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Who will the Caps' backup goalie be next season?

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USA TODAY Sports

Who will the Caps' backup goalie be next season?

Very few teams have the luxury of having a backup goalie they can rely on for an extended period of time while the starter goes through a massive slump. The Capitals had that luxury in 2017-2018 thanks to Philipp Grubauer.

Not every team in the NHL has a dependable starter, let alone backup, so when a backup goalie goes 15-10-3 in a season with a 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage, that is likely to catch the attention of general managers around the league.

The 2018-19 season will likely be a season of transition for the Capitals behind Braden Holtby. General manager Brian MacLellan expressed his willingness Wednesday to possibly trade backup goalie Philipp Grubauer this offseason. With the season he just had, he could potentially yield the Caps a solid return.

But, if Grubauer is indeed moved, that leaves the question of who will play backup for the Capitals this season?

The initial plan appears to be to promote Pheonix Copley from the AHL.

“Yeah, I think he's capable of it,” MacLellan said when asked if he saw Copley as an NHL backup. “Obviously, he's unproven. I think he's done what he could do at the American League level. Got through probably a little bit of a tough patch this year recovering from an injury, but I think he has potential to be that guy, yes.”

Copley, 26, played last season with the Caps’ AHL affiliate Hershey Bears. He had a tough season with a 2.91 GAA and .896 save percentage in 41 games.

As MacLellan alluded, Copley suffered a serious injury at the end of the previous season and it clearly affected his season. The year prior, Copley managed a 2.15 GAA and .931 with Hershey in 16 games. He was considered Washington’s No. 3 goalie this season and was recalled for the playoffs as an emergency backup behind Grubauer.

Copley’s career includes only two NHL games.

There is another internal candidate who some fans may be hoping to see next season. That of course, is 2015 first-round draft pick Ilya Samsonov.

Samsonov, 21, signed an entry-level contract with Washington in May and will make the jump from the KHL to North America next season.

But don’t expect to see Samsonov backing up Holtby to start the NHL season.

Samsonov will be adjusting to the North American game and the smaller North American rink. Because of that, MacLellan believes he will benefit from time in the AHL before making the jump to the NHL.

"I think he needs time in Hershey,” MacLellan said. “We'll start him in Hershey I would anticipate and see how he grows, see how he gets accustomed to the small rink and hopefully get some good coaching, get our guys in that work with him. It'll be up to him. I think he'll adapt fairly quickly given his skill set.”

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Devante Smith-Pelly provided exactly what the Capitals needed on and off the ice in his return to Washington

Devante Smith-Pelly provided exactly what the Capitals needed on and off the ice in his return to Washington

WASHINGTON – On paper, the addition of Devante Smith-Pelly to the Capitals lineup should not have mattered. A team that was held to one goal in its past two games lost its second leading goal scorer from the regular season in T.J. Oshie to injury. To replace him, the team recalled Smith-Pelly from the AHL who had just four goals and four assists in 54 games this season.

But hockey is not played on paper.

Though he did not record a point in Saturday’s 6-0 Game 5 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, Smith-Pelly’s impact on his line, on his team and on the game was undeniable.

“Good to get Devo back,” Brett Connolly said. “I thought he was very good tonight. It gives our team a little different element when he's forechecking and people are aware when he's on the ice and he did a great job.”

The day started with an ovation from the crowd at MedStar Capitals Iceplex as Smith-Pelly took to the ice for the morning skate. After scoring seven goals in 24 playoff games last season and becoming one of the playoff heroes that helped lead Washington to its first Stanley Cup, Smith-Pelly has become a fan favorite for the Capitals faithful. That excitement carried over into the game.

Smith-Pelly delivered a hit to Carolina forward Nino Niederreiter on his very first shift which brought the crowd at Capital One Arena to its feet in a standing ovation. Chants of “DSP” echoed through the arena in recognition of his return to the team.

“It's a great feeling,” Smith-Pelly said. “I think all I was doing was down the lane, just cutting off the forecheck and they started chanting. It's a nice feeling and I'm glad to be back.”

“I think we drew a lot from Devo being here,” Nic Dowd said. “His first couple shifts, he got the crowd into it. Guys are just excited. It kind of brings a different buzz when you add a new element like that and our crowd was behind us.”

Through the first four games of the series, Washington’s bottom-six on offense had been largely invisible. Lars Eller had the only points among those forwards with a goal—an empty-netter in Game 1—and an assist. But it was not just the offensive production, those lines seemed to have little positive impact on the game at all including physically.

“We've been disappointed with our lack of physical play, even when we had success here in 1 and 2,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “We just felt that we really hadn't imposed our will and played the type of physical brand of hockey that we're capable of."

The addition of Smith-Pelly to the fourth line added a physical presence to that line that had been lacking throughout the series. The entire team came out with more of a physical edge to it and Smith-Pelly had a lot to do with that. He was credited with five hits in the game, the third most among the team’s forwards, despite getting only 10:43 of ice time.

