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Caps' Brett Connolly matches last season's goal total -- with room to spare

Caps' Brett Connolly matches last season's goal total -- with room to spare

Brett Connolly was a healthy scratch the first time his new team played his old one.

But he got the chance to face Boston on Wednesday night—and the veteran winger made up for lost time, scoring the Capitals’ fourth goal in an eventual 5-3 victory at Verizon Center.

From his first shift of the night, it was obvious that Connolly had a little extra juice. And why not? It was the first time he had faced the Bruins, the club that declined to retain his contractual rights last summer.

“I was obviously excited for it ready for it,” Connolly said. “Anytime you get a chance to play against your old team, you want to play well and to get one. And when it comes at a big time in the game, it’s always fun. But we got the win and that’s most important.”

Coach Barry Trotz said everyone on the Caps’ bench knew how much the game meant to Connolly, who has overcome an uneven start to become one of Washington’s key depth players.

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“No question,” Trotz said, “everybody wants to score against their old team. He had a little extra incentive.”

A lot has changed for Connolly since the Caps last hosted the Bruins on Dec. 7. Back then, the 24-year-old was in and out of Trotz’s lineup as the coach mixed and matched his forward combinations, searching for the right mix. And on that night, he was out, again.

Trotz, however, found that mix about a month ago—and it included Connolly skating on the third line with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky. Since that trio was put together, Connolly has scored six goals.

In all, he now has nine tallies on the season—the same total he produced in 71 games with the Bruins a year ago. 

Connolly’s career-high for goals is 12, set as a member of the Lightning 2014-15.

As for his goal against Boston on Wednesday, it was a big one for the player’s pride and the Caps' odds of holding on for the ‘W’. Washington was clinging to a 3-2 lead early in the third period when Connolly finished a deft touch-pass from defenseman Dmitry Orlov by deking the puck around all-star goalie Tuukka Rask.

“There’s a lot of firepower on this team; everybody can make plays,” Connolly said. “Orly just one-touched it to me and that was an easy one, just put it around [Rask] and put it into an empty net.”

Trotz said he likes Connolly's skill set and what he brings to the lineup. 

“I didn’t like the penalty he took, obviously, but he’s playing and skating really well,” Trotz said, referring to an interference infraction Connolly was assessed in the first period. “He’s got hockey I.Q., he can make plays, he’s got a great release. There’s a lot of things to like about Brett’s game. It took him a while to assimilate to our organization [but now] he has.”

“And that line—him and Lars and Burakovsky—you got to feel pretty good about them,” the coach added. 

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Halaked: The series that almost defined an era

Halaked: The series that almost defined an era

The Capitals return from the bye week on Monday against the Montreal Canadiens (7 p.m., NBC Sports), a team that brings back memories that most Caps fans would love to forget. The first team in franchise history to win a Presidents’ Trophy as the top team in the NHL saw its season end abruptly in the first round of the playoffs in 2010 at the hands of the Canadiens. It was a series that perhaps fans never would have truly gotten over if not for the Stanley Cup win in 2018.

On Thanksgiving Day In 2007, Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach of the Caps and promptly sparked a turnaround that saw Washington win the Southeast Division and reach the postseason for the first time since 2003. That team lost in the first round of the playoffs in seven games to the Philadelphia Flyers. The following year, the Caps again won the division and won a playoff series for the first time since 1998. That year, they lost in the second round in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Despite the loss, however, there was optimism the following year as the team continued to improve. In the 2009-10 season, it looked like there was no stopping them. Washington breezed through the regular season in one of the most dominant campaigns in league history, amassing 121 points. It was almost assumed that the team’s dominance would translate into the postseason, at least through the first round.

The first test for Washington was a Montreal Canadiens team who had just managed to squeeze into the final playoff spot by a single point. It wasn’t even really clear who would be the starting goalie for the Canadiens going into the series as the netminding duties had been split that season between Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price.

The Canadiens chose Halak and the rest, unfortunately, is history.

Washington stumbled out of the gate, dropping Game 1 in overtime. After Jose Theodore gave up two goals on the first two shots he faced in Game 2, Semyon Varlamov replaced him and seemed to right the ship. The Caps won that game as well as Games 3 and 4 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. The series looked all but over.

