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Holtby happy to be playing in Hershey

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Holtby happy to be playing in Hershey

HERSHEY, Pa.

When Capitals fans last saw Braden Holtby, he was riding the incredible wave of his first Stanley Cup playoff run while adjusting to life as a new father all at the age of 22.

Today, little Benjamin Hunter Holtby is 4 months, his father recently turned 23 and their new family is adjusting to life right where Holtby began last season in Hummelstown, Pa. as a member of the Hershey Bears.

This, of course, was not the plan the Capitals had in store for Holtby after watching him take the NHL by storm last spring, becoming the most talked about rookie goaltender in the league.

This was supposed to be Holtbys proving ground, his first full preseason as an NHL starter. The NHL lockout has changed that, but unlike most of the leagues 700-plus players, Holtby has a place to play. He begins training camp with the Hershey Bears today at the Giant Center.

Everyones in the same situation and Im lucky I get a place to play, Holtby told CSNWashington.com. Its an unfortunate situation with the NHL right now, but hopefully they get it solved and get it done right. Im sure the guy in charge, Don Fehr, will do the right thing for the union and well be back playing as soon as possible.

Until then, Holtby says hes happy to be renting a house in Hummelstown, a quaint, small town within smelling distance of Hersheys chocolate factory.

I feel like Im in the best situation I can be, Holtby said. Obviously, it would be nice to see what I can do over a complete season in Washington, but thats not my mindset. I want to keep getting better and use some of the things I learned in the playoffs and get even better.

Holtby is no stranger to adjusting to life on the fly. Last summer his aspirations of starting the 2011-12 season as Michal Neuvirths backup were railroaded when the Caps signed Tomas Vokoun to be their No. 1 goalie.

Holtby began the season in Hershey and struggled to find consistency in his game, going 20-15-2 with a 2.61 goals-against average.

If you looked at his year just by the numbers, you would say it was disappointing, Bears fifth-year coach Mark French recalled. But I think there was a progression, so there was no surprise when he went up and played well in Washington because he was going on a straight line up to be playing better.

Holtby was recalled by the Caps on March 4 when Vokoun suffered a season-ending groin injury, and helped guide the club into the playoffs, going 4-1-1 in the final two weeks of the regular season.

That run continued through the post-season when Holtby outdueled Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins in a thrilling seven-game series, then took another Vezina Trophy winner, Henrik Lundqvist, and the New York Rangers to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Braden always seems to rise to an occasion, French said. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the response. I think once he was put on that stage he certainly responded to the challenge.

French said he was most impressed by Holtbys composure during the playoffs. During his three years in the AHL, Holtby carved a reputation as a fiery, often out-of-control goalie prone to letting his emotions get the best of him.

But during that first-round series against the Bruins, Holtby showed incredible restraint when he refused to bite on Rich Peverleys mean-spirited bait, a stick swing that came just short of making contact with the young goalie. Watch here.

Those are the moments that you say, Well, theres a guy growing up in front of us, French said. That maturity to take a step back, which was absolutely the right decision. Those are the moments youre proud and you know a guy is understanding and growing and maturing.

Holtby played every minute of the Caps playoff run, going 7-7 with a 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage. He says those numbers are more reflective of the strong defense and shot-blocking ability of the Capitals than his own talents.

It was a fortunate situation for me, Holtby said. I felt like it was a month and a half where everything seemed to come easy and I got all the breaks. It probably had a lot to do with our team. Everybody really bought in and we were playing outstanding hockey as a group. Thats basically where goaltenders numbers come from. You cant have one without the other.

Throughout the playoffs Holtby never lost back-to-back games, following every crushing loss with a crucial victory. And he did it while going through the emotions of becoming a father for the first time. Benjamin Hunter was born on May 10, two days before the seventh and final game against the Rangers.

French said Holtbys calm in the face of so many life-changing events revealed a part of his character that will serve him well as his NHL career progresses.

Hes got a quiet confidence about him that hes not going to take a back seat, French said. Hes not arrogant about it, but hes a very confident individual. I dont think he was overwhelmed by it. The one thing that really impressed me was how efficient his game was, how he stayed within himself.

