Matt Niskanen

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Matt Niskanen returns to Washington for the first time as a Flyer

Matt Niskanen returns to Washington for the first time as a Flyer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Even though the calendar has already turned to February and the season is more than halfway through, Saturday’s marquee matchup between the Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington), will be the first matchup between these teams in Washington this season. That means Saturday night will also mark the return of Matt Niskanen.

“It is certainly going to be something,″ Niskanen told the media on Friday on his return. “A lot of good memories there. Enjoyed my time there. Had a ton of fun. It will be weird being on the other side.″

One of the first moves Brian MacLellan made as general manager of the Caps was to bring in Niskanen to shore up a defense in desperate need of top-four talent. Niskanen joined the organization in 2014, the same years as Todd Reirden who was hired as part of Barry Trotz’s staff. Now the head coach of the Capitals, Reirden spoke highly of the impact Niskanen had with the team and how he contributed to its success, including the Cup run.

“I think he had a huge role in it,” Reirden said Saturday after the morning skate. “Just did a great job of coming in, especially from my end of things working with the defensemen. He was someone that I coached for a number of years and had seen his game grow from just being a seventh guy when he came to us in Pittsburgh to ultimately during injury times being a No. 1 or 2 and obviously earning a great deal with Washington. He was a great role model for a lot of our defensemen in terms of how he practices, the habits, the systems, the details. Made my job a lot easier coming in and having a live example of how to do things properly.”

When a team wins a Stanley Cup, that brings with it nostalgia for every player on that team. There have already been a number of players who have moved on from the Caps recognized this season in their return to Capital One Arena. On Sunday, it will finally be Niskanen’s turn.

“I’m going to do my best to just focus on a win,″ Niskanen said. “If they do one of those (tributes), I’ll deal with it the best I can in the moment.″

“It'll be good to have him recognized by the fans, Reirden said. “He's a fan favorite. Just a true pro.”

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Capitals complete undefeated month, Ovechkin lets up on Niskanen and is Oshie the best shootout player ever?

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Capitals complete undefeated month, Ovechkin lets up on Niskanen and is Oshie the best shootout player ever?

The Capitals have not lost in regulation in a month. With their 2-1 shootout victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday, Washington extended its point streak to 13 games. The Caps have won 11 of their last 12 and have not lost in regulation since Oct. 14.

Check out Wednesday's game recap here.

Observations from the win

Panik is close

This was easily Richard Panik’s best game as a Cap. He had four shots on goal in the first period and six for the game. He had only seven shots on goal total in his nine games prior to Wednesday. He looked like one of the more dangerous offensive players for Washington and the third line actually looked offensively dangerous.

Now here’s the key, Panik has to continue playing like this. He can’t deliver a performance like this once every 10 games, this needs to be the new normal and not the exception.

Radko Gudas

Yeah, this game mattered to Gudas. He was far more aggressive in the offensive zone than we have seen him at any point this season. In the first period, he cut through the middle of the offensive zone and dangled the puck like a scoring winger. He nearly scored and that would have been a goal to remember.

No consistency by the refs

Slashing is called differently in today’s NHL than it was ten years ago. Heck, it is different than it was five years ago. Old-school hockey enthusiasts hate it, but whatever. It's fine. There’s not enough padding on the gloves and players get hurt from even innocent-looking slashes. It's better to have a few soft calls in the game than more broken fingers.

If you are going to call those light slashes as penalties, that’s fine, but you have to do it consistently. The issue is not that refs are calling too many slashes, it’s just that there is no consistency with those calls.

Jakub Vrana was called for a very light slash on Ivan Provorov in the second period. By the letter of the law, it was a slash. OK, they called it and that means that this is the standard you have now set. In the third period, Sean Couturier gave Wilson a whack in front of the net while he was battling for the puck. Ten years ago, no one would have batted an eyelash over it, t was just a light tap. But the refs set the standard with the Vrana slash, yet there was no call. You could see Wilson, he is used to having grown men throw their fists at his face, complain about what was a light tap to the refs. The severity of the slash was not the problem, consistency was.

That’s the frustrating part. It’s not that the Vrana slash was called, it’s that the same standard was not kept throughout the game.