But that’s when Halak put on his cape and dashed the hopes of Washington.

Over the next three games, Halak turned aside 131 out of 134 shots for a stunning .978 save percentage. Even typing that number still seems unbelievable all these years later.

It was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the league.

The next several years were full of playoff disappointments from a series sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a blowout Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers, a 3-1 blown series lead to the Rangers, and two straight second-round exits to Pittsburgh who, in each season, would go on to win the Cup.

But none of those seasons came to define Washington’s playoff futility quite like the loss to Montreal. Had the team never won the Cup, Halak would have stood as the asterisk to the whole of the Ovechkin era.

Thankfully, the Caps overcame their history in 2018 and all of those playoff disappointments made that Cup run all the more satisfying in the end. But that doesn’t mean Caps fans do not remember 2010 or get that much more enjoyment every time they see Washington beat the Canadiens.

It was the series that, until Ovechkin raised the Cup over his head on the ice in Vegas, had defined the era of playoff struggles.

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Caps at Canadiens: Washington returns to action without Ovechkin

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Caps at Canadiens: Washington returns to action without Ovechkin

With the bye week and the NHL all-star break now over, it is back to business for the Capitals (33-11-5) who return to take on the Montreal Canadiens (22-21-7) on the road in Montreal. Tune in to NBC Sports Washington for all of the action. Pregame coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Caps FaceOff followed by Caps Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. which will take you up to the 7 p.m. puck drop. Stick with NBC Sports Washington after the game for postgame coverage with Caps Postgame Live, D.C. Sports Live and Caps Overtime Live.

Here is what you need to know for Monday’s game.

In case you forgot

The Caps have not played since Jan. 18 so in case you need a refresher, Washington entered the bye week on a three-game winning streak. The final game before the break was an incredible come-from-behind win over the New York Islanders in which Washington erased a 4-1 deficit in the third period to win 6-4 in regulation. The team now returns from the bye still with the top record in the NHL with 71 points.

Washington currently boasts a one-point lead (with two games in hand) over the Boston Bruins for first in the conference and a four-point lead (with one game in hand) over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

No Ovechkin

For the first time this season, the Caps will be without Alex Ovechkin who is serving a one-game suspension for his decision not to attend the All-Star Game. That is about the only thing that can slow him down at this point as he scored eight goals in three games heading into the bye week.

Here is what the lines looked like without Ovechkin at the morning skate, per Samantha Pell:

Richard Panik - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Evgeny Kuznetsov - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Travis Boyd
Brendan Leipsic - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Jonas Siegenthaler - Radko Gudas

Holtby in net

Braden Holtby, fresh off his appearance in the All-Star Game, will start in the first game back from the break. Heading into the bye week, Ilya Samsonov started two out of three games and came on in relief for Holtby in the only game in which he did not start. Holtby, however, remains the No. 1 for now as Todd Reirden continues to handle his rookie netminder with kid gloves.

Down the final stretch of the season, it is likely we see more of a split between the two netminders than we saw through the first 49 games (Holtby started 33 of those 49 games), but it remains unlikely Samsonov begins shouldering a bulk of the load barring any injury or a complete collapse by Holtby.

When last we met

Monday's game will be the second of three meetings against Montreal this season. These two teams last met on Nov. 15, a game in which the Canadiens won 5-2 to snap Washington's 13-game point streak. 

In a 0-0 game, Ovechkin smoked forward Jonathan Drouin with a huge hit that seemed to wake up Montreal which scored about two minutes later and would go on to score the first four goals of the game.

Here's a recap of that loss.

The power play is...still bad

The bye week was nice in that it gave everyone a break from having to think about how bad the power play has been. Now, however, it is back to reality.

Since Dec. 1, Washington's power play ranks 30th in the NHL at 14.1-percent. That is something the team needs to turn around quickly.

The Price is right

Carey Price is one of the best goalies in the world, but he has not looked like it all too often this season with a .908 save percentage. Having said that, he has been lights out in 2020 with a .935 save percentage since Jan. 1.

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