And now Holtby faces yet another challenge, beginning what was supposed to be his breakout season in the NHL in the American Hockey League. With the uncertainty of the NHL labor negotiations, Holtby chose not to rent a place in Washington. He and his fianc, Brandi, are renting a home in Hummelstown until further notice.

And hes fine with that.

Im a Hershey Bear until things get changed, he said. It wouldnt be the worst thing to start the season here and finish in Washington.

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Grading the champs: How have the Caps fared through 20 games?

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Grading the champs: How have the Caps fared through 20 games?

Monday’s win over the Montreal Canadiens was Game 20 for the Caps meaning we are officially one quarter of the way into the NHL season. That means it’s time to take a step back and look at just how the Caps have performed thus far.

Here are the first quarter grades and awards for the Caps:

Offense: B+

The Caps boasted the top offense in the NHL for a short stretch, but the numbers were being propped up initially by the explosive power play. When it comes to five-on-five play, the offense is a bit weaker than the power play would make it seem. Evgeny Kuznetsov, for example, has six goals and zero have come at even strength.

Not having Tom Wilson in the lineup for the first 16 games due to a suspension clearly hurt the offense and Todd Reirden was forced to shuffle the lines as best he could looking for a spark. Now that he is back, the offense looks much improved and much deeper. Plus, Alex Ovechkin continues to be Ovechkin even at the age of 33.

The offense has had its full lineup for less than two games this season, but even despite that, Washington still ranks seventh in the NHL with 3.35 goals per game. This is already a top-10 offense and it’s trending up.

Defense: C-

In hearing Reirden describe the team’s defense, it involves a lot of commitment. All five players are expected to back check and get into shooting lanes every time the opposition has the puck. Obviously, the defense is more nuanced than that, but at its basic core, this is what the Caps want to do. That sort of commitment is easy to get in the playoffs, but it’s harder to get a team to constantly jump into shooting lanes in November. As a result, this is where the team’s Stanley Cup hangover has been the most glaring.

The defensemen have had their struggles, particularly Dmitry Olrov and Matt Niskanen, which has led to a shuffling of the pairs. The offense also has not been as quick on the back check as you would like to see.

Most critically, however, has been puck management. The biggest defensive breakdowns for this team have been self-inflicted with bad turnovers and lazy passes. As glaring as they may be, however, they also should be correctable.

Goaltending: B

The first month of the season has been a scoring bonanza so Braden Holtby’s numbers are not where you would want them, but in recent weeks he has started to look like the dominant netminder who foiled opponents in the playoffs last season. There is no reason to think he will not continue to get better as the season goes along and he develops more of a rhythm.

The real story here has been Pheonix Copley who was largely an unknown commodity at the NHL level heading into the season.

Copley’s play was shaky to start, but when Holtby suffered an upper-body injury and Copley was forced to start all four games of their current road trip, he played very well for the most part. You can point to Monday’s game in Montreal in which he was pulled in the second period all you want, but in terms of whether this team has a backup it can trust to plug into a game 20-25 times this season, Copley has shown he is capable of providing that.

Special teams: C-

Yes, the power play is great and ranks fourth in the NHL at 29.7-percent, but it has cooled considerably in recent weeks. In the month of November, the Caps have scored on six of 29 opportunities, good for 13th in the league at 20.7-percent.

The real issue for Washington in terms of the special teams is the penalty kill.

Reirden wanted the penalty kill to be more offensively aggressive this season, but so far the Caps have not been able to do that without leaving themselves vulnerable defensively. The result is that their penalty kill now ranks 29th in the NHL at 73.3-percent.

Reirden’s goal here, I believe, is not so much to generate offense at the expense of the defense, but rather to force an opponent’s power play to be aware of Washington’s offensive weapons and to help kill time by keeping and holding possession of the puck in the offensive zone. Thus far, however, it hasn’t worked.

If the Caps are going to keep this philosophy on the penalty kill, then the coaches need to sit down and study film of the Arizona Coyotes who lead the league in both the penalty kill (91.7-percent) and shorthanded goals (10).

