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After consecutive regulation losses, Capitals face questions about last season's swoon

After consecutive regulation losses, Capitals face questions about last season's swoon

With Thursday’s 4-2 loss in San Jose, the Capitals have now suffered consecutive regulation losses for the first time in more than three months.

The defeat also dropped the Caps’ record to 5-4-1 since the team returned from the bye week.

Their average goals per game since the five-day hiatus? A pedestrian 2.2 per contest.

Indeed, it’s been an unsettling stretch for the NHL’s top team, which encountered a similar malaise late last season. But, according to Coach Barry Trotz and his players, there's no sense of panic or déjà vu spreading over the dressing room.

“We haven’t lost two in a row for a while, so it does seem a little awkward,” Coach Barry Trotz acknowledged to reporters at SAP Center. “But this group is great at responding, and we’ll have to go into L.A. and see if we can respond.”

Asked if he sees any similarities between last year’s soft stretch run and the current downturn, Trotz said: “No. I think this team is a little different. I think last year when we had such a lead, we just sorta parked it. I don’t think you can say we’re doing that. From our standpoint we’re in a race with a lot of good teams in the Metro right now. So, I don’t think that’s a concern at all.”

A year ago, the Caps went 10-4-6 in their final 20 games. This year, the Caps are 2-2-0 in the first four games of that 20-game sprint to the finish.

“It hasn’t been [like] how we went into the break,” winger Brett Connolly said. “We were humming pretty good. We’ve got a new player in [Kevin] Shattenkirk and [Andre Burakovsky] goes down. So we’re still finding our game a little bit. If you ask anybody, I don’t think we’re happy with how we’ve come out of the break. We’re looking to fix that. This is not our style. …We just gotta take a deep breath. We’re still in first place. We still have a great hockey team.”

The Caps’ three-game California trip continues Saturday at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Kings are battling for their playoff lives, sitting a point out of the second wild card spot in the West.

Washington, meantime, will be looking to avoid losing three straight games in regulation for the first time since Feb. 2015 as its captain and leading goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin, searches for his first goal since Feb. 19, nine games ago.

“We don’t want to lose three in a row,” Connolly said. “L.A. is a big game. …Now we need to go into L.A. and beat a good hockey team.”

Defenseman Karl Alzner acknowledged that a few recent opponents have played with more desperation than the Caps have brought to the rink. But that said, Alzner scoffed at the suggestion that last year’s late-season swoon is happening all over again.

“No, not at all,” he said. “It’s a different team. That’s the thing that everyone always wonders. It’s just coincidence right now. We all know that we can turn it up and things will be better. This is a tough stretch of the year. These are good teams that we’re playing right now and [their] fight is a little bit more intense than our fight is right now. When it comes to time to really show our true colors, I think we’re going to show them.”  

MORE CAPITALS: Prospect report: Caps boast 4 of NHL's top 100 prospects

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Burakovsky is back in for Game 6

Burakovsky is back in for Game 6

Coach Barry Trotz indicated that Andre Burakovsky’s benching wouldn’t last long.

And it didn’t.

The 23-year-old winger will return to the lineup on Monday night as the Caps look to stave off elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final.

During the morning skate, Burakovsky skated on the third line with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly—a trio that’s enjoyed some success in the past.

It’s been a difficult postseason for Burakovsky, who has not recorded a point in six games. He missed 10 contests after suffering a hand injury in Game 2 of the first round that required minor surgery.

What he found out upon returning was this: coming back from injury in the regular season is hard...and it’s exponentially tougher in the playoffs.

“It’s definitely tough to jump in in the semifinal,” he said. “When you’re out, you just want to get in and help the team and do what you’re good at—score goals and produce.”

“What I realized is that it’s not that easy,” he added. “I really thought I could jump in and just play like I did before I got injured. 

But obviously it didn’t work out as well I thought it would.”  

Burakovsky also said that he’s planning to work with a sports psychologist this summer in an effort to maintain an even keel when things aren’t going as well as he would like. It’s a problem that he said he’s struggled with since his childhood.

