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Why playing in Pittsburgh could limit how much we see Jakub Vrana on the top line

Why playing in Pittsburgh could limit how much we see Jakub Vrana on the top line

As the clocked ticked past the halfway point of Saturday's Game 5, fans groaned as Devante Smith-Pelly remained on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The Caps were down 3-2 and that combination just wasn't working. A change was needed. Late in the second period, Trotz moved Jakub Vrana up to the top line and that's when everything changed.

Just 52 seconds into the third period, Vrana's pass launched Evgeny Kuznetsov on a breakaway to tie the game at three. With less than five minutes to go, Vrana then scored what would be the game-winning goal to give the Caps a 4-3 lead.

With Tom Wilson set to miss Game 6 as the final game of his three-game suspension, the Caps still have a hole on the right wing at the top line. Obviously, that role now belongs to Vrana, right?

Maybe not.

"[Vrana's] been up and down," Trotz said to the media on Sunday. "I'm not going to tell you exactly what I'm going to do, but we'll see where we are. For me, it's situational a little bit more. When you're looking for a bump, he's a real good guy to go there."

The issue is defense.

An Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Vrana line is a very dangerous offensive line, but playing in the defensive zone is not a strong suit for any of those three players. On Saturday this did not hurt the Capitals, but now that the series is shifting back to Pittsburgh for Game 6, the Penguins will have an opportunity to exploit this because of the line change rules..

In the NHL, the home team is given a chance to change lines during a stoppage in play after the visiting team. This allows the home team to see who your opponent has on the ice and put out whoever they want against them.

In Pittsburgh, the Penguins will get the opportunity to matchup against Washington's lines and you can bet Mike Sullivan will want to get Sidney Crosby's line out against an Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Vrana line as much as possible.

So when Trotz says Game 6 will be a little more "situational," that's why.

"There's certain matchups that we had control of [in Game 5] that we don't have," Trotz said. "That does make a difference. It's not really fantasy hockey. It's real-life hockey, and you've got to try to make the right adjustments, and we do as a group. We talk about every situation, what seems to work and what might give us the best chance. Some nights, it works, and some nights, it doesn't, so we have to have a real good game plan to be really good. We've got a lot of areas that we can tighten up, and we've got a lot of players we can tighten up."

So does this mean we won't see Vrana at all on the top line even after a phenomenal Game 5 performance? No, but it does mean Trotz will have to be more selective in when he does put that line on. It may mean putting Vrana on the top line only in offensive zone starts and somebody else in the defensive zone. It may mean a constant situational rotation of two different players on the right of the top line all game long to prevent Pittsburgh from exploiting their matchup opportunities.

The Caps were able to take advantage of the matchups they wanted at home in Game 5. They cannot let Pittsburgh return the favor in Game 6.


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Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

It doesn't take an expert to tell you players like Alex Ovechkin or Marc-Andre Fleury will play a big role in the Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights will need their best players to be at their best to take home the Cup. But who will be the unexpected heroes? Who are the players no one is talking about who will have a big hand in their team's success or defeat in this series?

Here are five players you should be watching in the Stanley Cup:

1. Devante Smith-Pelly: Smith-Pelly had seven goals in 79 games in the regular season. Now he has four goals in just 19 playoff games.

Smith-Pelly has been one of those unlikely playoff heroes for the Caps this postseason with very timely performances such as scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Columbus Blue and scoring the goal that put the game away in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The physical play has really stood out as well for him, which fits well on the fourth line role he has settled back into now that the team is healthy again. Barry Trotz tried moving him to the top line in the absence of Tom Wilson and the results weren't great. He is best suited for the role he currently has and that will allow him to thrive.

2. James Neal: Neal came up just short of the Stanley Cup last season as a member of the Nashville Predators. He totaled nine points in 22 games during that run, a number he has already matched in just 15 games this postseason.

There are very few players on either team that boast the kind of postseason experience Neal has. He will be leaned upon this series for his leadership.

Vegas is a young team and their unprecedented success in the playoffs may make this feel like the first run of many for the Golden Knights, but not for Neal who is on the last year of his contract and came tantalizingly close to the Cup last season. He will play like there is no tomorrow because, for him, there may not be in Vegas.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky was one of the heroes of Game 7 with two goals to put away the Tampa Bay Lightning. That marked just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys for the young winger. Just two games before, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch and spoke to the media about his plans to speak with a sports psychologist in the offseason.

The talent is there and it certainly appears that the injury that kept him out earlier in the playoffs is largely behind him. Burakovsky’s issues have always been mainly between the ears. In a series against a fast team with strong depth, he can be an absolutely critical piece for the Caps. Hopefully, his Game 7 performance gave him the confidence he needs to continue to be effective.

4. Ryan Reaves: Vegas acquired both Reaves and Tomas Tatar around the trade deadline. If I were to tell you that through three rounds of the playoffs, both players were healthy, had played the same number of games (6) and had the same number of points (1), you’d think I was crazy. Yet, here we are.

Reaves was largely an afterthought in a complicated trade between Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators, but he has carved a nice role for himself on the Golden Knights’ fourth line and even scored the goal that sent Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final against the Winnipeg Jets.

Reaves is also an agitator on the ice, but what do the Caps do against a player like that when their normal fighter plays on the top line? We may see Reaves and Wilson come to blows this series, but it won't be very often because that is a bad tradeoff for the Caps.

5. Brooks Orpik: The elder statesman of the blue line, Orpik is the only player on the Caps with a Stanley Cup to his name and is the only one who has any idea what this experience is going to be like for the team.

Orpik is very diligent about keeping in shape which has allowed him to play in 81 games this season and all 19 playoff games despite being 37 years old, but you do have to wonder how much is left in the tank. Despite being the favorite whipping boy for the proponents of analytics, his physical play has been effective this postseason. The focus he placed on the skating in the offseason has paid dividends so far in matchups against the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Golden Knights will be the fastest team they have played yet. There is no denying Orpik is much more suited towards a physical style of game. Wil he continue to be effective or will Vegas exploit the Caps' third defensive pairing?


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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

The wait is finally over. 

After two decades, the Capitals are back in the Stanley Cup Final. 

After a convincing 4-0 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Capitals are in Vegas to take on the Golden Knights. They'll be facing off against a handful of familiar names, with former Caps GM George McPhee, fan favorite Nate Schmidt, and ex-Penguins goalie Marc Andre-Fluery are just a few of the names that'll be suiting up for Vegas. 

What will the X-factors in the series be? Who will be the unexpected heroes of Game 1? The action is almost underway, and here are all the details you need to know.

Game 1 Capitals at Golden Knights
Date: Monday, May 28
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, NV.
TV Channel: NBCSN 
How To Watch Live StreamingNBC Sports App Live Stream
Radio: Capitals Radio Network (106.7 FM)


Game 1 of the Capitals-Golden Knights 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final takes place on Monday, May 28 at 8:00 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV.


The TV broadcast of Game 1 between the Capitals and Golden Knights is on NBC. Capitals pre- and postgame coverage takes place on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

5:00 p.m. — Caps Cup Preview
6:00 p.m. — Caps GameDay Live
6:30 p.m. — Caps Face Off
7:00 p.m. — Caps GameTime
8:00 p.m. — Game 1 Capitals vs. Golden Knights
10:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
11:30 p.m. — Caps Overtime


Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final between the Capitals and Golden Knights is available for online stream on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the NBC Sports live stream page.


Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals digital producer JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.