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Hot start turns into disastrous finish as Caps drop second at home to Penguins

Hot start turns into disastrous finish as Caps drop second at home to Penguins

Final score: Washington Capitals 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 6

How it happened: The Caps thoroughly domianted the first period in just about every category, but were unable to get a goal past Marc-Andre Fleury through the first 20 minutes. Matt Cullen opened the scoring with a shorthanded breakaway in the second period, but Matt Niskanen scored on the same penalty to tie it at 1. Then things went off the rails.

Sidney Crosby tallied two pretty assists to set up the Penguins' next two goals — one from Phil Kessel, another from Jake Guentzel — as they took a 3-1 lead after the second period. Philipp Grubauer came on in relief of Braden Holtby to start the third period, but it made little difference as Kessel scored his second of the night just 2:19 into the third. Nicklas Backstrom scored soon after to keep the Caps somewhat in the game, but Evgeni Malkin added another Pittsburgh tally to increase the lead to three again.

What it means: The Caps now find themselves in a massive hole after dropping both of their games in Washington. Not only are they down 2-0, the series now shifts to Pittsburgh for two games where they have not won a game all season. Teams that lose the first two games at home to start a series have an all-time record of 18-69.

Goals

Penguins goal: Matt Cullen (shorthanded) at 1:15 in the 2nd. Kevin Shattenkirk fired a shot from the point that was blocked by Cullen. The puck trickled to the neutral zone with both Shattenkirk and Cullen fighting for position. Cullen won that battle, chipping the puck past Shattenkirk for the breakaway. Despite getting hooked by Shattenkirk, Cullen was able to tuck the puck through the five-hole of Braden Holtby. Caps 0, Penguins 1

Caps goal: Matt Niskanen (power play) from Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin at 2:09 in the 2nd. The Caps entered the offensive zone and went to the corner where all four penalty killers followed. Niskanen saw a wide open net in front of him and snuck into the slot. Once Backstrom won the puck out of the corner, he passed back to Ovechkin who immediately passed to Niskanen for the wide-open one-timer. Caps 1, Penguins 1

Penguins goal: Phil Kessel from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel at 13:04 in the 2nd. Guentzel made a neutral zone pass to a streaking Crosby that came in a bit behind him so Crosby used his stick to tap the puck between his own legs to gain possession. As the Caps collapsed on him, he passed to an open Kessel who roofed the shot past Holtby. Caps 1, Penguins 2

Penguins goal: Jake Guentzel from Sidney Crosby at 16:14 in the 2nd. A Justin Williams shot was blocked by Crosby who then dove to tap the puck to Guentzel for the breakout and the 2-on-1. Guentzel skated in and called his own number firing a wrister that beat Holtby cleanly. Caps 1, Penguins 3

Penguins goal: Phil Kessel (power play) from Justin Schultz and Evgeni Malkin at 2:19 in the 3rd. The Penguins cycled the puck on the power play until Kessel decided to fire a shot from the faceoff circle that snuck in underneath the pads of Grubauer and in. Caps 1, Penguins 4

Caps goal: Nicklas Backstrom from Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie at 3:44 in the 3rd. The Caps broke into the Penguins' zone on the odd-man rush. Ovechkin's initial shot was saved by Fleury, but Backstrom crashed the net for the open rebound. Caps 2, Penguins 4

Penguins goal: Evgeni Malkin from Phil Kessel and Ian Cole at 5:31 in the 3rd. A wrister from the point from Cole deflected took a couple of deflection before hitting off the stick of Malkin and into the net. It was originaly waved off for incidental contact with the goalie, but it was called a good goal for Malkin after a coach's challenge as the contact occurred well before the goal. Caps 2, Penguins 5

Penguins goal: Jake Guentzel (empty net) from Matt Cullen finished off the Caps with 43 seconds left.  Caps 2, Penguins 6

3 Caps stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom: Backstrom assisted Niskanen's goal for the quick response to make it 1-1. He then added a goal of his own to make the score 4-2 and at least give some hope that the Caps would be able to make a third period comeback.

2. Matt Niskanen: That was a heads up play by Niskanen to realize the penalty killersr were all in the corner. He was up very high in the offensive zone, but with no defenders in the same stratosphere as him, it was the right call and it lead to a goal.

3. Lars Eller: The third line was the Caps' best in the first period. Eller also won 10 of the 12 faceoffs he took for the game.

Look ahead: The series now shifts to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Wednesday. Game 5 will be in Washington on Saturday if it is necessary.

