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Capitals amped for 'extra challenge' of preventing Blue Jackets from making history

Capitals amped for 'extra challenge' of preventing Blue Jackets from making history

Although the Capitals were in engaged in a thrilling, back-and-forth battle of their own Tuesday night against the Maple Leafs, many of them had more than a passing interest in a game taking place in Columbus.

Why? Because the Blue Jackets’ 3-1 victory over the Oilers extended their win streak to 16 games—one short of tying the 1992-93 Penguins’ NHL record of 17 consecutive wins.

So when the Caps host the Jackets on Thursday night at Verizon Center, the game will mean much more two Metropolitan Division rivals crossing paths on a weekday night in January.

And Brooks Orpik can’t wait.

“As soon as our game was over last night, guys were checking to see if they won or not,” Orpik said after practice on Wednesday.

“We had it on. If anyone says they weren’t [paying attention] they’re lying because we had it on in the change room.”


“As soon as we asked if they won or not, guys were like, ‘I don’t know, it said 2- 1 on the scoreboard during our game’,” the veteran defenseman continued. “So guys were aware of it. It’s something fun to watch. Everybody was paying attention to [Columbus’] game against Minnesota the other night to see who would win that one. It’s a little extra challenge.”

Indeed, the Blue Jackets present challenges all over the ice. They’re a league best 27-5-4. Their power play is ranked No. 1 at 28.3-percent. They’re allowing fewer goals than anyone else (2.03 per game) and are scoring more goals (3.44 per) than anyone other than Sidney Crosby and the Penguins (3.45).

Coach Barry Trotz said he considers Thursday’s game to be a good measuring stick for his team, especially given the way the last two meetings between the clubs ended.

On Nov. 15 in Columbus, the Jackets rallied for a 2-1 win in overtime. Then, five days later, Nicklas Backstrom was whistled for high sticking Jackets captain Nick Foligno, who threw his head back despite the fact that Backstrom’s stick did not contact his face. Columbus scored on the ensuing power play with 54 seconds remaining to steal two points.  

“I think our guys are up to the challenge,” said Trotz, whose team has won three in a row and is 10-2-3 in their last 15 games. 

“This is a team that’s leading the league. They’re a team that I think both games were very competitive that we played. …I think guys look at it as they like the competition and I think it will be something that good pros look and go, ‘They’re a good team, so are we and let’s see what happens.’”

Said Daniel Winnik: “We lost in OT against them and then the very phantom high stick call that they scored with a minute something left on the power play. It’s going to be a good test for us.”

Lars Eller said the chance to end the streak will add some juice to the game. But the veteran center also feels the November losses should provide the primary motivation.

“I think it should be a good motivational factor for us,” he said. “But even more so, the biggest motivation for us is the last two games. We felt like we let points slip through our hands too easily when we should have closed the game. That’s probably the biggest thing.”

Orpik added: “We had two pretty good games against them earlier in the year that I think we felt like we were in good position to win and we kinda let it slip away against them. So hopefully tomorrow night will be similar to those two. …It’s always a good measuring stick, especially a team that’s going this well right now.”


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Who will the Caps' backup goalie be next season?


Who will the Caps' backup goalie be next season?

Very few teams have the luxury of having a backup goalie they can rely on for an extended period of time while the starter goes through a massive slump. The Capitals had that luxury in 2017-2018 thanks to Philipp Grubauer.

Not every team in the NHL has a dependable starter, let alone backup, so when a backup goalie goes 15-10-3 in a season with a 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage, that is likely to catch the attention of general managers around the league.

The 2018-19 season will likely be a season of transition for the Capitals behind Braden Holtby. General manager Brian MacLellan expressed his willingness Wednesday to possibly trade backup goalie Philipp Grubauer this offseason. With the season he just had, he could potentially yield the Caps a solid return.

But, if Grubauer is indeed moved, that leaves the question of who will play backup for the Capitals this season?

The initial plan appears to be to promote Pheonix Copley from the AHL.

“Yeah, I think he's capable of it,” MacLellan said when asked if he saw Copley as an NHL backup. “Obviously, he's unproven. I think he's done what he could do at the American League level. Got through probably a little bit of a tough patch this year recovering from an injury, but I think he has potential to be that guy, yes.”

Copley, 26, played last season with the Caps’ AHL affiliate Hershey Bears. He had a tough season with a 2.91 GAA and .896 save percentage in 41 games.