“I felt great,” Smith-Pelly said. “It'd be hard not to have the adrenaline going coming back and playing my first game.”

You could be forgiven for not noticing the fourth line in any of the prior four games in the series, but you certainly noticed it on Saturday.

The physical tone set by the fourth line and the entire Caps team took its toll on Carolina as the Hurricanes seemed to wear down as the game went on. A 1-0 game at the halfway point turned into a 6-0 win by the end. Instead of dumping the puck into offensive zone and forcing his teammates to chase, Warren Foegele made an ill-advised pass to no one in the neutral zone and Alex Ovechkin took in the other direction leading to a Capitals goal. Later in the period, defenseman Dougie Hamilton stopped skating and yielded to Ovechkin as they were in a footrace for the puck along the boards behind the goal line in Carolina’s defensive zone.

“No matter who you are, when you have to keep going back over and over and over and you're getting hit, to break the puck out I mean it takes a toll I think,” Smith-Pelly said. “You saw that second and third period. Those guys are playing big minutes and we're making it hard on them.”

But Smith-Pelly’s impact was not just felt in the game, it was felt long before.

Losing a player like Oshie to injury is about so much more than just losing a talented player. Oshie was called a “heart-and-soul guy” in the wake of suffering a brutal looking upper-body injury in Game 4. Not only is he one of the leaders of the team, but his boundless energy is contagious. There was never a worry if he would be able to get up for a game and he always did his best to get his teammates up for it as well, whether that meant being a personality within the locker room, playing with 100-percent effort, laying a big hit or just pumping up the team with a goofy warm-up tradition.

Losing Oshie from the locker room may be harder to quantify than losing him on the ice, but it may actually be the more damaging loss.

Bringing in a player as well-liked as Smith-Pelly, however, was exactly what the team needed.

“I think when you go through the situation like we went through the last couple days in terms of losing one of our top players and leaders, you use that as an opportunity that someone's got to take advantage of,” Reirden said. “From what Devante's gone through this year, very well-liked player in our locker room. It was a nice, I'd say distraction from us losing a top, top player, top leader on our team. Everyone was excited about getting him back into the mix. We felt like not just having him around as a person, but the style of game that he was going to play was something we've been lacking in the series and that's the physicality and being able to have puck possession in the offensive zone.”

Smith-Pelly said after the game that he tried not to think about a possible return while he was in Hershey and instead tried to focus just on having an impact for the Bears. While he might not have wanted to think about it, however, it was clear he was ready for the call. Once it came, he certainly made the most of it on Saturday.

Said Reirden, “Definitely he gave us a boost both with how his game was on the ice, but also having him back in our locker room.”

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Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

WASHINGTON — It had been nine years since Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom last had a four-point game in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That was a different time, an era when Backstrom and his teammates too often faltered under the weight of enormous expectations.  That’s all gone now. There is a Stanley Cup banner hanging in the rafters at Capital One Arena to prove it. Now they can all just play. 

With teammate T.J. Oshie hurt and likely out for the season, Backstrom continued to raise his own game in Game 5 of a first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. He had two goals and two assists in a 6-0 thrashing as Washington took a 3-2 series lead and pushed the Hurricanes to the brink of elimination. Alex Ovechkin added a goal and two assists.  

Backstrom’s last four-point playoff games was April 17, 2010. He had a hat trick that night and scored the game-winning goal in overtime. 

“That was probably Montreal, right?” Backstrom said before confessing. “Yeah, Ovi told me. He remembers everything.”

Those were darker days. The Capitals blew a 3-1 series lead against Montreal that year and maybe the best team of the Ovechkin era went out in the first round despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy. No wonder Backstrom needed help remembering. 

There is no such issue this season. The 31-year-old Swede is carrying the Capitals, who are one game away from advancing. It was his second two-goal game of the series. He has five total, which matches his career high for one playoff series set in 2010 against the Canadiens. He and Ovechkin, who has seven points in the series (three goals, four assists) set a tone and their teammates followed. 

"In all areas, too,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “Obviously they got on the point sheet, but their play away from the puck, on the forecheck, supporting each other, they're real tough to play against when they play like that and I thought they've been doing a great job all playoffs, too.”

Backstrom’s five goals matched what he had all last postseason when the Caps won the Cup. He missed games because of a broken finger, but still played in 20 and had five goals and 18 assists. He matched his total output of eight points in 2009 against Pittsburgh and 2018 against Columbus. His career best is again that Montreal series when he had nine points. Not that he cares about that now. None of the Caps do. If the production leads to wins and advancing to the second round, that’s all that matters.  

“It’s good for the confidence I think. But it’s going to be a different game in Carolina,” Backstrom said. “We’ve just got to regroup here and move forward. That was just a 3-2 lead. Toughest one is the last one. We haven’t been happy with the way we’ve played in Carolina so far. Let’s change that.”

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