Pleasant surprise: Madison Bowey

Bowey has been a highly touted prospect within the organization since he was drafted in 2013. He made his NHL debut last season, but seemed to struggle with the transition from AHL to NHL. This year, he looks like the most improved player on the team and has played well in relief of an injured Brooks Orpik.

What’s more, Bowey is showing a lot more confidence in his play. He is a two-way defenseman, but no one would have been able to tell that from how conservative he was last season. This year, he is being more assertive in the offensive zone and it should translate into more points.

Needs improvement: Andre Burakovsky

Burakovsky has just four points this season in 20 games. Tom Wilson, by comparison, has five points in four games since returning to the lineup.

Burakovsky has tremendous skill, but he remains an incredibly streaky player. It was thought that confidence was the major issue for him and he saw a sports psychologist over the summer. The results? Both he and Reirden say they see a difference and say he is a more confident player, but it has not translated into more production.

Burakovsky is not a shutdown forward, he is not a physical grinder, he is not a penalty killer. If he is not producing, he just doesn’t add that much to the lineup.

MVP: Alex Ovechkin

At times it looked like John Carlson or Kuznetsov would be the MVP, but through 20 games just about every player on this roster has had the ups and downs typical of a season and especially of a Stanley Cup championship team that is realizing playing in October is not nearly as fun as it is playing in June. The only player who is consistently great on a night in, night out basis is the Great 8 who shows no signs of slowing down even at the age of 33.

With 15 goals, Ovechkin sits second in the NHL behind only David Pastrnak’s 17.

Overall: B

Let’s consider everything Reirden has had to deal with in his first season as an NHL head coach: Wilson’s 20-game suspension, injuries to Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Travis Boyd, Braden Holtby, Michal Kempny and Brooks Orpik, a backup goalie making the jump to the NHL and a Stanley Cup hangover.

Yes, the Caps have played below the lofty standards we have come to expect and do not yet have a win streak of over two games this season. But considering everything, the fact that this team still sits in third place in the Metropolitan Division and appears to be trending upward is a good sign for the direction this season is going.

This team has another level it has not yet reached, but they are getting there, slowly but surely.

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Brooks Orpik undergoes arthroscopic surgery on his knee, will miss another 4 to 6 weeks

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Brooks Orpik undergoes arthroscopic surgery on his knee, will miss another 4 to 6 weeks

Brooks Orpik underwent an arthroscopic surgical procedure on his right knee and is expected to miss four-to-six weeks, the Capitals announced Tuesday. Orpik last played on Oct. 27 against the Calgary Flames, but has not participated in practice since due to what the team has called a lower-body injury.

Why did it take so long to have the surgery when he could have been recovering and nearing a return at this point? The specific nature of the injury is not known, but what typically happens in cases such as these is that the player and the team will wait to see if surgery is necessary. No professional athlete likes going under the knife and most will try to avoid it at all costs.

It could also be a case in which the severity of the injury was not known as is evidenced by the fact that he was initially labeled “day-to-day.”

With Orpik out, that will likely mean more time for Madison Bowey who has looked like one of the most improved players overall on the roster this season. It also likely gives an opportunity for Jonas Siegenthaler to get more games at the NHL level.

Siegenthaler has been with the Caps since getting recalled from the Hershey Bears on Nov. 9. He has played in two games. Originally, it looked like the young Swiss defenseman would make the Caps’ roster out of training camp with Michal Kempny dealing with a concussion, but the team had to get creative with the salary cap after Tom Wilson was suspended and the acquisition of Dmitrij Jaskin forced Siegenthaler to the AHL.

In his two NHL games, Siegenthaler has not looked out of place at all at the NHL level.

If he remains with the team, it seems likely he will get into the lineup again sooner rather than later. As a young prospect the team hopes can be an NHL player, they will be loath to keep him in Washington another four to six weeks just to sit up in the press box and not play. Young players like him need the playing time.

With Orpik out possibly until the calendar turns to 2019, however, do not be surprised if the Caps elect to recall a player like Aaron Ness and send Siegenthaler back to Hershey. Ness is a veteran AHLer who the team can be more comfortable scratching from the lineup for a long period of time. If they don’t, then expect to see Siegenthaler crack the lineup again in the coming days.

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