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Caps lose Game 5 heartbreaker

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Caps lose Game 5 heartbreaker

NEW YORK Shocking. Devastating. Crushing.

Use your own adjective.

The Capitals were 6.6 seconds away from another gutsy one-goal victory when the walls caved in and changed the complexion of the Eastern Conference Semifnals.

With Joel Ward serving a four-minute high-sticking major, Brad Richards sent the game into overtime with a goal with 6.6 seconds left in regulation and Marc Staal won it just 1:35 into overtime to give the Rangers a 3-2 victory on front of a wild crowd at Madison Square Garden.

The Rangers now hold a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, which resumes Wednesday night at the Verizon Center.

Little-used center John Mitchell beat Matt Hendricks on a faceoff and won the puck back to Staal. With Brooks Laich and Hendricks converging on him Staal blasted a shot the deflected of Laich or Hendricks or both and sailed past Braden Holtbys outstretched glove before he saw it.

The Capitals were 6.6 seconds away from a 2-1 regulation win when Richards sent the game into overtime with a killer power-play goal.

It all started with 22 seconds remaining when Ward took a four-minute high sticking penalty on Carl Hagelin off a defensive zone draw. The Rangers already had pulled goalie Henrik Lundqvist and now had a 6-on-4 advantage.

On the ensuing faceoff, Richards beat Jay Beagle on the draw and defenseman Michal Del Zotto threaded a shot in on Braden Holtby. Ryan Callahan jabbed twice at the puck to keep it alive and just as Holtby was about to cover the puck Richards whacked it through him and off the right cross bar for his fourth goal of the playoffs.

Defenseman John Carlson scored a power-play goal 4 minutes, 20 seconds into the third period to give the Caps a 2-1 lead.

Carlsons goal came after Rangers enforcer Mike Rupp was sent to the penalty box for hooking Joel Ward on an offensive rush with Mike Knuble.

Carlson rotated along the blue line until Wideman spotted him in the high slot. Carlson blasted a rising slap shot that appeared to change direction when it deflected off the stick of defenseman Dan Girardi and into the top right corner of the net.

The Capitals went into hunker down mode after that as Matt Hendricks, Nick Backstrom, Joel Ward, Jay Beagle Karl Alzner, and John Carlson took turns blocking shots in front of Holtby until Ward took his penalty.

Despite being outshot 26-10 and thoroughly outplayed in the opening 40 minutes the Capitals managed to go into the third period in a 1-1 tie because of their penalty killing and Brooks Laichs wrists.

It was the ninth time in 13 playoff games the Caps entered the final period of regulation with the score tied.

The Caps penalty killers held the Rangers power play without a shot on three occasions as Roman Hamrlik high-sticking, Mike Green slashing and John Carlson delay of game took turns going to the sin bin.

The Caps fared no better on the man-advantage, failing to convert penalties to Michael Del Zotto in the first and second periods.

Laich kept the Capitals afloat when he turned a Brian Boyle turnover into his second goal of the playoffs and his first since Game 3 of the opening round against the Bruins.

Boyle couldnt handle the puck at his skates and Alex Ovechkin found Laich in the slot for a wrister inside the right post. It wad the fourth assist of the playoffs for Ovechkin, who in pre-game warmups took a scary spill into the boards when he was tripped up by backup goalie Michal Neuvirth.

The Capitals looked loose during the morning skate and played loose in their own zone in the opening period, allowing the Rangers to grab a 1-0 lead while outshooting them 17-4.

Anything that could go wrong for the Capitals did in that opening period. They were outhit 15-8 and beaten to almost every loose puck. Defenseman Dennis Wideman, who entered the game tied with partner Jeff Schultz with a team-worst minus-7, was victimized on the Rangers first goal, dipping both blue liners to minus-8.

Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman held the puck long enough to get around a sliding Matt Hendricks before snapping a bad-angle wrist shot from the right boards through the legs of Wideman and Braden Holtby for a 1-0 lead.

The puck appeared to tick off the inside of Widemans shin pad and although Holtby probably should have stopped the shot it was hard to blame the rookie, who was asked to stop 16 other shots in the period.

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

In an ideal world, you keep players like Matt Niskanen.

A veteran defenseman with years of experience, a player who was given hard minutes during Stanley Cup playoff runs in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and excelled, a soft-spoken, but blunt man unafraid to say when his team played like hot garbage. These are not guys you look to trade. 

Unless, of course, they have a $5.75 million salary-cap hit for the next two years and your team desperately needs to clear space for other priorities. The Capitals made that long-expected move on Friday when they traded Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas. 

In a vacuum, this is a loss. Niskanen by all accounts has been a better defenseman than Gudas. But they are also on different career trajectories. Niskanen struggled, especially early last season. He is 32. There’s at least a chance we’ve seen the best of him, though he’d argue by the end of last season he was closer to his normal self.

“Not totally shocked, but it caught me a little off guard,” Niskanen told reporters on a conference call Friday. “I knew once the NHL season was over, from now until the draft is typically when things happen.  Not really shocked, a little surprised. I knew this is the time of year when these things can happen and I knew what kind of situation Washington was in, so I knew there was a possibility.

