did today.”

The Hurricanes don’t mess around

No surprise that the team with the most shots on goal in the NHL has an aggressive philosophy. Carolina will shoot the puck from anywhere and everywhere on the ice. They had 59 shot attempts at even strength to just 23 for the Capitals. That margin seems absurd. But it’s a function of how they play. The Capitals have to be opportunistic. They had multiple breakaways they didn’t finish. They have to produce on special teams. Only one of those things happened on Thursday. 

And when Carolina’s defensemen pinch deep into the offensive zone, Washington has to be able to skate it out of trouble and execute those breakaways when they get the chance. It’s a counter-punch mentality similar to the way the Penguins beat the Capitals two years in a row in the playoffs in 2016 and 2017. Washington often left those games thinking it had the better of the play. Pittsburgh often left with wins because it’s high-end talent was able to counter and score. 

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Just how deep is Washington's blue line?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Just how deep is Washington's blue line?

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? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Douglas F. writes: Now that we traded away Matt Niskanen will Nick Jensen be paired with Dmitry Orlov? I personally would like to see how Jonas Siegenthaler would do beside him. My ideal defensive pairings: John Carlson/Michal Kempny, Jonas Siegenthaler/Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen (or Radko Gudas)/ Christian Djoos. Would that make sense?

What you have to consider is the shooting side of each player. Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos are left-shot defensemen while John Carlson, Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas are all right-shot defensemen. I don’t see the team putting two leftys together in the top four. Right-shot defensemen are harder to find and the Caps have three of them. That is a luxury not every team gets and I do not see Washington going into the season with a plan to willingly giving up that advantage.

Brian MacLellan telegraphed his feelings on Jensen when he traded for him and re-signed him for four years before he ever put on a Caps jersey. They see him as a top-four and that is where they are going to use him.

Granted, if Jensen struggles then pretty much all options are on the table so perhaps we could see this possibility later in the season.

I also get your point on Siegenthaler. I liked him a lot last season. I was surprised it took four games to get him into the playoffs and I was not surprised to see him move up to the top pairing after that. For now, however, putting him on the third pair with Gudas makes the most sense to me not just because of his inexperience but because of the guys ahead of him.

Paul O. writes: With the glut of young defensemen in the prospect pool, along with good ones moving fast in Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary, has the team soured on Connor Hobbs and Lucas Johansen ever making the jump to the big club?

I am not sure “soured” would be the right word for it as I think this has more to do with how impressed the team has been with Alexeyev and Fehervary than any negative feelings towards Hobbs and Williams.

Hobbs was a fifth-round draft pick who has shown that he may have had more potential than initially thought and could reach the NHL, but he was always going to be a third-pairing type of player so it is no surprise to see highly touted prospects like Alexeyev and Fehervary push for the NHL before Hobbs makes it there. His defense has improved tremendously, but the offensive skill that made him a standout in the WHL has not translated to the AHL as of yet. Johansen was hampered greatly by an upper-body injury last season and looks very jumpy with the puck on his stick which is not good news for a player in whom puck-moving was supposed to be a major part of his game.

The bigger concern of the two would be Johansen as he is a first-round pick. That means the team saw him as being a significant NHL contributor and I do not think they would have anticipated him getting passed on the depth chart before reaching the NHL. Hobbs, however, was always going to be a long-shot as a fifth-rounder.

To me, the greater takeaway is not that the team has soured on anyone, but that they are so high on both Alexeyev and Fehervary. Hopefully the other two will continue to develop and eventually catch up, but the silver-lining is you have at least two defensemen the team seems pretty confident can compete for an NHL spot in the near future.

Luka K. writes: Hershey has eight defensemen who all deserve and need to play (Erik Burgdoerfer, Connor Hobbs, Lucas Johansen, Colby Williams, Alex Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary, Tobias Geisser, Tyler Lewington and probably Bobby Nardella)? Who is deemed surplus, an ECHL ticket or possible trade for forward prospect?

In addition to the nine you mentioned, Hershey also has Tommy Hughes and Kristofers Bindulis. That gives the Bears 11 defensemen which should make for a crowded blue line even for the AHL where teams carry more players. Of those nine, Burgdoerfer and Hughes are the only two not under contract with the Caps and are playing on AHL contracts with Hershey.

I would assume Bindulis is headed to the ECHL. He played in only four games for the Bears last season and 12 the season before with 34 games in the ECHL with the South Carolina Stingrays. He certainly looks like the odd-man out. Hughes played last season in Europe, but was with Hershey in 2017-18 and spent the majority of that season in the ECHL. I could easily see him head there this year as well, though I expect Hershey wanted him and Burgdoerfer as veterans to help the younger guys.

