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Capitals rewrite their history with clutch Game 7

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Capitals rewrite their history with clutch Game 7

The storyline heading into Monday night's series finale between the Capitals and New York Islanders was Washington's troubled history in Game Sevens. Yet it was the Caps who walked away with the 2-1 victory after a dominant team performance and clutch goals from Joel Ward and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

"It was an effort that probably should have been more than 2-1 the way be played," Braden Holtby said, "but start to finish that’s the game we’ve been trying to groom all year."

From the opening puck drop, it was clear this game was going to be different from Game 6. In Nassau, the Islanders jumped out to a fast start, hitting everything that moved on the ice to dictate the play. On Monday it was the Capitals who jumped out to the great start, buoyed by the raucous crowd at Verizon Center.

For a player like Kuznetsov who was experiencing his first NHL playoffs, it was quite the eye-opening experience. "Before the series I don’t understand what is this home ice advantage, but right now I understand. Our building is crazy."

Despite their strong play, however, it took nearly two periods before the Caps could pierce Jaroslav Halak. That's when Mr. Game 7 himself stepped up, Joel Ward. After Halak saved a Brooks Orpik slap shot, Ward was able to knock the puck underneath Halak and in.

"You want to be in that moment and you want to make plays and you want to be that guy," Ward said afterwards.

The Capitals dominated the game allowing only 11 shots on net. That's good for the defense, but tough on goalies who tend to cool down when they are not tested. That seemed to be the case for Holtby as he let in a soft goal between his legs in the third period in what could have been a devastating moment for the Caps' season.

"It’s not exactly a fun one to be in," Holtby said. "Mentally it’s tough. I don’t think I handled it very well, but our guys played so good in front of me that it made up fro my mistake."

RELATED: Capitals advance with Game 7 win over Islanders

Ironically it may have been the team's past with Game Sevens, the past the team was trying to escape from, that helped them continue pushing for the victory.

"I think the experience paid off for a lot of our guys that realized what it takes in a Game Seven," Holtby said.  "It takes 60 full minutes and tonight that’s what it took. Realistically the effort that we put forward we might not even had to put 60 but we just couldn’t get a couple of bounces to go our way. We just kept pushing. It was an effort that we really deserved to win that game."

Despite the goal, the momentum did not seem to swing with the Islanders for very long. The Capitals maintained control and broke the deadlock thanks to Kuznetsov.

"Kuzy made an unbelievable play," Ward said. "I wouldn’t know how to describe that play to be honest."

With the game deadlocked at one, Kuznetsov took the puck on the boards in the Islanders' zone and made a quick turn to the center of the ice. His speed proved deceptive as soon Johnny Boychuk, Frans Nielesen and Jaroslav Halak were sliding all over the ice, helpless to prevent what became the series-clinching goal.

After the game, Alex Ovechkin had perhaps the best description of the play: "It's sick."

"It was a phenomenal game. It's the best I've seen us play," Holtby said.

Kuznetsov disagreed, but for a good reason. "It’s not our best game because our best game is coming soon."

MORE CAPITALS: Kuznetsov wins it for Caps

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Sergei Shumakov remains a work in progress but that’s to be expected

Sergei Shumakov remains a work in progress but that’s to be expected

There is a lot of excitement over Capitals’ new winger Sergei Shumakov.

The transition from the KHL to the NHL, however, may take longer than the preseason will allow.

When Evgeny Kuznetsov heard the rumors about Shumakov possibly moving to the NHL, he was quick to reach out.

“I call his agent and call him and they said, ‘Yeah, we have a couple teams,’” Kuznetsov said. “And, then, ‘What do you mean a couple teams? It’s only one team.’ Then, after that, they signed after a couple of days.”

Thus the transition from the KHL to the NHL began.

General manager Brian MacLellan worked to keep the Capitals’ championship roster largely intact and made very few additions to the team.

Nic Dowd was signed on July 1 to compete for the fourth line center role left open by Jay Beagle’s departure. The second addition was Shumakov, a Russian player about to turn 26 with no North American experience.

Shumakov appears to be the latest of the low-risk, high-reward moves MacLellan has routinely made since taking over as general manager. The team took similar chances on Brett Connolly who has become a staple on the Caps’ bottom six and Devante Smith-Pelly who signed in 2017 after the New Jersey Devils bought him out of his contract.

“We see a player that has the ability to score and high-level skill,” MacLellan said of Shumakov. “We're not sure how it translates over here yet. We're just going to let him come in and find his way and put him in some spots and see what he can do."

Shumakov hails from the same town as Kuznetsov, Chelyabinsk, which is why Kuznetsov first reached out to Shumakov to recruit him.

“We’ve been together from 5 to 17 years old and play on the same line, so it’s always nice to have your friend,” Kuznetsov said.

But as excited as he is, Kuznetsov is also not naïve to the challenge that now faces Shumakov.

Fans are understandably excited about what Shumakov can add to the team as a tremendously skilled winger who scored 17 goals and 40 points in 47 games in the KHL last season. But the transition from the KHL to the NHL can be a challenging one.

What makes it so difficult?

“Everything,” Kuznetsov said. “The language, the game, the lifestyle, the mentality. It’s not easy when you’re 26 and you have to change everything in your life.”

The ice is smaller in North America meaning players have less room to maneuver. That makes the game faster paced and a lot more physical.

It is a transition that not everybody is able to make. For every Kuznetsov, there is a Vadim Shipachyov who lasted only three games in Vegas last season before he went back to the KHL.

That makes the preseason critical not just for the team to evaluate Shumakov, but also for him to adjust to the game.

Camp got off to an inauspicious start as visa issues delayed his arrival. Shumakov missed the first two days of camp and did not hit the ice until the fourth day. There is also a language barrier to work through as he does not speak English. When he finally did get on the ice, Reirden grouped him with the team’s other Russian players who could quickly get him up to speed on everything the coaches were saying.

Shumakov made his preseason debut on Friday and showed he is very much still a work in progress. He took a high-sticking penalty on his very first shift and ultimately finished the game with one shot on goal and no points.

With the regular season looming, Shumakov will likely need more time to adjust than the preseason will allow. One option that the team has, however, is to send Shumakov to the AHL. Not only is Shumakov on a two-way contract, but he is also waiver exempt meaning there is no risk in re-assigning him to Hershey.

The best thing to help Shumakov transition will be to play as much as possible. With the regular season only two weeks away, he may need a trip to Hershey before he is ready.

“He’s a skilled player and he can bring a lot of offensive chances to our game,” Kuznetsov said. 

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Capitals trim two more from roster, sending pair of goalies to Hershey

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Capitals trim two more from roster, sending pair of goalies to Hershey

Washington made a number of cuts early Saturday morning to trim their roster down to 43 players.  On Saturday night, they cut it down to 41 as the team announced goalies Parker Milner and Adam Morrison were assigned to AHL Hershey.

Milner and Morrison’s departure leaves Washington with four goalies on the current roster in Braden Holtby, Pheonix Copley, Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov.

The trade of Philipp Grubauer left the backup role in Washington a matter of some question heading into the season, but the team’s top four was never really in doubt. Saturday’s move to send Milner and Morrison to the AHL only confirms what we already knew.

With Hershey’s training camp set to start on Monday, the Bears will obviously need two goalies which explains why the move was made now. 

This will likely only be a temporary move, however, as Vanecek and Samsonov are likely to be Hershey’s goalies heading into the regular season. For now, keeping them on the Capitals roster allows them to continue practicing against better competition and will allow them the opportunity for more work in the preseason.

The Capitals still have another three preseason games left to play, the next of which will take place on Tuesday in St. Louis. 

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