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Capitals leave Coliseum with empty feeling

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Capitals leave Coliseum with empty feeling

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- When the Capitals look back on Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders in their final game at Nassau Coliseum, they will remember the decibel level, the deafening chants of “Yes, Yes, Yes,” and the 78 glass-rattling hits.  

But mostly, they will remember the missed opportunities they created while generating 39 shots on New York goaltender Jaroslav Halak.

Like the 2-on-1 by Nicklas Backstrom and Joel Ward that ended with Halak getting his catching arm on Ward’s shot early in the game. Or the clear look by Alex Ovechkin from the high slot that sailed wide right. Or the yawning net in front of Marcus Johnsson that he failed to hit.

The Capitals and Islanders were two very even teams on Saturday and because the Isles were one shot better -– Nikolay Kulemin’s game-winner midway through the final period proved to be the difference -- they will go at it one more time on Monday night at Verizon Center.

“You’ve got two very determined teams,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “Two teams that are well prepared. Two teams going nose to nose. It’s a heavyweight bout, that’s what it is.”

If that’s the case, the Caps couldn’t stay off the ropes enough in Round 6, letting the Isles hang around just long enough to win it. 

“We knew they were going to come out hard and they did,” said Caps defenseman John Carlson, who scored a power-play goal in the closing seconds of the first period. “I thought we did a good job coming out of the first period 1-1. We had a bunch of chances to make it 2-1 and we didn’t. We didn’t finish that well.”

The Capitals outshot the Islanders 16-9 in the opening period but were outshot 17-10 in the second. The two teams exchanged chances in the final period, but Kulemin took advantage of a busted play to slip a forehander behind Braden Holtby for his first goal of the series.

“We had a couple looks, but they had too many looks,” Trotz said. “I thought we were too loose in a few areas around the net. When they had some quality chances Braden was good, and when we had quality chances Halak was good.”

In the end, Trotz said, the Islanders used the energy and desperation of their crowd to push the series to its limit.

“At the end of the day, the desperation level of the Islanders was just a little bit higher than ours,” Trotz said. “We’re in a winner-take-all situation.”

Carlson said there is nothing the Islanders can show them on Monday that they haven’t already seen.

“We know what we’re getting ourselves into,” he said. “We know they’re a team that forechecks hard. We know they skate and can move the puck and they’ve done that. We’ve got to do a better job slowing them down out of their zone and through the neutral zone. And we’ve got to bury our chances. I feel like we had a ton of them.”

And because they didn’t cash in, the Caps and Isles will roll the dice one more time for a chance to face the rested and supremely confident New York Rangers in Round 2.

MORE CAPITALS: Chimera in brief altercation with Islanders fan

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the power play get back to an elite level?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the power play get back to an elite level?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2. 

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.  

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.   

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we look at a power play that dipped out of the top 10 last season. Can a unit that has been so consistent for so long get back to that top level? 

This comes back to tactics more than personnel. The same players are back who have been part of this unit for years. Alex Ovechkin is the ultimate weapon in the left face-off circle, John Carlson mans the point, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov do their thing on the half wall and below the net and T.J. Oshie is the trigger man in the slot. 

Those five players all had 227 minutes of power-play time last year or more. Ovechkin had 17 goals which is about standard for the best ever. Kuznetsov came next with eight goals and 13 assists. Backstrom had four goals, but 17 assists. Carlson had two goals and 27 assists. 

Oshie missed 13 games so his numbers are a little down, but in the games he did play he still hit six goals and eight assists. Tom Wilson was Oshie’s primary replacement in that bumper position and he had three goals. 

Not too bad for Blaine Forsythe’s group. He’s the assistant coach who has run the power play the past five years. You can’t argue with the track record. Unfortunately, the expectations for Washington’s power play are massive given that talent level and it’s fair to say it fell short at 12thoverall in the NHL at 20.8 percent.

