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If the Capitals want to go far in the playoffs, they have to get physical

If the Capitals want to go far in the playoffs, they have to get physical

The first half of Monday's game was a struggle for the Capitals. While both Washington and the Tampa Bay Lightning were initially feeling out one another, the Lightning seemed to get their legs first and jumped out to a 2-0 lead. It looked like the game was headed in the wrong direction...and that's when things got physical. Up to that point, the Caps were playing without any intensity to their game at all. When T.J. Oshie dropped his gloves against Yanni Gourde, however, the goals soon followed. This game was a good reminder for Washington that if they want to go far in the playoffs, they will have to get physical.

"I think that’s what we pride ourselves on," Brenden Dillon said. "When we’re playing our best hockey, we’re playing physical."

There are a lot of ways to win in the playoffs. If there was only one formula for it, everyone would just do that. For this Washington team, however, the key is to be physical.

In 2018, the Capitals came up against a Tampa Bay team in the conference final that was better. Momentum from beating the rival Pittsburgh Penguins carried the Caps to a 2-0 series lead, but the Lightning took over to win the next three and push the Caps to the brink of elimination. Washington responded with one of the most physical games I have ever seen. Not recklessly physical, but purposeful. In my estimation, Game 6's 3-0 win over the Lightning was the greatest playoff game in franchise history. It was a complete victory, but the key was the way in which the Caps bullied Tampa Bay. They pushed them around. The Caps battered, bruised and beat them into submission, outscoring Tampa Bay 7-0 in the final two games of the series.

Washington has incredible skill, they have speed, but at their core, this team is at its best when it is playing physical hockey.

"That’s a big part of our identity as a team, no fun to play against and yet still have the ability to execute skill plays when we get in those situations," head coach Todd Reirden said. "But for us, the physicality that we can bring on a nightly basis, we feel that really allows us to have success and tilt the ice in our favor."

RELATED: OBSERVATIONS FROM THE CAPS' LOSS

This isn't just about 2018, it was evident again on Monday.

When it comes to just pure talent, the Caps are a little behind Tampa Bay. When the game was being played with little intensity and skill was able to take over, the Lighting had the edge. From the first shift of the second period, Tom Wilson clearly came in trying to change the momentum and spent his first shift hitting everything that moved. It did not stick, however, until Oshile's fight.

Down 2-0, Oshie dropped the gloves with Gourde. Less than five minutes later, the game was tied at 2.

"We started to create some momentum in probably the second half of the second and then really took it to a different level after T.J.'s fight really inspired our group and then we just built on that," Reirden said.

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He added, "I just felt like as we got going now we were finding our stride a little bit more and then eventually we were able to wear them down a little with our physical play. I thought the more we invested physically, then we were able to see some benefits of it."

For the Caps to win a Stanley Cup, several factors will be important. Alex Ovechkin will have to continue to be elite, the defense will have to improve from what we saw in the regular season, Braden Holtby will have to be at the top of his game, etc., etc. But the key to all of it, just like in 2018, will be the Caps playing a physical game and wearing down their opponents.

"When we’re playing our best hockey, we have the skill to go with it and the speed as well," Dillon said. "Come playoff time, we know we’re built for this style of game."

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T.J. Oshie's turning point fight, Richard Panik stays hot and the Caps get physical

T.J. Oshie's turning point fight, Richard Panik stays hot and the Caps get physical

The Capitals opened round-robin play with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, putting them in third place of the round-robin standings. Washington rallied from a 2-0 deficit and was the better team in the third period and overtime, but they walk away with only the single point.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

It’s still early

The team that played the first half of this game wasn’t very good, but the team that played the second half was much better. A lot of that was just getting back into game rhythm so it’s still too soon to tell how good this team really is yet. Are they the team that blew through the first half of the season or the team that looked like they couldn’t beat anyone from January to March?

RELATED: CAPS WON'T DISCUSS OVI EXTENSION UNTIL OFFSEASON

Physical play is key to this team’s identity

When the Caps began to get more physical, the game turned around. At its core, Washington is a physical team. A 2-0 game turned around because of a fight in the second period (more on that later). This is how they are successful and this is how they will need to continue to play.

Holtby looks completely different

Braden Holtby looks like a completely new goalie from the one that could not even manage a .900 save percentage in the regular season. He made a number of difficult saves and, critically, he made a number of those saves without giving up any rebounds. Rebound control has always been a strength of Holtby’s so to see him swallow up shots without giving up any second or third chance opportunities is a good sign.

