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AAA Keys to the Game: Caps vs. Blue Jackets

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AAA Keys to the Game: Caps vs. Blue Jackets

The Capitals (28-7-2, 58 points) had their nine-game win streak snapped in Carolina on New Year's Eve and visit John Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets (14-22-3, 31 points) tonight at Nationwide Arena (6:30 p.m. pregame, CSN). Here are our AAA Keys to the Game:

Chasing history: Alex Ovechkin is four goals shy of becoming the 43rd player in NHL history to record 500 goals. He’s also four games shy of playing in his 800th NHL game. If he stays healthy, Game No. 800 will come in New York a week from today.

Chasing Marty: Braden Holtby (24-4-1, 1.86 GAA, .934 SP) is expected to make his 31st start of the season. He is on pace for an incredible 53 wins this season, which would shatter the NHL record of 48 victories set by Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur in 2006-07. Holtby is 16-0-1 in his last 18 games with two shutouts, a 1.76 GAA and .942 SP. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Holtby is the first goaltender to record a point in at least 17 straight decisions since 2010-11 (Roberto Luongo: 16-0-5). In 10 career games against Columbus Holtby is 6-2-1 with a 2.88 GAA and .900 SP.

In the other net: With No. 1 goalie Sergei Bobrovsky coming off a groin injury that forced him to  miss nine games, the Blue Jackets are expected to go with backup Curtis McElhinney, who is 2-6-2 with a 3.27 GAA and .891 SP in 14 appearances this season. In three career starts against the Caps McElhinney is 1-2-0 with a 4.73 GAA and .846 SP.

Line shuffle: With center Jay Beagle sidelined the next 6 weeks following hand surgery, Marcus Johansson has moved into his spot on the third line between wingers Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson. That leaves a fourth line of Zach Sill between wingers Brooks Laich and Michael Latta.

And on the back end: John Carlson will miss his fourth straight game with a lower body injury. That leaves Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen on the top unit, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov on the second unit and Taylor Chorney and Aaron Ness on the third unit.

Where they stand: The Caps lead the Metro Division by 11 points over the New York Islanders but are coming off a 4-2 loss in Carolina on New Year’s eve. The Blue Jackets are dead last in the NHL but are coming off a 6-3 win over the NHL-leading Dallas Stars on Tuesday night.

December to remember: The Capitals went 11-2-1 in December, marking their most wins in a single month since April 2013 (11). The Caps ranked third in the NHL in goals-against per game (1.93) during the month, fourth in penalty kill percentage (89.4), fifth in goals per game (2.93) and seventh in power-play percentage (22.5).

Torts effect: When the Blue Jackets hired head coach John Tortorella on Oct. 21 they were 0-7-0. They have gone 14-15-3 since then. Tortorella was critical of his veteran players last weekend when he said he was concerned his young players might develop bad habits by watching the play of his veterans.

Auld Lang Syne: In the calendar year of 2015 the Capitals ranked first in the NHL in wins (55) and point percentage (.699). Alex Ovechkin led the NHL in goals (57), power-play goals (25) and shots (400), ranked second in points (85), tied for third in game-winning goals (10) and fourth in points per game (1.05). Braden Holtby led the NHL in wins (49), ranked third in shutouts (8), fourth in save percentage (.929) and tied for fourth in goals-against average (2.04). Nicklas Backstrom ranked third in the NHL in assists (56).

Refuse to lose (twice): The Caps are a perfect 8-0-0 following losses this season, outscoring opponents 28-12 in those games. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the last NHL team to go an entire season without back-to-back losses were the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.

Who’s hot: Ovechkin has four goals in his last three games. Brandon Saad has nine points (four goals, five assists) in his past six games.