Again, 49-for-236 isn’t bad. It’s just the talent level says it should be better. The Capitals were seventh in 2017-18 (22.5 percent), fourth in 2016-17 (23.1 percent), fifth in 2015-16 (21.9 percent), first in 2014-15 (25.3 percent), tied for first in 2013-14 (23.4 percent) and first again in 2012-13 (26.8 percent). The last time Washington finished outside the top 10 on the power play was in 2011-12 when it cratered to 18th (16.7 percent). 

There are a few issues that could be tweaked. The Capitals managed just 236 power-play chances. That tied for 16thin the league. To even break into the top 10 in that category they’d need 16 more penalties drawn. 

Only three times after Oct. 22 did they score two power-play goals in the same game and never more than that. How does that even happen? They had two or more power-play goals four times in the first eight games alone, including four on opening night. After that? It was one and done, 

Kuznetsov is one of the best in the game at getting the puck into the offensive zone. Fans loathe it, but the drop pass – or “the slingshot” – has become an effective way, when used properly, to get the puck into the offensive zone on the power play. It just didn’t seem to work all that well for Washington last year. 

One wonders if Forsythe will make some tweaks there. Kuznetsov was often the player on the receiving end of the drop passes, which can keep the penalty kill off balance, but can also waste precious seconds when it doesn’t work. Then you have to regroup and try again. 

It’s not going away, though – even for those who want to slingshot the drop pass to the moon. It’s used all over the league. Some teams like to use two players as options when coming up ice using the slingshot. That’s easier to defend in some ways, but it also gives your team a certain level of unpredictability. 

Maybe teams have just become better at defending the Capitals on the PK simply because they have had the same personnel and coaching for years now. Opposing coaching staffs have hours of video on this group to break down and analyze. 

But there’s no reason to change too much. That Ovechkin one-timer is the ultimate weapon and you don’t want to stifle the creativity of players like Backstrom or Kuznetsov.

Maybe quicker unit changes would help keep players fresh. Ovechkin is almost always going to be out there for the full two minutes and it would be silly to take that shot off the ice. But developing a more reliable second group might help, too. 

Last year’s “second” unit by ice time was Lars Eller, Jakub Vrana, Wilson, Brett Connolly and Dmitry Orlov/Matt Niskanen. Connolly is gone via free agency. Niskanen is gone via trade. One wonders why Andre Burakovsky was hardly used (18:25), but he’s gone, too, in a trade. 

Will be interesting to see if Forsythe can come up with a more reliable second group centered around Ovechkin, Eller and Vrana, who deserves more power-play time even if he’s buried on this roster, and Wilson as the big body in the middle. Richard Panik was fifth on the Arizona Coyotes in power-play minutes last season (146:16) so maybe he has a role there. 

The very best Washington power plays in recent years had secondary players like Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams around before the salary cap cleaved that depth. The Capitals were still a very good power play in 2018-19, but they could use more of that. These are minor changes that could get them back toward the very top of the league and helps take pressure off its 5-on-5 play. 

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Alex Ovechkin headed to China as an NHL Ambassador

Alex Ovechkin headed to China as an NHL Ambassador

Capitals center Alex Ovechkin is headed to China the week of Aug. 4 to serve as an international ambassador for the NHL, which is trying to grow its presence in that country. 

The NHL played two pre-season games in China last year between the Boston Bruins and the Calgary Flames. The year before the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks did the same.  

Ovechkin’s trip to Beijing will include youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings. 

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a statement. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL and the NHL Players Association are hoping to generate interest in the sport in the world’s largest market. The preseason games played in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have drawn good crowds the past two years. The goal is to develop grassroots hockey programs at all levels, but especially for kids.

One other aspect of the trip: It generates publicity if the NHL decides to allow its players to return to the Winter Olympics in 2022 when they are hosted by Beijing. That issue needs to be worked out in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations over the next year. NHL players had participated in every Olympic Games since Nagano, Japan in 1998 until the league refused to let players go to Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics in South Korea last year.   

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