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The hardest pill to swallow

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The hardest pill to swallow

The familiarity of an early playoff exit didn't make the Capitals' Game 7 loss in Madison Square Garden any easier Saturday night. First-timers like Braden Holtby got a taste of how history seems to repeat itself each Spring in a cruel fashion for Washington. But for those who had lived through past disappointment and weathered the season-long growing pains of a complete system overhaul, this loss was more devastating than any other.

For the 13th time this postseason the Capitals' night was decided by just one goal. For the sixth time, they came up on the losing end. But it was the first time in recent history that they held opponents to just over two goals per game.

"Last year was painful but we got outplayed," said second-year Capital Matt Hendricks. "I don't necessarily feel we got outplayed in this series. It was tooth and nail at all times, all seven games."

Unlike their last four consecutive berths, Washington failed to capture first place rights in the Southeast and entered as a lowly seven-seed. For the first time since the lockout, no one expected the Capitals to make much noise in the playoffs --something the team used as white board material while toppling the defending Stanley Cup champions and pushing the top-seeded Rangers to a full seven game series.

They looked different. They felt different. They believed this year would be different. So as they stood at their stalls Saturday night staring off beyond the microphones, cameras and faces asking questions they didn't believe they'd be answering, their disappointment was palpable.

Everyone agreed that this was the hardest loss of their Capitals career.

"Last year we were a good team," said Karl Alzner, who saw his first NHL playoff action in Game 7 of 2010's monumental first round collapse. "We had a good record, but there's always something different about losing in seven when you feel you had as good of a team as we did as opposed to last year, where we got swept."

"It's heartbreaking for myself," said Alzner's other defensive half John Carlson, also on finishing his third playoff stint with the Caps. "You have to win. That's everyone's dream. Here, that's what everyone wants to accomplish and that didn't happen."

The loss was also a harsh initiation for 22-year-old netminder Braden Holtby, who sat for several minutes in his stall looking out at a room full of reporters and talking quietly with Capitals PR director Sergey Kocharov before slowly standing to address the media.

While Saturday's Game 7 loss was disappointing for every player in the room. But for Holtby, another missed opportunity still ached more than the recent blow.

"We were very confident in ourselves this playoffs and that's how the series goes. It's six seconds in Game 5. That was the difference and it happens," said Holtby before offering a silver lining. "We had a very strong team, and especially a lot building forward."

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NBC Sports to nationally broadcast 18 Capitals games in 2018-19 season

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NBC Sports

NBC Sports to nationally broadcast 18 Capitals games in 2018-19 season

All eyes will be on the Caps as they begin their quest to defend their Stanley Cup title. Literally.

NBC Sports released its national broadcast schedule for the NHL regular season on Monday and coverage will begin with the Capitals' home-opener on Oct. 3 against the Boston Bruins. The nation will be able to witness Washington raising its first Stanley Cup banner to the rafters on NBCSN.

NBC Sports will present a total of 109 games in 2018-19, the most since acquiring NHL rights before 2005-06 and the Caps will be featured prominently.

Washington will appear eight times on NBCSN's Wednesday Night Hockey, the most of any team in the NHL, and four times on NHL on NBC. NBCSN will also broadcast an additional six games.

All games will be streamed live on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app to authenticated users via TV Everywhere.

Here is the Capitals schedule as released by NBC Sports:

Wed. Oct. 3: Boston at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Wed. Oct. 10: Vegas at Washington, 8 p.m. on NBCSN
Wed. Oct. 17: N.Y. Rangers at Washington, 7 p.m. on NBCSN
Wed. Nov. 7: Pittsburgh at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Tues. Dec. 11: Detroit at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN*
Wed. Dec. 19: Pittsburgh at Washington, 8 p.m. on NBCSN
Fri. Dec. 21: Buffalo at Washington, 7 p.m. on NBCSN*
Tues. Jan. 8: Philadelphia at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN*
Sun. Jan. 20: Washington at Chicago, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Wed. Jan. 23: Washington at Toronto, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Sun. Feb. 3: Boston at Washington, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Sun. March 3: Washington at N.Y. Rangers, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Wed. March 6: Washington at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Tues. March 12: Washington at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. on NBCSN*
Tues. March 19: Washington at New Jersey, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN*
Wed. March 20: Tampa Bay at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Sun. March 24: Philadelphia at Washington, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Tues. March 26: Carolina at Washington, 7 p.m. on NBCSN*

* These games will be broadcast nationally, but will not be seen on NBCSN locally because they will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington

NBC Sports Washington remains the home of the Capitals for the 2018-19 season and will broadcast a majority of the team's games for the season including pre and postgame coverage. You can also expect extensive coverage on NBCSportsWashington.com throughout the season.

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Key Caps questions: Who will play on the team's third defensive pair?

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USA TODAY Sports

Key Caps questions: Who will play on the team's third defensive pair?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals correspondent JJ Regan is here to help you through the offseason doldrums as he discusses key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: What will be the team's primary third defensive pairing?

Barring any PTOs or breakout performances in training camp, we can reasonably assume Brooks Orpik, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey are going to be the three players battling it out to be on the third pair.

General manager Brian MacLellan went through some salary cap gymnastics to get Orpik back for next season at a much smaller cap hit, Djoos played 22 playoff games in the Caps’ Stanley Cup run and Bowey was signed to a one-way, two-year contract for $1 million per year. Clearly, all three are expected to be on the Caps’ roster next season and play a role, but that role will be limited considering the top-four is pretty much set with Michal Kempny-John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen.

Orpik will be 38 years old at the start of the season. His on and off-ice contributions are much greater than many were willing to acknowledge, but he was never a fast player and at his age, holding him to 60 games or fewer will make him a more effective player.

Djoos and Bowey are 24 and 23 respectively and, while both are ready for bigger roles, both are far from finished products. While they may be part of the future of Washington’s blue line, putting in two young, second-year players as their own pair is a risk.

But even if head coach Todd Reirden is not ready to turn the reins over to his two young defensemen just yet, he still needs to get both players plenty of playing time.

This is why Orpik may get a lot more playing time than many people think. The best thing for both Djoos and Bowey is for them to play. If you have concerns about them playing together, however, and neither is ready to supplant anyone in the top four, then you are going to see them cycle in and out of the lineup fairly frequently to play alongside Orpik.

That’s not to say we will never see a Djoos-Bowey pairing this season. They will probably have their chances and the better they look, the longer that pair will last. If they were ready, it would be a safe assumption that they would get the bulk of games together with Orpik serving more of a reserve role.

But a Djoos-Bowey pairing would be too vulnerable to opposing offenses at least at the start of the season and so we should expect a lot of Orpik.

While Reirden will work his defensive magic to bring Djoos-Bowey along as quickly as possible, I would anticipate Orpik-Djoos will see a majority of games this season as the team’s third defensive pairing.

Other key Caps questions: