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Backstrom's milestone assist proves the difference in narrow win over Ottawa

Backstrom's milestone assist proves the difference in narrow win over Ottawa

Nicklas Backstrom's 500th career assist set up what would be the only goal of the night in a 1-0 Capitals win over the Ottawa Senators.

How it happened: The Caps struck less than two minutes into the game as Backstrom set up T.J. Oshie with a backhand pass on the rush that he fired into the top corner of the net. Braden Holtby did the rest as he turned aside all 30 shots he faced for his second straight shutout.

What it means: Saturday’s victory extends Washington’s win streak to five games and improves the team’s record to 12-2-2 in its last 16. The Caps are 2-0-0 against Ottawa this season and 7-0-1 against the Senators in their last eight meetings.

Turning point: Clinging to a narrow 1-0 lead late in the third period, Karl Alzner took a boarding penalty after cross-checking Mark Stone head first into the boards. The penalty killers coolly killed off the minor penalty, shutting the door on Ottawa's hopes for a late comeback.

500 for Backstrom: Backstrom’s first period assist was a big one as it was assist No. 500 of his career. He is now the first player in Capitals franchise history to reach the 500 assist plateau. You can read more about the milestone here.

Scare for Oshie: Oshie took a hard shoulder-to-should hit from Ottawa defenseman Dion Phaneuf in the second period that clearly stung. You can see the hit here. Oshie slowly made his way off the ice and was doubled over on the bench before going down the tunnel to the locker room. He returned later in the period and left for the locker room again before the end of the second. Oshie missed seven games with a shoulder injury he suffered against the Detroit Red Wings on Nov. 18. The Caps went 3-3-1 during that stretch. Phaneuf's hit struck Oshie on the same shoulder he had previously injured.

Unbeatable: The Capitals' penalty kill has been putting the "special" in special teams lately and that continued Saturday as they killed all three man advantages they faced on Saturday. Washington has now killed off 52 of the last 55 power plays they have faced over the last 13 games.

Nothing to worry about: Holtby had a rare off night on Tuesday as he was pulled against the Toronto Maple Leafs after giving up three goals on eight shots. In his two starts since, the Caps netminder has shutouts in both contests with 29 saves against the Columbus Blue Jackets and 30 against the Senators. Hotlby is now tied for the league lead in shutouts with five on the season.

Look ahead: Washington remains north of the border for a game in Montreal on Monday. They then return home for a murderous three-game home stretch starting Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers.

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Can Braden Holtby quiet goalie controversy, rebound from tough start?

Can Braden Holtby quiet goalie controversy, rebound from tough start?

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Braden Holtby has been here before. Every goalie in the NHL has good stretches and bad. Really, one thing that defines a goalie is how they overcome those bad stretches. Holtby had perhaps the greatest rebound a goalie could ever have, going from losing his starting job to Philipp Grubauer in 2018 to taking back the crease in the playoffs and leading the team to a Stanley Cup.

But could this year be different?

A poor start is one thing, but there are also other external factors that may be contributing.

In five games this season, Holtby has a .846 save percentage and 4.27 GAA. His save percentage is the worst among all goalies with at least four starts and his GAA is the second-worst behind only Devan Dubnyk’ s 4.56. It’s a small sample size, but those are horrific numbers made worse by Monday’s performance in which he allowed three goals on three shots before being pulled.

“It was a tough game for Braden and I think he'll be the first one to admit it,” Todd Reirden said after practice on Tuesday. “That's a game I think he'd like to do some things different. I think our team could have played closer to our identity than we did to give him a better chance to have success. But the good thing is he's accountable to it, he knows. He's accountable to himself, he's accountable to his teammates, he's accountable to everybody that he can be better than that and when he gets that chance he will.”

But will he?

Just 16 months removed from overcoming the worst stretch of his career and hoisting the Stanley Cup and still only 30 years old, it seems premature to declare Holtby as finished or to assume he won’t be able to dig himself out of this hole.

“Usually it's just getting back to the basics of things,” Holtby said when asked about overcoming a slump. “A lot of times when things are going your way, you're usually pushing forward too fast and make things [instead] of just letting them come to you. It's just getting back to the basics of playing, trusting your instincts and not letting it affect you. Just go out and play.”

“In times like these - good or bad - it's usually not as good as you think or not as bad as you think,” he added. “You just have to get yourself back to that level mentally where you can break things down and see just those little areas that might be just off a bit that could be the difference.”

But there are two external factors that could be putting pressure on Holtby mentally.

First, this year is the final year of Holtby’s contract. Playing in a contract year can be tough and Holtby certainly would not be the first player to succumb to the pressure that comes with an uncertain future. The second is that his replacement, Ilya Samsonov is now backing him up and doing a pretty darn good job with it.

In three appearances this season, Samsonov, 22, has a .944 save percentage and 1.43 GAA. He was Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2015 and the fact that his first season in the NHL happens to be the last of Holtby’s contract is impossible not to notice.

Holtby was asked if his contract or Samsonov’s presence was affecting him mentally.

“I don’t know, I just think it's wanting to win, wanting to get a good start, maybe getting a little ahead of myself,” he said. “In ways, trying to push too hard. Just take a deep breath and just go out and play. I mean, it's seven games in. A couple months, you won't even remember this conversation. You just stick to the process and keep doing what you think you can do to help the team win.”

“When you break it down like that, who his backup is, yes it is a different scenario,” Reirden said. “The one scenario that isn't different is that I still have plenty of confidence in him. Lots of confidence in him. He's been through this before. We saw that in the Stanley Cup year and then he ends up taking over and helping us win the Stanley Cup and be a huge part of it.”

While Reirden still professes his confidence in Holtby, the recent struggles as well as Samsonov’s strong play have at least given him pause.

Following Monday’s loss, Reirden said of Samsonov, “He's doing what he's supposed to be doing, and that's to make it like a decision every night of who's going to be considered to play that game.”

Reirden also would not commit to naming a starter for Wednesday’s game against a star-studded Toronto Maple Leafs team, but he seemed to be leaning towards Samsonov to give Holtby time to reset. At least that’s what it sounded like.

“Much like every player, goalies will go through situations like this and I'm sure that's how [Holtby] feels about the start to the year. I'm confident that we've got a few practices here, he gets to reset and work with [goalie coach] Scott Murray and get things settled in and then he's ready to go again.”

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How to Watch: Maple Leafs at Capitals: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream

How to Watch: Maple Leafs at Capitals: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream

Sitting firmly at third place in their respective divisions, the Capitals and Maple Leafs are both eager to grab another win for themselves in this classic Atlantic vs Metropolitan division matchup. 

Here is everything you need to know about the Wednesday night game, which takes place at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Washington.

CAPITALS vs. MAPLE LEAFS HOW TO WATCH

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals, Game 8 of the 2019-20 NHL Regular Season

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: 7:00 p.m. ET

TV Channel: The Capitals vs Maple Leafs game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington (NBC Sports Washington Channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can live stream Capitals vs Maple Leafs on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and on the NBC Sports App.

Radio: Caps 24/7 Radio, 106.7 The Fan FM

CAPITALS VS MAPLE LEAFS TV SCHEDULE

6:00 PM: Caps Faceoff Live

6:30 PM: Caps Pregame Live

7:00 PM: Capitals vs Maple Leafs

9:30 PM: Caps Postgame Live

10:00 PM: D.C. Sports Live

10:30 PM: Caps Overtime Live

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