Asked what he hopes to see from Burakovsky in Game 6, Coach Barry Trotz kept it simple: offense.

The Caps have scored just two goals in each of the last three games, with Evgeny Kuznetsov contributing 50-percent of that total.

“He’s a guy that’s given us some good offense all through his time here,” Trotz said of Burakovsky. “We think that he can add some of that.”

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5 keys for the Caps to win Game 6 and force a decisive Game 7 against the Lightning

5 keys for the Caps to win Game 6 and force a decisive Game 7 against the Lightning

The more you look at Monday's Game 6 between the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning, the more you realize this game is the most important game of Alex Ovechkin's career.

This is the first time Ovechkin and Co. have made it to the conference finals and it is the first time this postseason in which the Caps face elimination.

Here are the keys for the Caps to staving off elimination and forcing a Game 7:

1. Get off to a better start

It took Tampa Bay just 19 seconds to score in Game 5 and the score was 3-0 nothing before the Capitals really began to show any signs of life. They cannot allow the Lightning to jump all over them in the same way and take the crowd out of the game early.

With the game being in Washington, the Caps will have the crowd on their side. Use it.

The Caps have been at their best this series playing the trap, holding their own blue line and countering against Tampa Bay's aggressive defensemen leading to odd-man breaks. That's a hard gameplan to run if you're playing from behind. Scoring first would go a long way for Washington.

2. Stay out of the penalty box

Washington has given up six power play goals to Tampa Bay on just 15 opportunities in this series. That means the Lightning's power play is producing at a blistering rate of 40-percent. That's an insanely good power play rate and that may be putting it mildly.

So far, the penalty kill has had no answer for how to shut down a Tampa Bay unit that features Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov setting up for one-timers and being quarterbacked by Victor Hedman. That's a formidable cast.

If you can't beat it, then there's only one solution: Stay out of the box.

Despite everything that went wrong in Game 5, the one thing the Caps did right was not give up many penalties. They took only one on the night and even that one was avoidable as Brett Connolly got caught holding Brayden Point trying to get around him to get the puck.

3. Win the top line matchup

The Lightning have found success matching their fourth line against Ovechkin. Of his six points this series, only two of them (one goal, one assist) have come at 5-on-5. That's not good enough.

It's gut check time. The Caps need their best players to be at their best and that means Ovechkin has to win the matchup against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan. In Game 5, Tampa Bay's fourth line actually outscored Ovechkin's line in 5-on-5 play 2-0.

Washington will not win this game if the fourth line outscores Ovechkin's line. It's just that simple.

4. Take advantage of the power play opportunities

The Caps scored at least one power play goal in Game 1 and Game 2, both wins. They have not scored any since and have lost all three games since. They scored on three of seven opportunities in the first two games and zero of seven opportunities in the last three.

Not a coincidence.

Granted, they did not draw any penalties in Game 5, but it seems unlikely the Lightning will stay out of the box for another sixty minutes. At some point, they will take a penalty and when they do, Washington must take advantage.

5. Win the goalie matchup

Not much attention has been paid to Braden Holtby in this series. The Caps are not facing elimination because they have been getting bad goaltending, but when the Lightning needed Andrei Vasilevskiy to steal them a win and up his game to get them back into the series, he responded.

Vasilevskiy has been brilliant the last three games as he has turned aside 100 of the 106 shots he has faced for a .943 save percentage. For the series, Holtby has a save percentage of only .883.

Again, Washington is not down 3-2 in the series because of goaltending. Holtby has faced far fewer shots than Vasilevskiy and has been just about the only thing that has worked against Tampa Bay's lethal power play.

But as one of the team's top players, the Caps need Holtby to step up the way Vasilevskiy has. Game 6 will be about winning by any means necessary. If that means they need a hat trick from Ovechkin so be it. If that means they need Holtby to steal it for them, so be it.

Holtby has to be just as good as Vasilevskiy in Game 6, if not better, for Washington to come out on top.

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