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Are the Capitals turning the corner?

Are the Capitals turning the corner?

During the first seven weeks of this season, Barry Trotz often lamented the fact that the Capitals were unable to get all facets of their game going at the same time.

But now, with his team riding a four-game winning streak, including 60-minute efforts against Buffalo and Vancouver, there have been subtle signs that things are finally coming together for last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner.

“That’s a good way to describe it—more in concert,” Trotz said after Monday's practice. “I would say that we’re trending that way. More pieces are falling into place.”

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“Contribution through the lineup is starting to spread out a little bit,” he added, “not only in five-on-five play but in specific areas, be it special teams, three-on-three, all those special situations.”

Indeed, important contributions are starting to come from different sources. Consider:

  • The power play has scored four times during the winning streak (11 opportunities). It's also scored at least one goal in seven of the past 10 games and 10 times in the past 12 contests. If you just look at that 12-game segment, the power play has the eighth best success rate in the NHL during that span (at 21.7-percent). Last season, the unit was ranked 5th (at 21.9-percent).
  • The penalty kill has also steady improved its ranking. In fact, after snuffing out 14 of 16 short-handed opportunities during the winning streak, the unit has improved to 11th overall at 83.3-percent. A year ago, the penalty kill was ranked second at 85.2-percent.
  • Just as critical as the improving special teams, the Caps are now getting points from some key players who had been ice cold to start the year. John Carlson ended his season-long goal drought against the Sabres and now has four points in four games (goal, three assists). Evgeny Kuznetsov, meantime, has five points (all assists) during the winning streak, while Justin Williams has four points, including three goals, over the past four games.
  • The Caps have been strong defensively and in goal all season, but even those areas have been a bit better in recent games. Including the shootout loss in Tampa, the Caps have yielded only seven goals in the past five games, including Braden Holtby's 20-save shutout against the Canucks.

Winger T.J. Oshie agreed that the Caps' play across the board is on the upswing. He also says the collective confidence within the dressing room is growing as a result.

“Our five-on-five game we’re starting to play more direct,” Oshie said. “We’re getting more pucks in deep and with our speed, our work ethic and our talent following that, it presents a lot of O-zone time. Special teams has kind of got to our standard of play. Obviously, the PP, it was struggling for a while there. But we’re getting more shots, we’re getting more goals, we’re not missing the net as much. Our PK, I don’t think it was doing terrible; I think we were doing good. But from the standard we set last year, I think we’ve gotten back to that. It’s made some huge, huge stops, especially [against Vancouver] when we had a lot of penalty kills.”

Defenseman Karl Alzner said he’s isn’t sure what precipitated the turnaround, but he’s sure of this much: there are unmistaken signs that the Caps’ mojo is back. Or, at the very least, on its way.

“The exact reason, I don’t know,” Alzner said. “But we’re playing with more urgency, but under-control urgency. …Every team goes through their low point. Hopefully, that was ours that we just had and we don’t have anything like that again, and somebody else goes through it in January or February and we’ll make up some ground.”

MORE CAPITALS: NHL Power Rankings: Keeping up with the Metropolitan

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In a surprise twist, Barry Trotz takes The Hot Lap ahead of Game 7

In a surprise twist, Barry Trotz takes The Hot Lap ahead of Game 7

TAMPA—Head Coach Barry Trotz skated the hot lap prior to Wednesday’s Game 7 at Amalie Arena, taking over the superstitious tradition from captain Alex Ovechkin.

Why the change?

The Caps lost Game 5 here on Saturday. And when the Caps lose on the road—the only place where the morning-skate-starting hot lap takes place—a new skater is selected.

The weird tradition began in the first round at Nationwide Arena in Columbus when Jay Beagle grew tired of waiting for the ice to freeze over following a fresh Zamboni cut. Beagle's teammates implored him to wait a little longer for the ice to cure, but he grew impatient and took it upon himself to kick off the skate by racing around the rink, a la the fastest skater competition at the All Star Skills competition.

Ovechkin took it over prior to Game 6 in Pittsburgh because the Caps had lost Game 4 at PPG Paints Arena.

Ovechkin proudly carried on the tradition as Washington won three in a row—Game 6 in Pittsburgh and Games 1 and 2 of this series vs. Tampa Bay.