Here are tonight’s projected lineups:

CAPITALS

Forward lines

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie

Andre Burakovsky - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Justin Williams

Jason Chimera - Marcus Johansson - Tom Wilson

Brooks Laich - Zach Sill - Michael Latta

Defense pairs

Matt Niskanen - Karl Alzner

Dmitry Orlov - Nate Schmidt

Aaron Ness - Taylor Chorney

Goaltenders

Braden Holtby (starter) - Philipp Grubauer

Injured: Brooks Orpik (lower body), John Carlson (lower body), Jay Beagle (left hand)

Scratched: Stanislav GalievRyan Stanton

BLUE JACKETS

Forward lines

Boone Jenner - Brandon Dubinsky - Cam Atkinson

Scott Hartnell - Alexander Wennberg - Brandon Saad

Gregory Campbell - Ryan Johansen - Nick Foligno

Rene Bourque - William Karlsson - David Clarkson

Defense pairs

Ryan Murray - Jack Johnson

Fedor Tyutin - Dalton Prout

Justin Falk – David Savard

Goaltenders

Curtis McElhinney - Anton Forsberg

Injured: Cody Goloubef (broken jaw), Markus Hannikainen (shoulder), Matt Calvert (knee), Sergei Bobrovsky (groin)

Scratched: Andrew BodnarchukJared BollKevin Connauton

MORE CAPITALS: Caps announce Beagle hand surgery, recovery timeline

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A Blues, Bruins Final proves that anything can happen once you make the Stanley Cup Playoffs

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A Blues, Bruins Final proves that anything can happen once you make the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final will take place on Monday at 8:00 p.m. ET (NBC) and it will feature two teams that no one saw coming. The St. Louis Blues were dead last in the NHL as late as Jan. 3 and still managed to navigate their way through the Western Conference. The Boston Bruins had the third best record in the NHL this season, but are still considered a surprise because they are not the Tampa Bay Lightning.

One of those two teams will now lift the Stanley Cup as champions in a postseason that should serve as a reminder that when it comes to hockey, you only need to make it into the playoffs. From there, anything can happen.

“It’s just how close it is,” Braden Holtby said at the Capitals’ breakdown day. “Everyone’s been saying it forever – or I guess since the salary cap era more – you just have to make the playoffs. You have a good a chance as anyone because you look at teams outside from Tampa, it’s a few games here and there and the standings are all mixed up. Once you get there, anyone’s got a chance and you’ve just got to see what you can do to be better than the others.”

The first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs established that this was going to be a crazy postseason with a number of crazy upsets in the early rounds.

In the west, the Colorado Avalanche won four straight after losing Game 1 to douse the conference-winning Calgary Flames. The Nashville Predators were no match for a Dallas Stars team whose president was swearing at his top two players back in December. The defending conference champion Vegas Golden Knights lost a 3-1 series lead then a 3-0 third period lead in Game 7 to the San Jose Sharks who scored four goals on a major power play.

The Blues, meanwhile, led by a rookie goalie and interim head coach, defeated the Winnipeg Jets in the first round and won three games in Winnipeg to do so. It took double-overtime in Game 7 against the Stars for St. Louis to finally emerge victorious and the Blues also stifled the Sharks in the conference final who looked like a team of destiny after benefitting from several horrendous officiating mistakes and who was playing to get future Hall-of-Famer Joe Thornton a Cup before he retires.

The East side of the bracket looked like a mere formality with the Lightning expected to cruise through the conference after one of the best seasons in NHL history. Instead, they did not win a single game and were swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“Obviously, as a whole, Tampa was way better than everybody else,” Matt Niskanen said. “Taking into consideration an 82-game season they were way better than anybody, but when you get into a playoff series and it’s just one-on-one that’s where weird things can happen. There’s a lot of things that go into a playoff series that can kind of negate the skill difference or the perceived level of play. And you saw it quite often this spring, actually.”

Tampa Bay was one of two sweeps in the first round of the playoffs as the John Tavares-less New York Islanders also swept the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Islanders would then get swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round—playing in the playoffs for the first time in a decade—and the Hurricanes would share a similar fate in the conference final losing in just four games to the Bruins.

As crazy as these results may be, however, this season is hardly an anomaly. The NHL is known for its unpredictable postseasons and only eight Presidents’ Trophy winners have gone on to win the Cup since 1986 when the trophy was first awarded. Seven times the Presidents’ Trophy winner has been eliminated in the first round.

