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Bye week grades: Defense

Bye week grades: Defense

There's no hockey this week for Washington as the Caps are on their bye week. That gives us time to take a look at the team and evaluate how they look at this point in the season. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent J.J. Regan offer their bye week grades for each aspect of the team. Today, they take a look at the defense.

El-Bashir: Through 56 games, the Caps are allowing the fewest goals per game in the NHL (2.09). They’re also permitting the sixth fewest shots on net per contest (27.9). 

Outstanding goaltending from Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer is a huge part of the Caps’ extraordinarily low goals per. Ditto for a forward corps that prides itself on backchecking and attention to detail in the neutral and defensive zones.

But the Caps’ defenders have played an enormous role in that minuscule number, too. 

Although often overlooked because of the all-star caliber talent up front and the Vezina Trophy winner in net, the Matt Niskanen and John Carlson-led D has been rock solid all season. It’s been even better since the pairings were shuffled in early December, resulting in the group’s current alignment, which features Karl Alzner skating alongside Carlson, Dmitry Orlov with Niskanen and Brooks Orpik and Nate Schmidt. Those pairs have led to better balance and role recognition as well as a massive uptick in offensive production from the backend.

In fact, the Caps’ blue line has racked up more assists (107) than any D corps in the league. The unit also is third in points at 126; San Jose and St. Louis have 128 apiece (h/t to Neil Greenberg for the mathematical assist).

One of the big unknowns entering the season was how Orlov would perform in a top-4 role. As it turns out, the 25-year-old Russian has shown steady improvement and is making significant fewer miscues, even as his minutes have jumped from 16:02 per game last season to 19:39 this season. 

Over the next two weeks, there’s going to be a lot of discussion about whether the Caps should stand pat at the trade deadline or add some depth. It could be argued that G.M. Brian MacLellan should pursue a veteran defenseman, preferably a righty since the Caps have just two of them on the roster now…just in case injuries strike a unit that’s been remarkably healthy all season.   

Assuming no one gets hurt between now and March 1, I’d be inclined to stand pat. Chemistry is a delicate thing and right now the Caps’ D corps has it. There’s also Taylor Chorney on stand-by in case of an injury.

As things stand, there’s not much to nitpick here. The blue line has been excellent and, barring injury, figures to be just as reliable in the postseason.

Grade: A

Regan: Last season we saw a defense that was overly reliant on goalie Braden Holtby who was putting together a Vezina Trophy winning season. That was evident whenever Philipp Grubauer was given the start. That’s not the case this year.

Washington’s blue line has been tremendous allowing the fewest goals per game in the NHL (2.09). A penalty kill that has looked inconsistent at times still sits third in the NHL with a kill rate of 84.5-percent. The team has three defensive pairs that are clicking ever since Barry Trotz switched up the initial pairs in December.

There were two major question marks in my mind for the defense heading into this season. Would an aging Brooks Orpik be a detriment to the defense and would Dmitry Orlov be able to handle a top-four role? The answers have been no and yes.

At 36 years old, putting Orpik in a top-four role would have been asking too much of him, at it would have been for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. There’s no shame in that, it’s just the natural progression of every professional athlete. Orpik, however, has played extremely well on the third pairing and has not been a detriment to the team’s defense at all.

With a plus-32 on the season, Orpik leads the team in plus/minus. Whether you put any stock into plus/minus or not, at the very least it shows the teams is not somehow weaker when he is on the ice. Plus, he’s also averaging less ice time than last season by almost two full minutes.

As for Orlov, the question as to whether he can handle a top-four role has been a resounding yes. The egregious turnovers still happen from time to time, but have become limited as the season has gone on.

The defense, however, also boasts what I believe to be the team’s biggest weakness: Lack of right-shooting players. No, this isn’t my inner Adam Oates coming out, the Caps boast only two defensemen who shoot right in Niskanen and John Carlson. While you’d like each defensive pair to have a lefty and righty, this isn’t a huge issue…unless one of them gets injured. Then it becomes a major factor.

