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NHL Power Rankings: How much are the Capitals trailing the Lightning this week?

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USA TODAY Sports

NHL Power Rankings: How much are the Capitals trailing the Lightning this week?

The Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning met for the first time since the Conference Final on Saturday. The game resulted in a 6-3 loss for the Caps, but it was very close with Tampa Bay adding two empty-net goals to seal the win. The game certainly felt like a playoff preview going in, and it absolutely did not disappoint.

Would anyone be interested in watching a seven-game series between those two teams based on what we saw Saturday? Yes, please.

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The Lightning's offense was as good as advertised and seemed to take Washington by surprise at the start. As good as Tampa Bay was last season, this team is even better. When they set up in the offensive zone, they made a lot of one touch passes that made it nearly impossible for the defense to catch up.

As the game went on, however, you began to see the formula for Washington's success last season. The Caps seemed to wear out the Lightning with a grinding offensive cycle. A poor start to the game and an early turnover in the third period that resulted in a goal were the major differences in this one. Otherwise, it was very even with Washington getting the better of the play as the game went along.

Saturday was the first of three games between the Caps and Lightning to close out the season. It will be fascinating to see how this matchup evolves in the next two games.

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Here are a few recent observations and thoughts on the Caps.

♦ One reason the Caps beat the Lightning last season is because of their physical play. Washington just began pushing Tampa Bay around and it had no response. The Lighting were aggressively physical and threw their weight around a bit on Saturday looking to send a message that this year would be different. Here’s the thing though, while Tampa Bay was credited with more hits (33 to 23), I felt the Caps were far more effective with it. Playing physical is not about just laying hits whenever you have the chance, it’s also about wearing an opponent down. That was the major difference in the playoffs and after a bad start, that’s how the Caps nearly came back on Saturday. The early goal in the third period was the killer as it felt like Washington was on the verge of taking the game over.

♦ Tom Wilson’s hit on Mikhail Sergachev was shoulder to shoulder and the only reason there was any reaction to it at all is because the guy who laid the hit was wearing No. 43. This should serve as an important reminder to him. In 2017-18, Wilson was suspended for a hit in the preseason and stayed clean through the entire regular season before getting suspended in the playoffs. If he is not extra careful with his physical play this postseason, the NHL is going to throw the book at him and it is really going to cost the team. Saturday should serve as a reminder to Wilson that the microscope is on him every time he hits anyone.

♦ Alex Ovechkin is two goals away from his eighth 50-goal season with 10 games left to go. If he gets there, he will be only the fourth player to score 50 or more goals at the age of 33 or older joining John Bucyk, Jaromir Jagr and Bobby Hull. Don’t take what you’re watching for granted. This is one of the all-time greats.

♦ Whether the second defensive pairing is being weighed down by Dmitry Orlov or Matt Niskanen is a matter of some debate. To me, it is essentially irrelevant to this point because they both clearly need to play better. You cannot turn the puck over like they did against Tampa Bay and expect to get away with it.

♦ Washington’s playoff lineup looks all but set at this point. The only real position that appears to be up for grabs is fourth line center. I believe Nic Dowd has out-performed Chandler Stephenson this season, but I believe Todd Reirden disagrees with that. I know the team really likes what Stephenson brings to the penalty kill. With his speed, I think he could be a Carl Hagelin type of player, but I have not seen him have that kind of an impact yet.

♦ If you’re looking ahead to playoff opponents the three most likely candidates for the first round are Pittsburgh, Carolina and Columbus. Before the injury to Evgeni Malkin I would have guessed Pittsburgh would finish third with Carolina and Columbus as the two wild cards. Now I am not sure, especially given that the Hurricanes and Penguins still have two more against one another.

Tampa Bay is far and away the top team in the league, but how far behind them are the Caps? Find out here in this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings.

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MORE CAPITALS NEWS

Candidates for GW's men's basketball coaching vacancy include... former Georgetown John Thompson III

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Candidates for GW's men's basketball coaching vacancy include... former Georgetown John Thompson III

Former Georgetown coach John Thompson III is among the pool of potential candidates for the George Washington men's basketball head coaching job, multiple sources tell NBC Sports Washington.