“You would think it’s ‘Oh, boy, this is a weird spring,’” Niskanen said. “But hockey is a weird sport like that. Who the heck could predict what’d happen in the first round? And there’s a reason for that. It’s hard to win. Seven and eight seeds are not lay-ups like maybe they were sometime in the past. I don’t know how long ago that was, but they’re certainly not a lay-up right now. Usually the team that wants it the most, plays the best, is going to win whether it’s a one or an eight seed.”

It is a known fact that in hockey, regular season success only gets you into the playoffs, but it does not mean all that much when you get there.

“I always said it and I think it shows right now that anything can happen,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “Your only goal should be getting into the playoffs. The No. 1 seed can lose to the No. 8 seed easily, so I think that shows this year and shows how good this league is, how tight everyone is.”

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Bruce Cassidy’s chaotic time as Capitals coach began a winding path to Stanley Cup Final with Boston.

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Bruce Cassidy’s chaotic time as Capitals coach began a winding path to Stanley Cup Final with Boston.

BOSTON --The Stanley Cup Final begins Monday and while the Capitals did not make it back to defend their title, two former members of the organization, Bruce Cassidy and Craig Berube, are coaching the two teams that did. 

 Cassidy, now the head coach of the Boston Bruins, held that position in Washington for two seasons early last decade and failed spectacularly before a long, slow rise back to the NHL. 

 Berube is now the head coach of the St. Louis Blues, dead last in the entire league on Jan. 3 and now four wins away from their first Stanley Cup. A fan favorite with the Capitals for seven years over two stints, Berube was a no-nonsense tough guy and key role player on the 1998 Eastern Conference championship team. The seeds of both men’s success were planted a long time ago in Washington. 

 The Bruins and Blues play Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday at 8 p.m. on NBC. 

 Cassidy, just 37 when he was hired in 2002 by former Capitals general manager George McPhee, battled personal issues off the ice and too often lacked the professionalism and organization expected of an NHL head coach, according to several of his former players. At least twice during road trips in his first season, he was the last to arrive for the team bus.  

 Cassidy, now 54, knew the game, according to those same players, but struggled to connect with a roster laden with big-name players and healthy egos. He led Washington to the playoffs in 2002-03 but was fired 28 games into his second season thanks to a terrible start and internal fissures. Many of his players just didn’t respect him. 

 It’s hard to square that image with the Cassidy of today, who gets high marks from his Bruins players and plaudits around the league for juggling a talented roster comprised of veterans and rising young stars to reach the Cup Final. It’s a pretty good comeback story.

“[Cassidy] took his demons head on and built himself back up to a point now where he’s four wins away from winning a Stanley Cup,” said former Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig, who played for Cassidy along with stars Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra, among others. “You’ve got to take your hat off to him. Despite what he did in the past he’s become the opposite of what he was.”

 Cassidy does appear a different man than he was in Washington. Married again now, he was dealing with multiple personal issues then, including a nasty, complicated divorce, while coaching the Capitals. The road back included one year as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks, a two-year stop as head coach of a junior hockey team in Kingston, Ontario, and an eight-year apprenticeship with AHL Providence, Boston’s top minor-league affiliate. 

 The final five seasons there Cassidy was Providence’s head coach, developing some of the same players who have helped get him to the Cup Final with the Bruins. In 2016 Cassidy earned an NHL promotion of his own as an assistant coach under Boston’s Claude Julien and then took over on an interim basis when his boss was fired.

 “All I’ve learned is I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I was [in Washington],” Cassidy said. “I was young. I had really no NHL experience. I was in Chicago for bits and pieces. So you walk into an NHL locker room and there’s still a little bit of awe in that, ‘Oh, there’s (Jaromir) Jagr,’ there’s so many of these guys that have been around. So, it probably took me a while to just walk in there and say ‘This is what we’re doing’…and be a good communicator when you’re doing that.”

 A lot of those problems were of Cassidy’s own making, however. According to reporting by the Washington Post at the time - and confirmed by several of his old players this week - Cassidy showed up to his first meeting with his new team at training camp in 2002 and pulled a napkin out of his pocket with notes scribbled on it. It was not a good first impression. 

 Cassidy was a first-round draft pick in 1983 by the Chicago Blackhawks, No. 18 overall, but his NHL playing career consisted of 36 games. He had never been an NHL assistant when hired by McPhee. He spent two years as head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins, first in the IHL and then, when that league folded, in the AHL, which absorbed the franchise. 

