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Capitals' Shattenkirk has turned his game around after a rough playoff start

Capitals' Shattenkirk has turned his game around after a rough playoff start

PITTSBURGH— Over the past three games, Kevin Shattenkirk has been one of the Caps’ most productive players.

The defenseman scored the overtime winner in Game 3, then he recorded assists in Games 4 and 5, including the primary helper on Andre Burakovsky’s strike Saturday night at Verizon.

The three-game point streak equals the longest of Shattenkirk’s playoff career, while his six points (one goal, five assists) lead all Caps’ blue liners.

Shattenkirk’s recent run stands in stark contrast to his play in the Caps’ first eight postseason games. In those contests, the 28-year-old had three points and a NHL worst plus/minus rating of -7. He’s a combined + 5 in Games 3, 4 and 5.

MORE CAPS: Pens lose another defenseman for Game 6

So what’s changed? Quite a bit, actually.

“I’ve added a little more physicality to my game,” said Shattenkirk, who noticeably targeted Penguins forward Chris Kunitz with a series of hits on a shift in the second period in Game 5. “That seems to get you involved. It gets your senses kind of heightened and your blood rushing. And I think for me, it was making a couple of simple passes, getting a few shots on net, really just doing a few little things that are important in my game and then you start feeling a little more comfortable.”

Shattenkirk also simplified things mentally.

“I was putting too much pressure on myself,” the high-profile trade deadline addition added. “If I’m trying to play outside of what I’m capable of, I’m no good to this team. And I think that was a big problem for me.”

Coach Barry Trotz credited Shattenkirk with figuring out how to hit the reset button mid-round, which is often easier said than done.

“He sort of went into a reset mode,” Trotz said. “The biggest thing is that he’s moving his feet. He’s making the right play, whatever the play is for that situation.”

Trotz added: “He’s not trying to force things. I think was trying to force some things that weren’t there. He was not playing that game that was presented to him.”

Shattenkirk also credited his turnaround to a coaching adjustment. Since Game 4 of this series, he’s been paired primarily with smooth-skating Nate Schmidt. Shattenkirk opened the postseason skating with the more physical Brooks Orpik.

“In Game 4, I got to play more of a regular shift with Schmitty and that really drove my game,” Shattenkirk. “He’s someone who gets involved offensively. It forced me to keep up with him, get up in the rush and keep my gaps tight.  Really, I think he’s the one that’s helped me out the most.”  

MORE CAPS: Backstrom saved the series in Game 5

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The Dougie Hamilton-Alex Ovechkin drama continued in Game 6 and the internet has thoughts

NBC Sports

The Dougie Hamilton-Alex Ovechkin drama continued in Game 6 and the internet has thoughts

Alex Ovechkin's assist to Brett Connolly in Game 5 started when Carolina Hurricanes defender Dougie Hamilton shied away from Ovechkin's imminent check.

To start Game 6, Ovechkin tried to ram Hamilton along the boards again, but Hamilton sidestepped him to get the puck to safety.

After Ovechkin tumbled to the ice when he missed the hit, he made his way back to the bench, when he appeared to, well, you decide.

Ovechkin's mocking did not go unnoticed by the broadcast crew on NBC Sports Network or by fans on Twitter. "And there it is, that's what Eddie was talking about," chuckled Pierre McGuire as Ovechkin appeared to raise his arms like a clucking chicken.

The Hurricanes would respond with a goal to even the game 1-1, but Ovechkin answered back at 15:12 of the first period on an assist from Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen to make it 2-1 Capitals.


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The baffling exclusion of John Carlson from the Norris Trophy finalists


The baffling exclusion of John Carlson from the Norris Trophy finalists

The finalists for the Norris Trophy – awarded to the defenseman who demonstrates the greatest all-around ability in the position – were unveiled on Sunday. Somehow, John Carlson was not among them.

This is the second consecutive year Carlson was a deserving candidate and the second year he will not even be among the top three.

The Norris Trophy is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association -- of which I am a member so I guess you can blame us -- but make no mistake, this is a snub in every sense of the word and a major oversight that Carlson cannot get the recognition he deserves.

Ballots will be made public after the awards are given out. Until then, we are not supposed to divulge exactly how we voted, but I will tell you that Carlson was in my top three, and he absolutely should have been a finalist this year.

If you had asked me prior to the 2017-18 season who the most important defenseman on the Caps was, I would have told you it was Matt Niskanen. I saw Carlson as an offensive-heavy player whose skills in his own zone were lacking. I had to eat those words later as Niskanen was injured in mid-October and missed the next month of the season. During that month, Carlson averaged 27:47 of ice-time per game, which led the entire league. He showed he could contribute offensively, defensively, on the power play and penalty kill. There was nothing he could not do.

Suddenly, the Caps’ top pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen was replaced by Carlson and whoever he was paired with. That continued into this season.

But while Carlson has reshaped his image in Washington, his reputation as an offensive first player instead of an all-around defenseman persists, and it cost him.

There is no set standard every voter sticks to when it comes to evaluating players for the Norris. You can look at whatever stats you want whether it is Corsi, Fenwick, points, PDO, defensive zone starts, high-danger chances for -- the list goes on. Here’s why Carlson was in the top three of my ballot: Not only did he play exceptionally well, but the Capitals relied on him more in more situations than any other team relied on a single defenseman.

Carlson finished the season ranked eighth in the NHL in time on ice per game at 25:04. Burns finished just ahead of him with 25:06. Both Giordano (24:14) and Hedman (22:46) played less.

Carlson was among the top 40 defensemen in shorthanded time on ice per game with 2:35, something only Giordano (2:40) could boast among the other finalists. Carlson was also first among all defensemen in power play time on ice per game with 4:05, significantly more than Hedman (3:19), Giordano (3:19) or Burns (3:17).

There is no situation in which the Caps are not comfortable putting Carlson out on the ice and no situation in which he is not expected to play heavy minutes. He has taken a bigger role defensively as the team’s top shutdown pair of Orlov-Niskanen has had a down year. Despite the heavier defensive workload, Carlson still managed to finish in the top four in points among defensemen with 70, a career-high.

I am not here saying that Burns, Giordano or Hedman are not deserving of being finalists. In fact, Carlson did not finish first on my ballot. It seems crazy to me, however, that he did not finish in the top three this season or last. All three finalists had strong seasons, but Carlson’s season was just as good and he was more heavily relied upon. He is one of the top offensive blueliners, but that’s not all he is.

Until he manages to overcome that reputation, which persists through no fault of his own, he will continue to be on the outside of the Norris race looking in. And that’s a shame considering how good he has been.