Speaking of the younger guys, if they are struggling with the transition and are not getting much playing time, they may get a tour in South Carolina, but the Caps will want to see their top prospects in action and I imagine most of those players will stick around in Hershey.

The only one I could potentially see eventually being on the trade block is Johansen. As a first-round pick, he still could have some trade value. When you start getting passed on the team’s depth chart, it does not take long before your trade value surpasses your on-ice value.

Brian D. writes: Can you please explain the Connor McMichael signing? He’s not going to crack the Caps roster this year and he’s too young to play in the AHL so it’s almost guaranteed he’s going back to juniors this year. So why pay a salary to a player (and burn years off his entry level contract) to play in juniors the next two years? Why not wait till he’s ready to play professional hockey to start paying him and using his entry level contract years?

Barring a miraculous performance in training camp, no, Connor McMichael is not going to make the NHL roster this year. You are also correct in that he is still with his junior team so, by rule, he cannot play in the AHL. He can either play in the NHL or the OHL this season, there are no other options. The good news, however, is that McMichael is not going to burn a year off his contract.

Because most players require more development before they reach the NHL, entry-level contracts slide so as not to punish a team for its patience. So long as McMichael does not play 10 NHL games next season, he will not burn the first year of his contract and will not earn a salary. The only money he will be paid is his signing bonus. There are rules as to when an unsigned draft pick becomes a free agent and when some players get close to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, they elect to wait it out and head into free agency. Signing these players to NHL contracts early in their careers when they are excited about getting drafted is much easier than waiting until they start to think the grass may be greener on the other side.

So why not just immediately sign every draft pick to a contract and let them continuously slide until you need them thus avoiding losing them to free agency? Because teams are limited to only 50 contracts and teams could quickly run out of room to sign or trade for more players they may desperately need. The Caps ran into this issue last season. With 50 players already under contract, the team could not sign highly touted prospect Chase Priskie who has declared he will wait until Aug. 15 when he will become a free agent. If the team could have signed Priskie at the end of his college season last year and brought him right away to the AHL or NHL it could potentially have enticed him to sign. Instead the Caps now stand to lose him for nothing.

So I hear you, Brian, but there is no reason to fear. Now the Caps have McMichael signed and do not have to worry about him holding out for free agency several years from now, but they also are not losing any contract years.

Phillip M. writes: With the Seattle Expansion Draft approaching and the Caps having signed most of their key players through the next 2 years I have a question. NHL teams can protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and a goalie, or any 8 skaters plus 1 goalie. I understand first and second year NHL players, and unsigned draft choices are exempt. So I assume that means signed non-NHL playing draft choices can be selected. Are Alex Alexeyev, Connor McMichael, Brett Leason and Ilya Samsonov available to be selected by Seattle? Who do you expect the team will most likely protect?

What qualifies as first and second-year players to the NHL is players who have finished at least two seasons of professional North American play. I explained above how a player burns the first year of his entry-level contract. With the expansion draft two years away, that means any prospects who remain with their junior teams at least through this season will not qualify not have to worry about the expansion draft including McMichael.

Ilya Samsonov already burned the first year of his contract last season and with Alexeyev and Leason expected to play in Hershey this season, all three will likely qualify for the expansion draft..

It is really hard to project between now and 2021, but if you insist:

Seven forwards: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller, Brett Leason

Three defensemen: John Carlson, Jonas Siegenthaler, Alex Alexeyev

Goalie: Ilya Samsonov

Don’t hold me to this, a lot can happen in two years.

John F. writes: Will an enterprising team owner (with deep pockets) ever consider building an outdoor arena designed specifically for hockey? Sticking an outdoor game in a baseball or football stadium seems like a bad way to watch a hockey game.

I can’t see this ever happening. Maintaining a playable ice surface is incredibly hard to do inside in an arena. When you put it outside, you are greatly complicating things. The league does a great job with its outdoor games, but this is just for one game. Building an entire stadium for the limited number of Winter Classics and Stadium Series games it would host would not be feasible. If you are suggesting a team could have all its home games outdoors, this would be a nightmare in terms of maintaining the ice surface for the full season especially when the weather gets warm. Heaven forbid you try to have a playoff game there.

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

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Capitals center Lars Eller is busy working on his shot this summer

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Capitals center Lars Eller is busy working on his shot this summer

With the Washington Capitals season ending in April and training camp beginning in September, players are on their own to get their summer work in.

Center Lars Eller took to Instagram on Wednesday to show his followers that he's been working on his shot in the offseason.

The 6-foot-2 Dane scored 13 goals for the Caps last season, adding one more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With three months to go before the first puck drops in the 2019-2020 season, Eller will hope his extra work this summer will translate to the ice in the fall.

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