In terms of need around the league, however, labeling Washington’s lack of right-shooting defensemen a “weakness” is the definition of a "first-world problem."

As well as the defense has played, the weakness of the initial pairings prevents them from getting a full A. Plus, while I’m comfortable with Orlov in the top-four, his turnovers are definitely something to keep an eye on. The playoffs tend to expose a team’s weaknesses and he needs to continue to play smart to ensure he does not cost the team when it matters most.

Grade: A-

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Holtby's night ends after only three shots as Avalanche hand Caps a loss

Holtby's night ends after only three shots as Avalanche hand Caps a loss

WASHINGTON -- The Colorado Avalanche scored on its first three shots of the game and Capitals could never recover in a 6-3 loss Monday. Braden Holtby surrendered the first three goals before being relieved by Ilya Samsonov. The Caps mounted a comeback to make it 4-2, but a back-breaking goal in the third period was the final nail in the coffin of an ugly loss.

Observations from the loss

Let’s talk about the goalies

I know this is pretty much all you guys want to talk about, so let’s talk.

Holtby was bad in this game. No one is going to dispute that. But Colorado is also really, really good and the defense did not help Holtby all that much. All three of those things can be true. Fans sometimes can get one-track minds and I bet there are more than a few people who are going to put this game entirely on Holtby and forget about the other two points.

It’s not Holtby’s fault John Carlson turned the puck over and the completely misplayed the resulting rush defensively leading to the second goal. It’s also not Holtby’s fault that Tyler Lewington was too slow to react to the break-in and was beaten easily by Nazem Kadri.

I am not saying Holtby doesn’t deserve any of the blame for Monday’s loss, I’m just saying let’s not go nuts.

This game doesn’t mean that Holtby is washed up, it doesn’t mean the team should try to trade him immediately, it doesn’t mean that Ilya Samsonov is suddenly the No. 1 goalie going forward. All it means is that Samsonov has earned more playing time. That’s it.

Whatever the plan was for Samsonov, he has played well enough and Holtby has struggled enough that you should consider getting Samsonov more games. I would start him on Wednesday against Toronto and go back to Holby on Friday against the New York Rangers.

For now, however, Holty is still the No. 1. That doesn’t mean that can’t change, but we have seen this play out before with the same goalie Holtby played against on Monday. Philipp Grubauer passed Holtby in 2018 and then the playoffs came around and Holtby was back to being Holtby and retook the crease. I am not going to kick him to the curb because of a bad October.

The Caps’ identity is physical hockey

A 4-0 game could have gotten very ugly very fast. The Caps came out in the second period and committed to a physical game and it completely changed the momentum. A game that looked like it was going to be an ugly, horrendous, “burn the tape” type of game turned competitive. Suddenly it was 4-2 heading into the third period.

The second period reminded me of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final between the Caps and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning were the better team, highly skilled and should have won that series. They didn’t because the Caps beat the stuffing out of them. That’s why the Washington-Tampa Bay games last year were so physical because the Lightning wanted to show the Caps they weren’t going to be pushed around.

The one downside to being a physical team like that is that it takes a toll. You can’t play that way for 82-games and that’s why, in my opinion, you see these types of teams come out of nowhere in the postseason. A middle-of-the-pack team suddenly commits to the physical game every night and knocks around a stunned Toronto or Tampa Bay.

Turning point

Obviously the turning point was allowing three goals on three shots, so I’ll go with something different and pick Samsonov’s third-period gaffe.

The Caps had taken control of the momentum heading into the third and it looked like they could make a game of it until Samsonov made a huge mistake behind the net.

Samsonov went behind the net to retrieve a puck on a Colorado dump-in. Tyson Jost came to pressure him and Samsonov tried to fire the puck along the boards past him. Jost got his stick in front of the puck and then had a helpless Samsonov stuck behind the net. Jost threw the puck in front of the net and a diving Matt Nieto hit it in.

The Caps still tried to come back, but that was the moment you knew they were going to come up short.