Ovechkin on Niskanen

In the second period, Alex Ovechkin had Matt Niskanen square in his sights. The commentators on the broadcast praised Ovechkin for following through on his hit even though it was against his former teammate. I hate to disagree, but it sure looks to me like Ovechkin could have ended Niskanen with this hit. I’m fairly certain Ovechkin took something off this, but you be the judge:

Eastern conference

The Caps have played only eight games against the Eastern Conference in their first 20. In those eight games, Washington has not lost a single one in regulation and now has a record of 7-0-1.

Turning point

After the first period, this looked like it was going to be an easy win for the Caps who were completely dominating. After two periods, it looked like Washington would have to settle for a narrow victory. Then Nic Dowd toe picked in front of Matt Niskanen and fell into the former Caps’ legs. As happens in hockey, one bad penalty call quickly turned into a goal as Claude Giroux scored on a 2-on-1 to tie the game.

That was the difference between a regulation win and a shootout win on Wednesday for Washington.

Play of the game

There were a number of great saves by Holtby as the Flyers began to tip the scales in their favor after the first period. This one stands out as the best as Tyler Pitlick thought he could spin and tuck the puck into the far-side of the net, but Holtby was able to turn him aside with the toe.


Stat of the game

T.J. Oshie is not just one of the best shootout players in the league, he is the best shootout player ever.


Quote of the game

Holtby does not say much after games. He talks about shutting everything out and focusing just on his play. He does not get excited for shutouts or overly down on himself after bad games. His entire focus is helping the team win.

One reporter asked Holtby if playing in a game like Wednesday's is more fun because of how he has to push himself when the oppositions' goalie plays so well. Holtby's answer reflects how much respect he has for Philadelphia's Carter Hart.

"Yeah it is. Especially when it’s a guy that’s fun to play against obviously. Connections in different ways. Being Western Canadian, I root for those guys. It was fun. It was fun to see him play really well and it was fun to compete like that."

Fan predictions

Gudas and Holtby were closest. Gudas was buzzing and nearly scored in the first period. Holtby allowed only one goal and was 13:45 away from the shutout.

The Caps as a team could not muster two goals against Hart so that streak is now over.

Ovechkin fell just a bit shy of scoring the 224 goals he needed to pass Gretzky’s record on Wednesday. Oh well, there’s always Friday’s game.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: How the Matt Niskanen trade sets up the rest of the Caps’ offseason

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: How the Matt Niskanen trade sets up the rest of the Caps’ offseason

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want to be answered 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.

There usually is no rush in re-signing restricted free agents since teams own their rights. Having said that, I thought the deal for Jakub Vrana would get done quickly so that Brian MacLellan would know how much money he had to work with under the cap. It would make sense for Vrana too because, with every signing, there is less money for him. Yet, we are still waiting.

This issue may get a little complicated with reports saying the salary cap could actually be lower than initially expected. Still, that probably does not affect Vrana’s final number, it just affects how much money the Caps will have to spend on other players. Whatever moves MacLellan still wants to make, he will have to leave enough room to get Vrana re-signed. I expect this deal to get done soon after the cap is finalized, but long before July 1.

As for Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, we could see a bit of momentum on the Backstrom front. Moving Niskanen did not just save cap room for this season, but for the following year. Gudas has only one year remaining on his contract while Niskanen had two. There is zero chance Holtby gets extended this summer, however. With the expansion draft looming and goalie Ilya Samsonov as the team’s No. 1 prospect, all decisions regarding the team’s future in net will be on hold until we see how both players perform this season. If Samsonov looks ready to step into the NHL, it may ultimately not make sense to re-sign Holtby at all. That’s just the reality of the business.

Darren L. writes: With the trade of Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas and the subsequent signing of Carl Hagelin, do you think there is still a chance, however slim, that Brett Connolly can be re-signed?

Benjamin C. writes: Now that we’ve sign Carl Hagelin does that basically end Connolly’s time in Washington?

Before the offseason, I was not sure it would be an either/or scenario between Hagelin and Connolly. When the realities of the salary cap set in, however, it seems pretty clear that re-signing Hagelin means Connolly’s tenure in Washington is over. The one caveat is that I did not expect Hagelin’s cap hit to be under $3 million as I thought there would be a market for him in free agency. He wanted to stay, however and was willing to take less per year for term. Kudos to MacLellan for getting Hagelin’s cap hit down to $2.75 million.

