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NHL Power Rankings: Did the Capitals send a message with their win over Tampa Bay?

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NHL Power Rankings: Did the Capitals send a message with their win over Tampa Bay?

Whatever happened in Saturday’s game, one team was going to walk away feeling confident and talking about sending a message while the other would be left saying it was just one game. The Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning have met three times in 15 days with Tampa Bay winning the first two. Either the Lightning were going to sweep the season series or the Caps would win the last matchup for the final exclamation point.

No team knows better than the Caps that what happens in the regular season does not necessarily carry over into the playoffs, but just the way they were able to control Tampa Bay on Saturday makes you wonder if perhaps Washington could have injected a little bit of doubt into the minds of the Lightning.

The Caps dominated Tampa Bay in a way that few teams have this season. The Lightning are the top team in the NHL by far and have already clinched the top spot in the division, the conference and the league. In fact, the Presidents’ Trophy was awarded to Tampa Bay prior to Saturday’s game. That was about as good as things got, however, as the Caps dominated from the drop of the puck to the final horn. They looked bigger, faster and better than the top team in the league and it felt like they were reminding both the Lighting and the rest of the league that they are still the defending champions and the road to the Cup still runs through Washington.

Considering Tampa Bay lost to the Caps last season, you have to wonder if this loss will leave more than just a bad taste in their mouth. Will they be able to simply dismiss it and move on or when every team is starting to look ahead to the postseason, did the Caps plant a tiny seed of doubt into the minds of the Lightning?

SEE THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

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

  • Remember when Alex Ovechkin scored 33 goals in 2016-17 and we thought his days as a 50-goal scorer were over? I am done predicting that. One day, age will catch up with him as it does for everyone, but he is superhuman and clearly it is going to take longer to catch up with him than anyone expected. Let’s just enjoy the ride.
  • Carl Hagelin has been such a great pick up. Everyone knew he was a good penalty killer and brought speed, but he is so much more than that. He makes an impact just about every time he is on the ice. One shift in particular stood out to me on Saturday. He carried the puck into the offensive zone by himself as the Caps were on a line change. He got caught in a board battle with Victor Hedman, one of the top defensemen in the league, won the puck and passed it back to the blue line. That started an offensive cycle that resulted in T.J. Oshie’s first goal. It would have been easy for Hagelin to dump it in or lose the puck to a top-notch defenseman, but he did not take the easy way out and he never gave up on a play that looked dead at the start. He won the puck back and kept the offensive play alive. He is a great player and someone the Caps should really try to re-sign in the offseason.
  • The key to fixing the power play is to shoot more. Washington’s power play works when opposing teams have to account for all five weapons they employ on the ice and not just Ovechkin. Lately has been to get the puck to Ovechkin which has led to teams covering him more and more. Ovechkin from the office just has not been there of late because everyone is cheating to him and getting in his shooting lane or the passing lane between him and John Carlson. On Saturday, Tampa Bay started covering Ovechkin closely giving Carlson a lane on net so he fired the puck towards the goal and T.J. Oshie deflected it in. If the other four players shoot more, that will result in more opportunities for Ovechkin. No one should take this advice more than Nicklas Backstrom.
  • Braden Holtby is probably not going to get much love for the Vezina this year and people are not going to be talking much about him heading into the playoffs. The last few games, however, he is playing as well as any goalie in the league. He is going to be a force to be reckoned with once the postseason starts.
  • When figuring out just what to do with the defense heading into the playoffs, I think you can take playing Nick Jensen on his off-side off the table. The goal Carolina Hurricanes forward Warren Foegele scored Thursday against Jensen pretty much sealed the deal. Sometimes players can give up big plays, it happens, but it was the way that it happened that caught my eye. Jensen was caught on the left and looked completely lost on how to defend. He held his stick out in front of him with both hands swinging wildly then reached with his arm and not the body when Foeegle was turning the corner on him. Jensen clearly is not comfortable on his left and it showed. There are three games left in the regular season before the playoffs, now is not the time to force a round peg into a square hole.

There is just one more week remaining in the regular season. Find out where the Caps stand compared to the other team in the league here in this week’s NHL Power Rankings.

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NHL Power Rankings: How good are the Capitals without Michal Kempny?

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NHL Power Rankings: How good are the Capitals without Michal Kempny?

It seems crazy to think that 13 months ago, practically no one in Washington knew who Michal Kempny was. Now we are wondering whether the Capitals can win without him.

That’s what a Stanley Cup run will do for a player.

Washington struggled all season in 2017-18 to find a partner for John Carlson. Individually he was having a phenomenal season, worth of more Norris attention than he ultimately received. In terms of the defensive pairs, however, the Caps just could not seem to find a partner that complimented him. Then the team traded for a little-known defenseman from the Chicago Blackhawks and the rest is history.

We do not yet know how long Kempny will be out. Todd Reirden has said he will be out “indefinitely” but has not given a definitive timetable. We do not know if Kempny could come back for the playoffs or is done for the season, but at the very least it seems possible he will not be ready for the start of the playoffs. That means Washington has to find a way to win without him.

Reirden got out the blender on Sunday and went through just about every defensive combination he could think of in the game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Washington is still locked in a tight race for the division, but Reirden is going to have to use the last few games of the season to figure out the best combinations to use in case Kempny does not return.

It’s not easy to replace a top-pairing defenseman, but that is the reality that is staring the Caps in the face right now.

