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Like almost everything else, the Caps' power play is on fire, too

Like almost everything else, the Caps' power play is on fire, too

After struggling to find consistency over the season's first two-plus months, the Capitals’ power play has finally returned to its previously prolific self.

In the past eight games, in fact, the unit has scored a least one goal seven times. During that span, Alex Ovechkin and Co. have connected on nine of 18 opportunities for a ridiculous 50-percent effectiveness rate.

No team has scored more power play goals during that timeframe.

For comparison’s skate, in the eight games prior to the current torrid stretch, the Caps’ power play connected on just one of 24 opportunities.

The latest example of the unit's resurgence came during Monday’s 6-1 romp over the visiting Hurricanes. Washington got just two chances—but defenseman Dmitry Orlov made sure the unit did not go home empty handed, ripping a one-timer from the top of the circles that tipped off of Jordan Staal’s stick before eluding goalie Cam Ward. The first of Orlov's two goals, it pulled the Caps even with the scuffling 'Canes, 1-1.

The Hurricanes, meantime, came into the game with the NHL’s top-rated penalty kill.

RELATED: Caps crush Canes with six unanswered goals

Barry Trotz acknowledged that his assistants have made some opponent-specific tweaks in recent weeks. But the head coach also credited the group’s crisper execution, especially around the net, for the turnaround.

“We made some adjustments,” Totz said. “They’re [also] playing with some pace. They’re shooting. And their execution is much better. We’re more net hungry. There’s a lot of pride in it. They know that they can inch their way better and be a big part of it and be a weapon for us.”

Overall, the unit is up to 14th in the NHL at 20.7-percent after languishing in the bottom third earlier this season.

Something else notable about the power play’s sudden surge? It’s getting contributions from all over the place. Since the hot stretch began eigth games ago, six different players have scored with the man advantage—Ovechkin (three times), T.J. Oshie (twice), Justin Williams, Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky and Orlov.  

Orlov said he believes the uptick has less to do with X’s and O’s and more to do with the aforementioned execution. And, in particular, putting pucks on net.

“We just maybe start to hit more net and get more luck, you know?” the Russian defenseman said. “That’s why we’re having success right now.”

Oshie agreed with much of Orlov’s assessment.

“I think we were getting a lot of good looks earlier [in the season] but we were missing the net a lot,” he said. “We just weren’t capitalizing, and now we’re finding ways to score, finding different ways to run the power play. My unit is not that much different, just some different reads here and there. The other unit can bring two different looks at you.”

“So,” Oshie added, “I think it’s harder for penalty kills to read what we’re going to do. And anytime Ovi taking is getting one timers on that side, it’s always a good thing; it opens up a lot for us.”

MORE CAPS: Defense is stepping up big

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How Jakub Vrana could be game changer for Caps over next two seasons

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How Jakub Vrana could be game changer for Caps over next two seasons

The Capitals took care of their last major order of business this summer by signing restricted free agent Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract extension. 

The deal: Two years, $6.7 million with a salary-cap hit of $3.35 million. That’s not bad for an RFA who posted 24 goals in his age 22/23 season.

Washington now has 13 forwards under contract and six defensemen plus both goalies. According to the invaluable web site CapFriendly.com, that leaves salary-cap space of $935,706. That's tight. 

The Capitals need to add one more depth defenseman to get to seven. Christian Djoos received a qualifying offer of $715,000, but as an RFA himself elected to go to arbitration. That hearing is July 22. Chandler Stephenson, another RFA, also chose arbitration. The forward has his hearing on Aug. 1. There might be room only for Djoos unless another move is made. 

During his age 22/23 season, Vrana broke through with a career-high in goals (24) and points (47) and established himself as a legitimate top-six forward on an aging team that needs its young talent to produce if it wants to continue as a Stanley Cup contender.

With captain Alex Ovechkin, 33, center Nicklas Backstrom, 31, and right wing T.J. Oshie, 32, in the top six, Washington has kept a good mix with Vrana, 23, Tom Wilson, 25, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, 27, all still in their 20s. Vrana, especially, plays at a speed few others on the roster other than Carl Hagelin can match.  

Since the 2010-11 season, a player who began a season 22 or younger scored 24 goals just 95 times. The list of 55 players who accomplished that feat is littered with stars (Connor McDavid, Nathan McKinnon, Patrick Kane, Taylor Hall) or young phenoms (Sebastian Aho, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel) and there are very few one-hit wonders or busts on that list. 