Following the Caps’ 3-2 defeat in Game 5 here, though, it was expected that a change would be made.

And on Wednesday morning the baton changed hands, with the least obvious of all the Caps busting his 55-year-old hump around the rink much to the delight of his players and assistants.

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Regardless of what happens in Game 7, these are not the 'same old Caps'

Regardless of what happens in Game 7, these are not the 'same old Caps'

These are not the same old Caps.

Heading into Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Monday, there was a lot of handwringing around Washington and with good reason. The Capitals were facing elimination for the first time this postseason. Of course the fans were on edge; no one wanted this run to end.

But even though the Caps are competing for the conference crown and have gotten past their archrivals to get here, the refrains leading into Game 6 were the same ones we’ve heard from past years.

 “They don’t want it enough.”

“There’s no heart.”

“Totally outcoached.”

“Chokers.”

And perhaps most damning, “Same old Caps.”

Stop it already.

Seriously, how can anyone have watched this postseason and walked away thinking this is the same Caps team?

Does no one remember the start of the season? Some people didn’t even think they would make the playoffs. Others were advocating the team trade Alex Ovechkin and start over. Yet here they are.

Finally, finally they got past the second round hump. They beat the Pittsburgh Penguins—ending their two-year reign as Stanley Cup Champions—and handed Mike Sullivan his first ever series loss as the Penguins head coach.

And no, Mike Wilbon, just because they made it past the second round doesn’t mean it’s OK to lose in the Conference Finals. But considering how they got there, they showed they have at the very least changed the narrative surrounding the Capitals.

Washington lost the first two games of its series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round and went on to win four straight to advance. In the second round, they faced the two-time defending champions, a team they had beaten only once in the playoffs in franchise history and a team that had not lost a playoff series since 2015.

And they won.

And yet, people are acting like nothing changed with the Caps. Why? Because they lost three in a row to Tampa Bay?

OK, you've got a point. What kind of a team loses three straight in the playoffs? Hard-nosed teams with tough coaches that play the right way like Columbus or Anaheim wouldn’t let that happen to them. Oh, actually Columbus lost four in a row to the Caps and the Ducks got swept in the first round. Never mind.

Well, certainly not a team with a championship history like the Los Angeles Kings. Oh wait, never mind, the got swept by Vegas. Bad example.

Well, surely an original six team with a championship pedigree like the Boston Bruins would never let that happen. Oh yeah, they lost four straight to the same Tampa Bay team.

OK, OK, but were any of those teams really contenders this year? I mean, none of those teams were as good as Winnipeg and they won’t let themselves lose three in a row in the playoffs.

That’s because they lost four straight to Vegas in the conference final.

You see where this is going, right?

It just boggles the mind that anyone could see the game plan Barry Trotz put together in Game 6 in Pittsburgh, without three top-six forwards including Nicklas Backstrom, and win in overtime and still complain that he is always outcoached in the playoffs. He certainly wasn’t outcoached in that game or that series.

It’s baffling that anyone can see how Washington rallied past Columbus after losing Game 1 and Game 2, recovered from a disastrous Game 1 to Pittsburgh and won the first two games in Tampa Bay against a favored Lightning team and complain that this team “doesn’t want it enough.”

Chokers don’t advance to the third round. Chokers don’t beat the two-time defending champions when no one else could. Chokers don’t force seven games against a Tampa Bay team that finished off both of their prior series in just five games.

Just stop. Find a new storyline to push because this one is lazy and played out. It’s been done.

Don’t get me wrong, losing four in a row after winning Game 1 and Game 2 on the road would have really stung. With the history this team has, the fact that they finally got past Pittsburgh gave this team a feel of destiny. If they go on to lose Game 7 and end their run without a Stanley Cup or even a conference crown to show for it, that would be disappointing. No question about it.

But to say these are the “same old Caps” if they lose to Tampa Bay? That’s ridiculous. They have already put those demons to rest. Three straight losses to the Lightning don’t change that and neither will whatever happens in Game 7.

Regardless of what happens on Wednesday, whether the Caps win or lose, no one should come out and say these are the same old Caps. They have already proven that’s not the case.

Those Caps are gone. Now let’s see how far these Caps can go.

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