Gudas, 29, is going in the opposite direction – though his ceiling is surely lower than Niskanen’s is at his best. He’s cut down his penalty minutes each of the past three years. He’s of limited offensive value, instead a classic stay-at-home defenseman who’s become effective at limiting the high-danger chances when he’s on the ice. 

And that role won’t have to be a big one. The Capitals have an in-house replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pair with Nick Jensen, who is really the on-ice key to this trade. 

Jensen, acquired at the trade deadline from Detroit, was immediately signed to a four-year contract extension sight unseen. The writing was on the wall for Niskanen then. Caps GM Brian MacLellan basically said it out loud at breakdown down when he acknowledged retaining scoring depth is a priority and that he likely would have to move salary. These dots weren’t difficult to connect. 

Gudas is the plug-in defenseman on the third pair who allows Washington’s coaching staff to pick and choose which young player – Jonas Siegenthaler, Christian Djoos or whoever – they want to use on a given night. Both players are natural left-side defensemen.

If Jensen can find the comfort level he’d reached with the Red Wings, then MacLellan will have a more balanced roster. Immediately he can focus his leftover resources on the third and fourth lines. Maybe that means re-signing Carl Hagelin. Early indications are that’s a priority. 

But with about $13.49 million in cap space, according to the uber-helpful web site Cap Friendly.com. there is a little breathing room now to take care of restricted free agents (RFAs) Jakub Vrana – expect him around the $4 million mark on a bridge deal – and maybe Andre Burakovsky (a $3.25 million qualifying offer or less than that if they buy out his final two years of restricted free agency). 

But now let’s look at the long-term implications of the Niskanen trade. Gudas is a free agent after next season. That Niskanen money is gone just in time for contract extensions with center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby.  

The Capitals will lose the bonus overage ($1.150 million) they have to pay defenseman Brooks Orpik this year - whether he plays with the team or not (a return seems unlikely now). Gudas’ cap hit is $2.345 million. The salary cap should also rise again from $83 million. Without moving more salary, keeping both Holtby and Backstrom seems like a long shot. 

Speaking with Holtby on Saturday at the Capital Pride Parade, he insisted to NBC Sports Washington that he hadn’t heard anything from his agent about contract talks beginning. That’s something you’d expect to happen this summer - or not at all if Holtby rightly pursues a top-level goalie contract. 

Montreal goalie Carey Price has a $10.5 million cap hit, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is at $8.5 million and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could hit double figures as he enters the free agent market this summer. 

Backstrom, too, a bargain for nine years now, will want a raise. He now has the 20thhighest cap hit for a center ($6.7 million). You’d have to think he’d seek well over $8 million. Teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov has had a $7.8 million cap hit since 2017.

Niskanen knew all of this, of course. He understands the business side of the sport. A player with his own moral code, who was always, always at his locker when he made a mistake in a game or when someone had to account for a poor team performance, leaves Washington after five years with a Stanley Cup and few regrets. It’s what he came here to do.  

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The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The 2019 offseason for the Capitals was always going to revolve around the salary cap. The first domino fell on Friday with the trade of defenseman Matt Niskanen and his $5.75 million cap hit to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Caps received defenseman Radko Gudas in return with the Flyers retaining 30-percent of his $3.35 million cap hit. In total, Washington freed up $3.405 million worth of cap space for next season.

But that was just step one. There is still a lot of work left for general manager Brian MacLellan to do over the summer to fill out a full roster. Just how much easier did his life get on Friday?

With the move, the Caps now have eight forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season for about $69.5 million. Ideally, a team wants 22 players with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies. The salary cap has not yet been officially set, but it is projected to be $83 million. That means the team still needs five forwards and one defenseman and has about $13.5 million worth of cap space to work with.

Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos are both restricted free agents and both will almost certainly be back. That is one forward and one defenseman off the wish list. Vrana will probably come in at about $4 million per year and Djoos at $1 million, giving the team about $8.5 million left for four forwards.

The good news is that the team is pretty much set in the top-six which of course means MacLellan will not need to find a big money player. The Niskanen trade allows the team room for a significant depth forward somewhere in the $4 million range for the third line with enough left over to fill out the remaining depth spots. The bad news is that still leaves the team with some tough choices to make.

Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly are both unrestricted free agents and the team may have enough money for one, but not both. There is also still the question of what to do with Andre Burakovsky. Do you qualify him for $3.25 million? That may not be as tough a pill to swallow at this point, but it is still a significant amount of money to commit to a player with 12 goals in each of the past two seasons. And then there are the team’s other RFAs Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin. MacLellan will have to make a decision on all of those players while still putting together a team with enough depth to compete for the Stanley Cup before the window closes on the Ovechkin era completely.

The Caps lost a good player and locker room presence in Niskanen and now have more cap flexibility as a result, but it does not solve all of the team’s salary cap problems. The team will not be able to add as much offensive depth as perhaps it would have liked and MacLellan will still have to get creative to put together a bottom six formidable enough for a deep Cup run.

 

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