At worst, those players have provided steady production for several seasons. The Capitals are hoping for a lot more from Vrana, who scored his 24 goals and got his 47 points with limited power-play time (93:28) on the second unit. 

That might not change much this year, but it’s intriguing to think what Vrana could do if injuries strike and he’s moved up. He was on the ice for 59 goals at even strength and just 37 against, which was the best differential among all Capitals forwards last season.   

The two-year bridge contract is no real surprise. The Capitals took the same tact in 2017 with Andre Burakovsky, their 2013 first-round draft pick. But Burakovsky, while he scored some huge goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs, struggled to maintain consistency in his game and never had a year like Vrana’s 2018-19. He was traded to Colorado last month in part because of the salary-cap crunch and he just drove coaches crazy for the better part of five years.

Vrana is in essence betting on himself. If he is able to make another leap and get to that 30-goal mark, he will still be a restricted free agent after the 2020-21 season at age 25, but one with vastly more leverage. He would be arbitration eligible. He was not eligible this summer. He would be in line for a big payday on a long-term deal from Washington - or would have just two years left before unrestricted free agency after the 2022-23 season.

A similar RFA case happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs and forward Kasperi Kapanen this summer. The Leafs gave their young winger a three-year bridge deal worth $9.6 million and a $3.2 million salary-cap hit. They, too, were facing a tough salary-cap crunch. Kapanen was the 22ndoverall pick in 2014. Vrana was 13ththat same year. Kapanen had 20 goals and 24 assists (44 points) this past season. Vrana gets more power-play time, but Kapanen kills penalties (125:22).    

So Vrana in the end received a little more money than the Kapanen deal and can re-set his contract sooner if he breaks out big. Washington believes that he can and will because Vrana’s skill is undeniable. 

Go back and look at some of his best goals from last season. They often came off the rush when opposing defenders simply couldn’t deal with him or when he snuck behind a defender for a rip off and a scoring chance. He is almost always the last regular on the ice after practice. He’s scored a big goal in a Stanley Cup clincher.

The Capitals now have a balanced top nine with a solid mix of veterans and in-their-prime players. Vrana still has to prove he can build on the promise of last season and his pointless playoff series against Carolina in April, while allowing for a possible shoulder injury, shows his game isn’t a finished product quite yet. 

But Vrana is the one young under-25 forward on the roster – likely in the entire organization – who has the raw talent to become a 30-to-40 goal, 60-to-70 point player. That’s the package the Capitals hoped they were taking in the first round five years ago. Now we will see if Vrana can get there. 

 

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Jakub Vrana's top 5 moments as a Capital so far

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Jakub Vrana's top 5 moments as a Capital so far

Jakub Vrana has made it through his entry-level contract and signed a new deal Tuesday for two-years, $6.7 million.

To celebrate his new bridge deal, we look back at the top 5 moments from Vrana's last three seasons with the squad.

5: Vrana's first goal

Against the Buffalo Sabres on the road, Vrana introduced himself to Capitals fans with a tap-in off an Evgeny Kuznetsov feed to beat Robin Lehner.

It would be the first of 40 goals he's scored in his young Caps career.

4: Pick-pocketing the Flyers

They say the best offense is a good defense, but Vrana didn't have to settle on this goal.

With a nifty poke check at the Caps defensive blue line, Vrana went full blast towards the Philadelphia Flyers defense, beat them, then roofed a shot for his 13th goal of the season.

3: Helping to lift the curse against the Penguins

Vrana scored his first-ever playoff goal against the Penguins during the 2018 Stanley Cup run, but it was his Game 5 dagger that put Caps fans on their feet.

Thanks to a cross-crease feed from Alex Ovechkin, Vrana was able to slot the puck past Matt Murray in the dying minutes for the game-winning goal. The Caps would add two more, going on to win 6-3.

2: Stanley Cup Celebration

It's no secret the boys partied hard after they won the Cup in 2018, and Vrana presented us with one of the greatest moments during the epic celebration. 

This moment with Joe B. will never, ever get old. The party continued at the Stanley Cup parade a couple days later. 

After a solid show along the parade route, Vrana graced us with his stellar dance moves.

1: Game 5 Stanley Cup Final opening goal

Big players come up in big games, and Vrana proved to be one of those players in the Capitals' 2018 Stanley Cup run.

In enemy territory against the Vegas Golden Knights with the Stanley Cup on the line, Vrana powered down the ice and roofed a wrist shot past Marc-Andre Fleury for the opening goal of Game 5.

Here's to hoping we see many more big moments in the years to come from Jake the Snake.

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