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Caps' MacLellan says this is the best team of the Ovechkin Era

Caps' MacLellan says this is the best team of the Ovechkin Era

Is this the best Capitals team of the Alex Ovechkin Era?

The guy who played a key role in constructing the roster believes it is.

“I think so, yeah,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said this week. “You can make an argument. To me, it is the most complete team.”

“We’ve added guys every year that have worked out,” he said. “We’ve added two defensemen [Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen], it worked out. We added two wingers [T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams], it worked out. We added a third line this year. Things have kind of evolved to a good [place] where I think we should be playing at our highest level we’ve ever played at.”

If anyone is qualified to make that statement it’s MacLellan, who has filled many roles during his 15 years with the organization. He witnessed the 2009-10 that obliterated the league to the tune of 121 standings points. He presided over last year’s team, which also finished atop the NHL standings.

But this year’s edition, in MacLellan’s estimation, feels a little different…in a positive way.

“It’s good,” he said. “The goaltending is deep. Defense is pretty good. Four good lines, scoring lines. Good [penalty kill], good power play.”

Indeed, the Caps have been the league’s most dominant team since the calendar flipped to 2017. And it hasn’t really been all that close.

They have scored more 5-on-5 goals than anyone else this season. Meanwhile, they’re allowing the fewest goals per game (2.07). Braden Holtby is making an argument for a second straight Vezina Trophy, Nicklas Backstrom is tied for fourth in points, the special teams units are clicking and they've been dominant on home ice. Meanwhile, Coach Barry Trotz has managed his top players’ minutes in an effort to ensure they are healthy and fresh for the postseason.

So, yeah, the Caps are in good shape as the stretch run begins. They sit atop the league, three points clear of the Wild in the overall standings and five points ahead of the Penguins in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.

In fact, things have gone so well that MacLellan isn’t sure if he’ll add anything at the March 1 trade deadline.

“This year I don’t feel that pressure or that need to do anything,” MacLellan said. “We’re exploring opportunities. If something makes sense we’re going to pursue it. [But] we’re not going to mess with lines or defensive pairs. If we can upgrade on the fringes we might do it.”

Another reason MacLellan is so confident this year's group will do something no previous Capitals’ team has managed: He senses the players understand and embrace the importance of maximizing their opportunity this spring, an "urgency" that's underscored by the uncertain contract status of several key veterans.

“We’ve tried to create a sense of urgency here, even starting last year that this is it—you’ve got two years to figure it out [with] this group,” MacLellan said. “That’s not to say that going forward we’re not going to be good, but something’s got give because of the roster we have. Something’s got to fall out, and I’m not sure what it’s going to be. But it’s not going to be the same.”

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Ovi’s two goals not enough for Caps, team loses to Lightning

Ovi’s two goals not enough for Caps, team loses to Lightning

Alex Killorn scored a hat trick and the Tampa Bay Lightning used two empty-net goals to hold on for a 6-3 win against the Capitals at Amalie Arena on Saturday. 

It was the first meeting between the two teams since May 23, when Washington won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final en route to the Stanley Cup. 

The Capitals remain in first place in the Metropolitan Division at 91 points and Alex Ovechkin scored his 47th and 48th goals of the year. Here are five reasons why the Capitals lost. 

Slow start

After a few solid minutes to start the game, one mistake in the neutral zone proved costly for the Capitals. T. J. Oshie lost a puck entering the offensive zone and Tampa Bay was off on the turnover. Nikita Kucherov tipped a pass to Brayden Point who went in on a 2-on-1 with Johnson. His pass beat goalie Braden Holtby for a 1-0 lead at 8:35 of the first period. Just 1:58 later, Killorn banked a bad-angle shot off Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov and past Holtby for the 2-0 advantage. That put the Capitals in an early hole. The Lightning are good enough. They don’t need much luck. 

Andrei Vasilevskiy

The Lightning goalie was on his game from the start. He shrugged aside an Orlov shot early that bounced over his shoulder but was cleared off the line. The Capitals generated more chances in the second period with 13 shots on goal and only Alex Ovechkin’s power-play tally beat Vasilevskiy. He finished the game with 31 saves. A nice stop on a backhanded shot by Lars Eller early in the second period kept Tampa Bay’s lead at two goals. He had another on Jakub Vrana late in the third to keep the lead 4-3. 

Physical play

Much was made of how the Capitals physically dominated the Lightning in the final two games of last year’s Eastern Conference Final. They had their moments on Saturday – especially Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. But Tampa Bay was ready for it this time. Killorn bulled his way to the net against Washington defenseman Nick Jensen and smacked home a rebound at 15:56 of the first period to answer a John Carlson goal and push the lead back to 3-1. Jensen had no chance to keep Killorn off of Holtby. That’s a good sign for the Lightning going into the playoffs. 