SEE THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

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

  • Christian Djoos did a great job not letting his size be an issue last season in the playoffs last season. In his first two games back in the lineup in place of Michal Kempny, he did not do nearly as well with that. He was pushed around in front of the net by Minnesota and to some degree against Philadelphia as well. That makes it difficult for him to play with a partner like Carlson who is quick to go up ice to join the offense. He may be better off playing alongside Brooks Orpik so long as Orpik knows he can’t pinch in the neutral zone as much as he typically does.
  • Reirden also experimented with the offensive lines on Sunday. While I do not think he will stray too much from his normal lineup to start the playoffs, there are some intriguing possibilities he can turn to if the team needs a spark. I like how Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly looked together and I have always loved the chemistry Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie have. Having a speed line of Vrana and Andre Burakovsky is a good potential weapon as well, though I think that line would only really work with Nicklas Backstrom at center or I could easily see it becoming a defensive liability.
  • The Caps have two power play goals in their last 19 opportunities. The first problem has been zone entries. When the puck is cleared, they struggle to get it back in. The slingshot is atrocious, it doesn’t work and it needs to go away. When the Caps go fast up ice and simply attack, they have a much easier time getting into the zone than they do with the slow, methodical slingshot which everyone sees coming a mile away. If Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov is standing behind Carlson, it’s not hard to figure out that Carlson is going to turn around and pass it back. Get rid of it. The second problem is that teams are going all in on stopping Ovechkin. Everyone knows he is two goals away from 50. There’s no more pretense to it, they are doing everything they can to stop getting him the puck whether it be having a defenseman guard him or putting a wall in the passing lane to prevent getting the puck to him, but the Caps are still trying to force him the puck. Kuznetsov and Backstrom have got to take advantage of the extra room they are being afforded and shoot more. That will force teams to account for them opening up more room to Ovechkin.
  • I have seen a lot of players work on their deflections at practice and the work seems to be paying off. Brett Connolly scored a deflection against Minnesota, and Tom Wilson and Travis Boyd both scored deflections against Philadelphia. Having said that, I do not want to see this team become a low to high team where they get the puck down low and always look back to the blue line for the shot. Those are very low percentage opportunities. If that’s the only option, great, go for it, but that should not replace trying to get the puck into high danger areas with settling for point shots. This team won the Stanley Cup last season by emphasizing quality over quantity. Don’t change that now.

Even without Kempny, the Caps still look like one of the teams to beat for the Cup.

Find out how they stack up with the other top teams here in this week’s NHL Power Rankings.

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    NHL Power Rankings: Is the Metro Division now the Capitals' to lose?

    NHL Power Rankings: Is the Metro Division now the Capitals' to lose?

    A seven-game losing streak for the Capitals left them staring up at the New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division standings with only a one-point lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets for second place.

    My how things have changed.

    Now in the home stretch of the season, Washington has reversed course with seven straight wins to take a four-point lead in the division race. The seven wins ties a season-high for the Caps who seem to be cruising to a fourth straight division title.

    Teams always want to peak at the right time and the Caps seem to be doing just that, putting enough distance between themselves and the competition to not allow any time for a comeback while also building momentum heading into the postseason.

    You cannot help but be impressed by what the Islanders have accomplished this season, but is anyone really surprised that Washington was able to overtake them? The race is not over by any means and they could surprise yet again, but it is hard to see the Caps slowing down anytime soon even with a brutal schedule ahead of them.

    Around the rest of the division, Carolina is still hot but was handed a reality check in an 8-1 loss at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets. Columbus, meanwhile, is teetering on the edge of disaster. Can you imagine the Blue Jackets not getting into the postseason after making so many moves at the deadline and with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky both with seemingly one foot out the door? It’s almost as if changing around the entire chemistry of the top-six a month before the end of the season is a bad thing….

    Pittsburgh seems to be rounding into playoff form which should surprise no one. Sidney Crosby is not going to allow this team to miss the playoffs.

    But the Penguins, like the rest of the division are looking up at the Caps. In the past, it would not have mattered given the team’s postseason history. This time, with a Stanley Cup in their pocket, Washington will bring a lot of confidence with them into the postseason along with another division crown if, of course, they remain hot and finish off the Metro.

    SEE THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

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

    • Since acquiring both Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen, the Caps’ have killed off 22 out of 25 penalties for a rate of 88-percent, seventh best in the NHL. They have now killed off 16 straight penalties.
    • Alex Ovechkin is one point shy of 1,200 for his career. He has now gone without a point in each of his last two games. When it comes to milestones, Ovechkin either blows through them like a hot knife through butter or they linger for a bit. Once he finally gets past it, the points will start coming again. Expect a flurry of points for the Great 8 once he finally gets 1,200 out of the way.
    • The job Nicklas Backstrom’s line did against Mark Scheifele’s line on Sunday was magnificent. They completely shut down one of the more dominant lines in the NHL and still added a goal of their own. To not only be able to shut down an opponent’s top line like that, but also add offense is such a huge asset that often goes overlooked.
    • No, I don’t know why Todd Reirden elected to play Pheonix Copley Sunday against Winnipeg rather than Friday against New Jersey. He was asked about it at Sunday’s morning skate and his answer was vague. My best guess is that he knew his team has a tendency to play down to opponents so he kept Holtby in against New Jersey as a signal that this game matters and then put in Copley for a Western Conference opponent.  It ended up working out as Washington won both games. Copley played well against a strong Jets offense, but he had trouble catching the puck and gave up a lot of rebounds. He was able to pounce on them before it got him into trouble, but he has got to clean that up. Teams are going to scout him and park someone in front of the net to start cashing in.

    The Caps seem to be getting hot at the right time and that has them climbing in the rankings. Where do they land?

    Find out here in this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings.

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