Play of the night

In a win or go home Game 6 against Tampa Bay in the 2018 ECF, Ovechkin was the best player on the ice. His stats in that game? No goals and no assists. It didn’t matter. He was a physical force and helped the Caps win that game by sheer force of will.

Ovechkin tried to do the same thing on Monday with hits like this one on Samuel Girard.


Stat of the night

With this loss, the Caps have now lost their first three home games for the first time since the 1983-84 season. As my colleague Brian McNally said on a podcast we recorded after the game, those weren’t exactly the glory years of the Caps’ franchise.

Washington has managed some pretty big wins on the road, but those are being wasted by the fact that this team can’t get a win at home.

Quote of the night

Todd Reirden on Samsonov’s play:

“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.”

That’s about as close as you’re going to get to Reirden saying he is considering playing Samsonov more.

Fan predictions

Now this is bold. I like it.

But it was also wrong. Burakovsky got an assist, but Jakub Vrana can’t seem to get out of Todd Reirden’s dog house right now.

Gudas and Kadri were exchanging words behind the play when Oshie scored. I’ll give it to you.

I’m pretty sure Stephen Strasburg started.

Almost. They would have had a shot if not for the Samsonov mistake or the coach’s challenge on Carlson’s goal.

The Caps did not win and saying Holtby looks disinterested just isn’t fair. He has always been a calm, calculated goalie. He even said after “The Save” that it wasn’t a technically sound play. This is just the way he plays and has always played, from Vezina Holtby to 2019 Holtby.

Having said that, he was pulled so you were technically correct. Don’t get weird about it though.

Oh, you got weird.

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4 things to know for the Capitals’ matchup against undefeated Colorado

4 things to know for the Capitals’ matchup against undefeated Colorado

The Capitals (3-1-2) snapped a three-game losing streak on Saturday and will look to stay in the win column on Monday in a game against the Colorado Avalanche (4-0-0). You can catch all the action on NBC Sports Washington with Caps FaceOff Live kicking things off at 4 p.m. before Caps Pregame Live begins at 4:30 p.m. to bring you up to the 5 p.m. puck drop. Stick with NBC Sports Washington afterward for Caps Postgame Live, D.C. Sports Live and Caps Overtime Live.

Here are four things to know for Saturday’s game.

Colorado is undefeated

The Avalanche is one of two teams left in the NHL that has not suffered a loss of any kind. Of their four wins, only one of them was not in regulation and that also happened to be the only game Philipp Grubauer did not play in net.

All four wins also happen to be at home as Monday’s game will be Colorado’s first on the road this season.

Washington will face former Caps Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer

Things seem to be going well in Burakovsky’s first season with the Avalanche. The winger has two goals and two assists in four games and has scored the game-winner in each of the past two games.

Burakovsky was a restricted free agent in the offseason and his contract carried a large qualifying offer which the Caps could not afford. The team traded his rights to  Colorado for a second and a third-round draft pick as well as a prospect on an expiring contract.

In net, Grubauer enters his second season with Colorado and first as the undisputed starter of the team. He earned the job after last year’s playoff performance in which he won seven games, posted a .925 save percentage and brought the Avalanche to within one win of advancing to the conference final.

In three games this season, Grubauer is 3-0-0 with a .931 save percentage.

The best line in hockey?

Colorado boasts one of the top lines, if not the outright best line in hockey with Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. All three players have had their fair share of success against Washington in their careers.

Landeskog has scored 14 points in just 13 games against the Caps, MacKinnon has 13 points in 11 games and Rantanen has seven points in five games.

The Caps have historically been a difficult matchup for Colorado

Washington’s last three games were against the Dallas Stars (twice) and the Nashville Predators, two teams the Caps have not fared well against historically. The roles are reversed for Monday’s game as this time it's the Caps who have been the thorn in the side of their opponent.

Colorado has lost nine of its last 10 meetings with Washington with its last win coming back on Nov. 16, 2017. The last win before was four years prior in November 2013.

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