 “The thing that I think would probably be the bigger challenge for Bruce when he first arrived was that he hadn't played that long as a player,” said NBC analyst Keith Jones, another former Capitals player, but not one who played for Cassidy. “You wouldn't have the same cache when you first walked into the locker room as you would, say, if you were a Craig Berube or a Dale Hunter.” 

 The Capitals had reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1998 and were still a competitive, if aging, team. They finished second in the Southeast Division in Cassidy’s first season and went up 2-0 on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But they lost the next four games, including a triple-overtime crusher on an Easter Sunday that ended their season and arguably began what became the Alex Ovechkin era.

“You could tell Butch was a smart hockey guy. He was a smart hockey guy,” Kolzig said using Cassidy’s nickname. “He understood the game. Maybe too much so that he took for granted that other guys understood the same thing. He’d get frustrated if Joe Schmo didn’t know a certain breakout or a certain play. What came easy to him didn’t come easy to other players.”   

Tired of paying big money for an old team that couldn’t get out of the first round, owner Ted Leonsis green-lit moves the following season that gutted the roster. Long-time forward and team captain Steve Konowalchuk was traded in October after a slow start. 

Later, Jagr, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander, defenseman Sergei Gonchar and Bondra, a franchise icon, were dealt, too. The team finished with the third-worst record in the NHL but won the draft lottery that got them the No. 1 pick and Ovechkin. Cassidy was long gone by then, but his failure led to the rebuild that ultimately brought Washington its greatest player, a Stanley Cup and, eventually, his own redemption. 

“Butch was I don’t want to say in an impossible situation, but he was in a very tough situation,” said Capitals defenseman Ken Klee, who played nine seasons for the team, including Cassidy’s first. “We had so much success before he got there. We had some big stars on our team. You look at Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Calle Johansson, Olie. You figure out quick that coaching in the NHL is not just coaching, it’s management of players and personalities.”

The Capitals lost six games in a row in October of 2003 during Cassidy’s second season and things only got worse from there. After a 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 4 left them 8-16-1-1, Cassidy ripped into his team during a closed-door meeting. He’d given them rest. He allowed them to be home with their sick kids - or even pregnant wives when necessary. 

But, according to players in the room, he told them issues at home shouldn’t have any impact on their play. They were no excuse. That message, born of legitimate frustration, but tone deaf to what his players had gone through, spelled Cassidy’s doom. 

Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt’s wife, Salima, had almost died after a difficult childbirth in 2002, according to Kolzig. The room froze. Veteran players were appalled. Cassidy later apologized, but the damage was done. Washington was outscored 11-4 its next two games and Cassidy was fired on Dec. 10, 2003. His next chance to be an NHL head coach wouldn’t come for another 13 years. 

 “I know Brendan wasn’t very quiet about it. That was probably the nail in the coffin. It was a tumultuous time.” Kolzig said. “But having said all that you see how [Cassidy has] gone back to square one. His personal life is in order. He did a fantastic job in Providence for a number of years, continued being a good soldier in the Bruins organization. And then the opportunity was there for him and he took advantage of it. He’s done a fantastic job. There’s no other way to put it.”

Cassidy took over a Boston team that had lost its way under longtime coach Claude Julien. The Bruins had missed the playoffs two years in a row and were scuffling at 26-23-6 when Julien was fired on Feb. 7, 2017. Cassidy paid immediate dividends as an interim coach leading Boston to an 18-8-1 record to finish that season. 

It lost in the first round of the playoffs, but he earned the job full time. Last year the Bruins were 50-20-12 and reached the second round. This year they were second in the Atlantic Division at 49-24-9. It is Boston’s third Cup Final in nine seasons, but first since 2013. Many of those hard lessons Cassidy learned with the Capitals have served him well in his long-awaited second act.

 “If you’re around the game for an extra 15 years you’re going to learn stuff,” Cassidy said. “Different ways to communicate. Different ways to see the game. How you delegate, how you use your staff. How do you talk to the players to help you find that common goal? I think that was the biggest difference. A lot of newness back then. This time around it was a little more experience at this level.”

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