As MacLellan alluded, Copley suffered a serious injury at the end of the previous season and it clearly affected his season. The year prior, Copley managed a 2.15 GAA and .931 with Hershey in 16 games. He was considered Washington’s No. 3 goalie this season and was recalled for the playoffs as an emergency backup behind Grubauer.

Copley’s career includes only two NHL games.

There is another internal candidate who some fans may be hoping to see next season. That of course, is 2015 first-round draft pick Ilya Samsonov.

Samsonov, 21, signed an entry-level contract with Washington in May and will make the jump from the KHL to North America next season.

But don’t expect to see Samsonov backing up Holtby to start the NHL season.

Samsonov will be adjusting to the North American game and the smaller North American rink. Because of that, MacLellan believes he will benefit from time in the AHL before making the jump to the NHL.

"I think he needs time in Hershey,” MacLellan said. “We'll start him in Hershey I would anticipate and see how he grows, see how he gets accustomed to the small rink and hopefully get some good coaching, get our guys in that work with him. It'll be up to him. I think he'll adapt fairly quickly given his skill set.”


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Devante Smith-Pelly is hopeful he has found a home with the Capitals

Devante Smith-Pelly is hopeful he has found a home with the Capitals

“I didn't think I'd be here a year ago,” Devante Smith-Pelly told the media Wednesday. “That's for sure.”

In 2017, Devante Smith-Pelly was a member of the New Jersey Devils and thought that’s where he would play the 2017-18 season. Instead, Smith-Pelly was bought out of the final year of his contract, something that he was not prepared for as he only received word of the team’s decision on the same day they made the move.

New Jersey’s loss turned out to be Washington’s gain as the Caps signed Smith-Pelly for one year and he proceeded to score seven goals during the Capitals’ postseason run to the Stanley Cup.

“Obviously, at the start of the year, not knowing exactly where I would be to at the parade on Constitution, it's crazy," Smith-Pelly said. "I haven't really sat down and taken it all in, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. I had an amazing time this year. Obviously, it's the best year of my life.”

Now as a restricted free agent, Smith-Pelly is hoping he has found a home in Washington.

Despite being only 26-years-old, Smith-Pelly has already had somewhat of a journeyman’s career. The Caps are the fifth team in which he has played for.

The issue for much of Smith-Pelly's career has been consistency.

The 2018 playoffs was not his first breakout performance. He scored five goals in just 12 playoff games for the Anaheim Ducks in 2014, but he failed to live up to that level of production again until this year’s postseason with Washington.

“I don't think I needed to prove anything,” Smith-Pelly said. “I knew what I could do, it's just me getting a chance to do it and that's it. I got a chance here and I guess it worked out.”

Expecting him to score seven goals every 24 games in the regular season is likely unrealistic, but the Caps don’t need him to do that. Smith-Pelly developed a role with the Caps being a bottom-six player, a role that he thrived in throughout the season.

“He's become a big part of the team,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “He brings good energy, he's a good teammate, he's well-liked. You could tell the teammates really migrate towards him, they like him and then the crowd also likes him. They're chanting 'DSP' all the time so it's been fun to watch how he's got everybody to embrace him and his personality.”

Given when Smith-Pelly was able to do in the postseason, it is no surprise that the Caps would be interested in keeping him around. But at what cost?

Smith-Pelly was a bargain for Washington last season with a cap hit of only $650,000. He will be due a raise, but with John Carlson expected to get a monster contract, how much will general manager Brian MacLellan be willing to spend on a bottom-six winger like Smith-Pelly?

Despite the phenomenal postseason, Smith-Pelly had only seven goals and 16 points in the entire regular season. When it comes to a new contract, MacLellan will likely want to pay for that player while Smith-Pelly will no doubt look to be paid like the player who scored seven times in 24 playoff games.

As of Wednesday when he spoke with reporters, Smith-Pelly said he had not yet had any talks with the team about a new contract, but also noted that, as a restricted free agent, “there’s no real rush.”

The Caps own Smith-Pelly’s rights which helps their bargaining position. Smith-Pelly, however, is arbitration eligible and his postseason stats will undoubtedly bump his value when viewed by a neutral arbitrator.

But there's a good chance it may not get anywhere close to that point.

“On the ice and off the ice I feel like this is the best situation I've been in,” Smith-Pelly said. “Obviously, never know what's going to happen but I found a place and I want to be back.”