Connolly is coming off a season in which he scored 22 goals in a third-line role and limited power play time. Hockey-Graphs projects him to get a deal worth just over $3.5 million per year. To me, I think he could get more than that. I am of the opinion that there will be teams out there willing to offer Connolly more money and a bigger role than what the Caps can which will make it hard to keep him. If the offers all end up in the $3.5 million range, however, Washington could potentially afford that. So there is a chance, more than I would have thought, of keeping Connolly at $3.5 million per year. That’s about the limit I think they could afford and if his price tag goes up, that will be the end of that.

Darren L. writes: I keep reading that the Caps are very aggressive in the trade market. Do you think that there is an under the radar move that we, as fans, don’t know about yet?

In his latest 31 Thoughts column, Elliotte Friedman listed Washington among one of the most aggressive teams in trade talks saying generally of the NHL “we could see some frenetic attempts to move up and down.”

Friedman also wrote, “Other teams believe the Capitals are in total ‘go for it’ mode.”

The Niskanen trade was one we all saw coming, maybe not for Radko Gudas, but Brian McNally and I have been saying pretty much since the offseason began that Niskanen was going to get traded. I also wrote Tuesday on why the Caps could be players at the draft to move from their 25th pick. Anything beyond that, whether it means bringing in someone or sending someone out, I think we could label as unexpected.

Sure, there are players like Andre Burakovsky who it would be a surprise but not be shocking to see moved. If the Caps are as big a trade player as Friedman reports, I think we could be looking at a surprise move especially considering they would have to ship out cap space to get someone of significance.

Tyler A. writes: With Brett Connolly likely leaving Washington, how can the Capitals add some more offensive power to the bottom six this off-season?

Good question and it is an important one as depth offense is one of the team’s biggest weaknesses. The Caps probably have enough cap room for one significant third-line signing in the $3-4 million range depending on the salary cap. They could probably get a Joonas Donskoi, Micheal Ferland type for that amount.

But it is also important to remember that the fourth line needs a boost as well. The team just did not seem to find the right combination for that bottom line. For most NHL caliber RFAs, there is usually little question as to whether they will be re-signed. For Washington, however, the questions needs to be asked if it makes sense to bring back Chandler Stephenson or Dmirij Jaskin when the offensive upside looks pretty limited. Do the Caps have enough money to go after free agent fourth liners like Noel Acciari or Brian Boyle? And then, of course, what do you do with Andre Burakovsky and that leads to the next question….

Benjamin C. writes: Do you think we can get Andre Burakovsky back?

Eric C. writes: With the signing of Gudas and Hagelin what do you think this means for Burakovsky and his future in D.C.?

This depends on whether Burakovsky will be willing to sign for less than the $3.25 million the Caps would have to offer to qualify him. To me, there is definitely room for Burakovsky with the probable loss of Connolly. He can be an asset to the bottom-six so long as he gets paid like a bottom-six player.

After three straight seasons of scoring 12 goals, at this point, it is time to view and judge Burakovsky like a bottom-six player. We saw in the playoffs that he boosts the fourth line as he provides more talent than most teams see when facing an opponent’s fourth line. But you cannot afford to spend $3.25 million on a fourth line wing. That’s the key.

Bob C. writes: Why do you and some others maybe feel that Andre Burakovsky deserves to come back to the team? Myself and other fans feel he will never develop any more than what he has been.

“Deserve” has nothing to do with it. I have been pretty consistent in the fact that I think the Caps should bring Burakovsky back only if they can get him for less than what it would take to qualify him. That is too much for a player who has been plagued by injuries and inconsistent play throughout his career and who has scored 12 goals in each of the past three seasons.

With Connolly likely on his way out, that’s 22 goals coming off the third line. Washington’s bottom-six accounted for five goals in seven games in the playoffs. That’s not enough. In this day and age, you need players who can produce on the third and fourth lines. Burakovsky provides a dangerous offensive option in the bottom six, his skill set still has a high ceiling and the team is running out of options and cap space to improve depth scoring.

Lower the bar for Burakovsky and assume he is a bottom-six producer at this point. If he exceeds that expectation, great. If not, well then you paid a bottom-six forward a bottom-six salary.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be read and answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

 

 

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