Holtby was always going to be key to the team’s playoff success, but that is even more true without the safety net of Ilya Samsonov as a backup. This was a good game for Holtby and a good sign for Washington.

What to make of the power play

Not counting the nine-second power play the Caps had at the end of overtime, Washington had three opportunities with the extra man. The first two looked about as bad as any we have seen this season. The third looked very good and resulted in a goal. I hope the third power play was the result of adjustments made on the first two efforts and not just a result of a talented team getting a token goal.

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Turning point

The Caps were down 2-0 and looked like they were headed for a lackadaisical loss until T.J. Oshie dropped the gloves with Yanni Gourde.

Less than five minutes later, the game was tied at two and the Caps were the better team from then until the shootout.

Play of the game

Midway through the first period, Lars Eller turned the puck over to Brayden Point in the neutral zone. He took it into the offensive zone and handed it off to Nikita Kucherov. Michal Kempny forced him wide, but Kucherov let off an incredible shot to the far corner to beat Holtby. When the defense does its job, the goalie is ready and you are still able to pick your spot and score, that’s a dangerous sniper.

Stat of the game

Richard Panik scored Washington’s first goal of the game. He has been on a roll even before the pause.

Also an important stat: the Caps did not give up a single power play to Tampa Bay.

Quote of the game

Brenden Dillon on physical play:

“Yeah, I think that’s what we pride ourselves on. When we’re playing our best hockey, we’re playing physical. When we’re playing our best hockey, we have the skill to go with it and the speed as well. Come playoff time, we know we’re built for this style of game. We know when we’re at our best and playing Caps hockey. We’re finishing our checks, we’re hard on the forecheck and playing hard in the D zone. I think altogether tonight, we were pretty happy with our performance, but at the end of the day we’ve got to find a way to get an extra win and keep pushing forward for the next game.”

Runner up goes to Pat Maroon who was asked how his legs felt in overtime.

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Why playing in an empty arena won't be a problem for Braden Holtby

Why playing in an empty arena won't be a problem for Braden Holtby

There are a lot of unknowns heading into the 2020 postseason, but one of the biggest unknowns has been how the goalies will play. A pause of several months in which no one could get on the ice was hardest on the goalies who could essentially do nothing to simulate their play on the ice or keep their bodies ready for game action when they returned. According to Braden Holtby, however, it’s so far, so good.

Holtby turned aside 12 out of 13 shots in Wednesday’s exhibition game against the Carolina Hurricanes. He looked more poised and confident than when the season was paused.

For him, the long layoff wasn’t an issue. He had plenty of time to prepare during optional workouts.

“I think it's been long enough that [goalies have] been able to be on the ice,” Holtby said. “I mean, it's coming up on two months. That's plenty of time. Obviously it was a little different getting back into just the game routine from practice. That's always one of the challenges when you have a long layoff. But I felt pretty comfortable out there.”

The only adjustment for goalies, however, is not just about getting onto the ice, it’s also about adjusting to a new setting.

RELATED: WHAT TO KNOW FOR CAPS VS. LIGHTNING

For the first time in the NHL, these players will be playing in front of no fans. That will affect some players more than others and...well...let’s just say the lack of fans will not be an issue for Holtby.

“Actually, I didn't feel different at all,” Holtby said referring to playing in front of an empty arena. “Felt pretty normal. A few of the guys were saying on the bench it's kind of a hard time which obviously as a goalie you don't have to deal with. I was quite surprised, it seemed like a normal game.”

In addition to the crowd noise -- added to the broadcast but not heard by the players in the arenas -- the seats in the arena were covered with banners to give a more decorative background as opposed to empty seats.

While this was done to make the arena more aesthetically pleasing to the fans watching at home, Holtby described an unintended benefit to the covered seats.

“The sightlines are nice,” Holtby said. “At least they backdropped it, they put up this grey. That helps a lot. A lot of the buildings you go into with the black seats so if it's the start of the period or something and no one's sitting down yet, you lose a lot of pucks in those seats. You don't have to deal with that here which is nice.”

Holtby struggled in the regular season, but the Caps’ championship hopes lie very much on his shoulders considering Ilya Samsonov is out with an injury suffered prior to training camp. Any advantage he can get for the playoffs will be welcome for the team. It's a good sign that he seems very cool and relaxed about the NHL's new setting.

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