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Why is it important to keep a championship roster intact? Just ask the Penguins

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Why is it important to keep a championship roster intact? Just ask the Penguins

Much has been made of what the Capitals did this offseason in keeping their championship roster together, but to what end? Does that really put them at an advantage for next season?

You rarely see championship teams able to bring back the number and high-caliber players general manager Brian MacLellan re-signed this offseason because it is hard to do. When a player on the final year of his contract proves to be a key piece in a championship run, their price tag for the next season goes up. With those players plus the high-price superstar players a team needs in order to win, general managers quickly run out of cap space with which to work forcing a team into trades or letting some free agents walk.

Aside from Jay Beagle and Philipp Grubauer, however, Washington will return almost the exact same lineup for next season.

On the one hand, you know this roster is capable of winning because they just did it. On the other hand, it took a lot of money to re-sign players like John Carlson (eight years, $64 million) and Tom Wilson (six years, $31 million).

So what does this mean for the Caps’ hopes of repeating?

Let’s look at the most recent example, the rival Pittsburgh Penguins who won the Cup in both 2016 and 2017.

Following their 2016 championship, Pittsburgh lost defenseman Ben Lovejoy and goalie Jeff Zatkoff and made no additions to their NHL roster.

Lovejoy was the only real major departure. He played in all 24 games of the playoffs on the Cup run averaging 17:46 of ice time per night, fourth highest among the team’s defensemen. Zatkoff may have started two games in the playoffs, but that was because of injuries to both Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. His leaving did not affect the No. 1 or 2 spot on the team’s depth chart so you could harldy look at that as a major loss.

The result? Despite fears that a lengthy playoff run and the World Cup of Hockey over the summer would tire out the team’s stars, the Penguins went on to win their second Stanley Cup in a row, the first team to repeat as champs since 1997-98.

While Pittsburgh was able to keep the roster together after the first title, things were very different after the second. During the 2017 offseason, the Penguins lost Nick Bonino, Marc-Andre Fleury, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey and Chris Kunitz from the roster. They added Matt Hunwick, Antti Niemi and Ryan Reaves.

This time, the Penguins saw their run end in the second round at the hands of the Caps, a team they had tormented for years.

There are multiple factors that go into winning a Stanley Cup and I am in no way trying to simplify it and say the only reason Pittsburgh was able to repeat was because they kept their roster together. But keeping their championship roster together absolutely was at least a factor.

That’s also not to say that a team can’t repeat without making changes, but those changes have to be the right changes.

Hunwick played only 42 games for Pittsburgh this past season, Niemi was notably terrible and eventually waived and Daley was traded to Vegas. Those three did not come close to making up for the major pieces the Penguins lost.

Washington does not have to worry about that.

With the only notable departures being Grubauer and Beagle, the only questions the Caps face are backup goaltending and who will take the critical face-offs? Those issues both potentially could loom large, but every team in the NHL enters the season with question marks. If replacing a backup goalie and a fourth-line center are the biggest issues facing a roster we already know is capable of winning a Stanley Cup, then you are in pretty good shape.

Keeping their roster together helped Pittsburgh repeat. The Caps look to be taking a similar tactic to their title defense.

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5 reasons the Caps beat the Avalanche

5 reasons the Caps beat the Avalanche

A shorthanded Capitals team marched into Colorado and took a 3-2 overtime win over the Avalanche on Friday.

Here are five reasons the Caps won.

A big glove save

With no T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov or Braden Holtby, the Caps were a bit shorthanded heading into the game. After the Avalanche took a 1-0 lead just 68 seconds in, it felt like it could be a very long night for Washington.

It could have been if not for an early breakaway save by Pheonix Copley.

Soon after the goal, Nathan MacKinnon grabbed the puck on a breakaway. MacKinnon is one of the best offensive players in the league and not the guy you want to see going in alone on Copley on a breakaway.

Copley, however, flashed the glove and made the save to keep the game at 1-0.

One year ago to the day, the Caps lost 6-2 in Colorado. With the injuries Washington was dealing with, it’s not a stretch to think this game could have gone off the rails quickly had the Avalanche jumped out to a 2-0 lead.

Tic-Tac-Toe

The Caps struggled through the first period to get any real penetration on Colorado’s defense and were kept largely on the perimeter with very few high-danger opportunities. The Avalanche defense got a bit more porous in the second and Washington took advantage.

Travis Boyd collected the puck in the offensive zone below the goal line. As he skated along the wall, he found himself face-to-face with four Colorado players who were all just following the puck. As far as defense goes, that’s not an ideal situation. Boyd found a wide-open Chandler Stephenson on the cross-ice pass, Stephenson goes back left to Devante Smith-Pelly who had an empty net to shoot on to get the Caps on the board and tie the game at one.