George Washington announced Friday the firing of head coach Maurice Joseph following his third season with the Colonials. Joseph, 33, finished with a 44-57 record including 9-24 during the 2018-19 season that ended with a second-round loss in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

Thompson, 53, compiled a 278-151 record during 13 seasons at Georgetown before his dismissal following the 2016-17 season.

Thompson’s teams at Georgetown won three Big East regular-season titles and reached the NCAA Tournament eight times with an appearance in 2007 Final Four. Several of his players turned into NBA standouts including Otto Porter, Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert. After 11 consecutive winning seasons, the Hoyas finished 15-18 and 14-18 in Thompson’s final two seasons.

The Washington, D.C. native also won three Ivy League championships as Princeton’s head coach.

Thompson spent the last two seasons as a college basketball analyst for ESPN and an assistant coach for USA Basketball. Thompson recently told The Athletic he is ready to get back into coaching.

“We’ll see what the future holds,” Thompson said of his coaching prospects. “I don’t know if this is going to sound crazy, but I think (I’m better) in every area. … Looking at all of that, I think … it’s been a good two years for my growth.”

His selection would be fascinating. The Georgetown and GW campuses are separated by less than two miles. Thompson’s family, including his iconic coaching father John Jr., remain prominent fixtures at Georgetown. The two programs are historic rivals with 93 all-time meetings but have not played head-to-head since the 1981-82 season.

Joseph, a former assistant under Mike Lonergan, was thrust into his first head-coaching job on an interim basis at age 31 amid a chaotic situation.

Five months after Lonergan directed the Colonials to the 2016 postseason NIT championship, the school fired the coach following a Washington Post report and an internal investigation into concerns over verbal and emotional abuse with players.

Joseph was promoted 10 days later. With future NBA players Tyler Cavanaugh and Yuta Watanabe on the roster, Joseph led the Colonials to a 20-win season and received a contract extension in 2017. 

He entered the 2018-19 seasons with a roster filled with underclassmen and newcomers. Losing forward Arnoldo Toro seven games into the season following hip surgery removed the Colonials top rebounder and most experienced returning player.

Despite Joseph’s best efforts, connections to the previous regime hovered over his three seasons. The firing allows the school to move finally forward under the direction of GW president Thomas LeBlanc and promote specific advantages including the fertile recruiting area.

The Colonials have reached the NCAA Tournament only four times in the last 20 seasons and once since the 2013-14 campaign.

According to data provided by the U.S. Department of Education, GW’s 2016 budget for the men’s basketball program ($2.94 million) ranked below the Atlantic 10 Conference average of $4.3 million and 13th among the league’s 14 teams. The 2018-19 numbers are comparable, according to a source.

Thompson’s individual salary alone at Georgetown, based on published reports, topped GW’s 2016 basketball budget.

The sense from the Foggy Bottom campus has the University invested in program stability and becoming and a year in, year out winner, with the search focusing on current D1 head coaches or assistants at high majors with significant postseason experience.

Bowling Green head coach Michael Huger, Louisiana Tech head coach Eric Konkol and Duke assistant coach Nate James are among the other likely candidates, NBC Sports Washington has learned.

Several of the other potential candidates have ties to University of Miami head coach Jim Larranaga. LeBlanc served as executive vice president and provost at Miami from 2005 until his move to GW in 2017.

Huger and Konkol are both former Larranaga assistants at George Mason. Huger, 48, directed Bowling Green to a 22-12 record in his fourth season. Konkol, 83-49 during his four seasons with Louisiana Tech, led the Bulldogs to a 20-13 record this season.

James, a D.C. native, won an NCAA championship at Duke in 2001 and served on Mike Krzyzewski's coaching staff since 2007.

Other potential candidates include Miami assistant Chris Caputo and UMBC head coach Ryan Odom.

A spokesperson for GW declined to comment when asked about the potential candidates in the coaching search.

The Colonials are poised to return their entire roster including leading scorers D.J. Williams and Terry Nolan Jr.

MORE NCAA NEWS: 

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