Turnovers in the defensive zone

That bit Washington early in the third period when the score was 3-2. Matt Niskanen flubbed a clearing attempt and Tampa Bay pounced. One high-danger shot on Holtby was stopped. But a lost board battle let the Lightning get the puck back to the point. Defenseman Eric Cernak beat Holtby with a wrist shot from the right wing as no one stepped up to stop him. Ryan McDonagh had the primary assist. Holtby might have been screened by a diving Jensen. That made it 4-2 Tampa Bay. The puck was in Washington’s zone for 30 seconds. 

Too little, too late

Ovechkin brought the Capitals to within 4-3 at 12:56 of the third. He was in perfect position when an Orlov point shot caromed to the left of Vasilevskiy. He one-timed the bouncing puck and just like that, Washington had life again. That was also No. 48 for Ovechkin, which leaves him just two shy of his eighth 50-goal season. But Tampa held on down the stretch, including a crucial penalty kill with under five minutes to play and almost three full minutes with a 6-on-5 advantage for Washington,where the Lightning scored twice on an empty net to earn a satisfying victory.  


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Lightning chasing history, but Caps know that's no guarantee in Stanley Cup playoffs

Lightning chasing history, but Caps know that's no guarantee in Stanley Cup playoffs

When the Capitals play the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight at Amalie Arena they will see a familiar sight. 

Yes, the two teams met last year in an epic Eastern Conference Final series that went seven games and eventually led to Washington’s first Stanley Cup. That’s a natural story angle. But this year’s Lightning are chasing history, too, and that is something the Capitals know all about. 

Tonight’s game (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington) is the first of three in 15 games. The two teams have not yet met this season as the NHL crams a playoff-worthy series of games into the final month. But they are in distinctly separate realms in the standings. 

The Capitals (42-22-7, 91 points) are in first place in the Metropolitan Division. They are 15-5-1 since returning from the All-Star break on a seven-game losing streak. They are in a fight for a fourth consecutive division title, but should comfortably make the playoffs.

Tampa Bay, however, has already clinched a playoff spot. They needed just 68 games to tie the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks for second-fastest clinching. The only team better? The 2009-10 Capitals, who won the Presidents’ Trophy and went into the playoffs as heavy favorites to win the Stanley Cup. 

The Lightning (54-13-4, 112 points) are one win away from setting the franchise record for a single season. They need to go 8-3-0 to match the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most wins in a season (62). They would have to collect 20 of a possible 22 points to reach the gold standard of 132 points set by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. 

But while those Red Wings and those Canadiens went on to win the Cup, it is the 2009-10 Capitals and 2008-09 Sharks that should serve as a warning sign to Tampa Bay. Neither of those teams made it out of the first round. Washington was one of the best offensive teams of the salary-cap era at 3.82 goals-per-game. That’s exactly what Tampa Bay is averaging now. But Washington lost to Montreal, the No. 8 seed, in seven games because goalie Jaroslav Halak stopped everything it could throw at him up 3-1 in the series and looking for the clincher. 

The Sharks didn’t even make it that far. They were dropped in six games by the Anaheim Ducks, the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference that season, and lost the concluding game 4-1.

None of that to say the same fate is in store for the Lightning. They have 20 more goals than any other team this year (277). They have the fourth-fewest goals allowed (187). They are a deep, complete team led by captain Steven Stamkos and likely Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov, who tops the NHL with 115 points. Goalie Andrei Vasilevsky has a .929 save percentage, which is second overall. 

The core of Tampa Bay’s team played for the Cup in 2015 against the Chicago Blackhawks and have been to the Eastern Conference Final in 2016 and 2018 and lost in seven games to the Pittsburgh Penguins and last spring to the Capitals. 

“They’re obviously tearing the league up, there’s no question,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. “They’re going to want to make a statement with how it ended for them last year so we’ve got to be ready to go. They’re obviously a dangerous team and it’s going to be a good test for us, a good test for them. Can’t wait to get there and get that game going.”


No lineup changes

The Capitals will stick with the lineup they used in a 5-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday. Chandler Stephenson will center the fourth line with Travis Boyd on the right and Andre Burakovsky on the left. Otherwise the top nine remains the same as it’s been. 


Lightning health

Only defensemen Dan Girardi (lower-body injury) and Anton Stralman (lower-body injury) are likely out tonight. Both have missed the past three games.


Milestones possible

Nicklas Backstrom needs just one assist to reach 50 for the sixth year in a row. Only 25 players have ever posted that long a streak and 23 of them are in the Hockey Hall of Fame and the other two (Henrik Sedin, Joe Thornton) are not yet eligible. Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, is still pushing for his eighth 50-goal season. He has not had a goal the past four games and is stuck on 46, which remains four ahead of Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl (42).