Game speed

After six seasons in Washington, Philipp Grubauer has faced literally thousands of shots from Alex Ovechkin in practice. But he never faced one of those shots in a game until Friday. Those shots come off the stick a bit faster when it counts as Grubauer learned.

Nicklas Backstrom entered the offensive zone with the puck and backhanded it to Ovechkin. Backstrom kept driving to the net drawing the defense with him except for Tyson Barrie. Backstrom’s passed to the left, but Ovechkin collected it going right which caught Barrie flatfooted. Ovehckin easily skated around Barrie to find an open shooting lane, then snapped a shot past Grubauer to put the Caps up 2-1. Ovechkin’s celebration was almost instantaneous, he knew he had Grubauer beat.


A late penalty

The referees really put away the whistles in the third period. They even missed a clear high-stick to Dmitry Orlov that drew blood and should have been a double-minor. Colorado came back to tie the game, but Smith-Pelly finally drew a blatant holding penalty from Ian Cole with just over a minute left to go in regulation.

The Avalanche survived to force overtime, but Nicklas Backstrom scored the game-winner on the power play just 22 seconds in for the win.

Tom Wilson making a Tom Wilson play

Space is important in hockey. That’s what makes a four-on-three power play harder to cover than a five-on-four power play. You know what’s even better? A three-on-two.

The Caps entered overtime on a power play which gave them a four-on-three to start. Tom Wilson had the puck on the wall and took a hit from Carl Soderberg. He saw the hit coming and took it so he could make the pass to Backstrom. He won the board battle and the hit took Soderberg out of the play, giving the Caps a three-on-two in the offensive zone to work with. Backstrom passed to John Carlson who passed back to Backstrom. He had all day to fire the game-winner and it was all thanks to a tremendous play from Wilson that most people would not have noticed.

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No Kuznetsov, no Oshie and no Holtby for the Caps in Colorado

No Kuznetsov, no Oshie and no Holtby for the Caps in Colorado

The Capitals are going to be a bit shorthanded when they take on the Colorado Avalanche on Friday in Denver (9 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Washington Plus). Friday’s game will be exactly one year to the date since the Caps last played in Colorado, a 6-2 loss just two days after a 6-3 loss in Nashville. Those two games were the low point of the entire 2017-18 season forcing the Caps to rally in their return home.

Here are three things to watch as the Caps hope for a better result this year in Denver:

Injury adjustments

Prior to Friday’s morning skate, the team announced that Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Braden Holtby will all be out due to upper-body injuries. Holtby suffered an injury the morning of Wednesday’s game in Winnipeg while both Kuznetsov and Oshie were injured off of questionable hits from the Jets during the game.

There is at least some good news as defenseman Michal Kempny, who missed Wednesday’s game due to illness, is back in.

With all the injuries and the players coming and going, here’s a look at what the lines looked like at morning skate, per Isabelle Khurshudyan:

Alex Ovechkin – Lars Eller – Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana – Nicklas Backstrom – Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson – Travis Boyd – Brett Connolly
Dmitrij Jaskin – Nic Dowd – Devante Smith-Pelly

Michal Kempny – Matt Niskanen
Dmitry Orlov – John Carlson
Christian Djoos – Madison Bowey

Obviously a very different look offensively than what we have seen to this point.

Injuries are never good, but the silver lining is seeing who steps up when they are presented with an opportunity. Burakovsky is someone who desperately needs to break out and he is playing on a second line with a lot of skill. Boyd moving up to the third line is a player to watch as well.

Ilya Samsonov will be the backup goalie

With Holtby out, Pheonix Copley will make his third consecutive start. But the Caps won’t be using an emergency backup this time as the team has recalled star prospect Samsonov from the Hershey Bears and he was on the ice Friday morning in Denver. In a corresponding move, Jonas Siegenthaler was reassigned to Hershey, but that may be just a paper move and he will most likely stay with the team for the remainder of the road trip.

In eight appearances in Hershey this season, Samsonov has registered a 3.73 GAA and .875 save percentage. Those are not great numbers by any means, but both he and the team have improved drastically since the start of the season.

It is, of course, unlikely that Samsonov will play, but there is at least a chance of Samsonov getting into his first NHL game.

Philipp Grubauer will start for the Avalanche

Ironically enough, Colorado will have two goalies with more Capitals experience than the Caps will on Friday with Grubauer and Semyon Varlamov.

On Friday, it will be Grubauer who gets the nod against his former team and the team in which he helped win a Stanley Cup last season.

“Looking down, yeah it’s going to be weird seeing guys on the other end, but then once the puck drops it’s all about business,” Grubauer told reporters on Friday.

Grubauer has had a rough start with his new team, posting a 3.55 GAA and .893 save percentage, but despite that he also has managed a 3-1-1 record. That's a stark contrast to his start last year in which he posted incredible numbers but struggled to get into the win column early in the season.

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