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Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s semifinal matchup:

Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

2018-19 stats

Joonas Donskoi (27 years old): 80 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 14 goals, 23 assists, 37 points, 13:25 TOI

Playoffs: 12 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 12:26 TOI

Carl Gunnarsson (32 years old): 25 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points, 15:15 TOI

Playoffs: 19 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 14:57 TOI, won Stanley Cup

Hockey-Graph contract projections 

Joonas Donskoi: 3 years, $2,847,521 cap hit

Carl Gunnarsson: 1 year, $731,159 cap hit

The case for Joonas Donskoi

Maybe Andre Burakovsky’s qualifying offer of $3.25 million means he’s back with the Capitals for another year. But it doesn’t preclude a trade and in Donskoi you’d have a similar option at a cheaper price, which matters if you only have $9.2 million in cap space left for now.

Donskoi made the offense better in San Jose in whatever role he was asked to play. He can go up and down the lineup and had a consistency to his game that Burakovsky at times lacks. Donskoi’s stats may not always reflect that, but making his teammates around him better is a valuable asset. Either way, depth scoring is important and a priority for the Capitals. 

Donskoi has every bit the Stanley Cup playoff experience as Burakovsky does if that matters to you. Donskoi has nine goals and 12 assists in 50 playoff games and Burakovsky has nine goals and nine assists in 56 playoff games. Not much to chose between the team except Donskoi would be cheaper if Washington decided to trade Burakovsky. 

The case for Carl Gunnarsson

The Caps will need a No. 6/7 defenseman after Brooks Orpik retired on Tuesday. Yes, they gave a qualifying offer to RFA defenseman Christian Djoos and they have Jonas Siegenthaler under contract, too. Both are natural left side defensemen. Going with the kids is an option. But both of them? That becomes problematic when someone gets hurt in your top two pairings and players have to bump up. 

Gunnarsson was the hero of the “Boston Pee Party” when he scored the overtime winner in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final after declaring to head coach Craig Berube at the urinal he just needed one more opportunity. Gunnarsson had just seven points in the regular season so no one should expect a ton of offense, but the point is he delivered when it mattered most.

When he is not playing the overtime hero, he is a third-pairing, stay at home defenseman who can play on the penalty kill which is pretty much exactly what the Caps need in a depth defenseman.

Take a look at Gunnarsson’s contract projection. You can’t beat that price. Sure, those projections came out before he won the Stanley Cup, but even if his price goes up, it will not be significant. You’re tinkering at the margins of the roster here and championship experience matters. 

Who’s your pick? Vote here:

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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

The Capitals tendered qualifying offers to six of their seven restricted free agents at Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline, including forward Andre Burakovsky. 

Burakovsky, 24, had been the subject of trade rumors up until the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 25 and also in the days leading up to last week’s NHL Draft in Vancouver. Nothing came of them. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan made it clear that while teams were calling, he wasn’t about to just give away a 2013 first-round draft pick. 

“We like the player. There's been some inconsistencies there, but when he's on his game, he's a good player,” MacLellan said last Thursday. “We'd like to keep him around but obviously his name is out there a little bit, so we do talk to some teams about him. But we're not going to move him unless we get something we're comfortable with back.”

But the Capitals are still in a salary cap crunch and that could still land Burakovsky elsewhere in the coming days. His qualifying offer is $3.25 million. Washington is only $9.235 million below the salary cap of $81.5 million. If Burakovsky signs, he would provide scoring depth. He has a career-high 17 goals and has scored 12 each of the past two seasons.

The Capitals do need to see more from Burakovsky. He has struggled with confidence and consistent production over the years. But if he returns, he would be a good option to replace the expected-to-depart Brett Connolly at right wing on the third line with Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin. Connolly is an unrestricted free agent and likely out of Washington’s price range. 

By tendering a qualifying offer, the Capitals ensure that they will keep Burakovsky’s rights. If they had not then he’d be an unrestricted free agent able to sign with any team. That’s not a smart use of an asset that could still help in 2019-20. They could, of course, still trade him at any time. 

Meanwhile, forward Dmitry Jaskin was not tendered a qualifying offer. He is a free agent now. Jaskin never gained the trust of the coaching staff last season. He appeared in just 37 games despite analytics that showed he had a positive impact on the fourth line. Jaskin picked up on waivers from the St. Louis Blues in October, had two goals and four assists. He did not play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Winger Jakub Vrana also received a qualifying offer, but that’s not expected to matter much as the two sides try to put together a long-term contract extension after his breakthrough 24-goal season in his second NHL year. 

The Capitals did tender a qualifying offer to defenseman Christian Djoos. An ugly thigh injury that turned into compartment syndrome and limited him to 45 games. But with Brooks Orpik retiring on Tuesday, Washington could go with Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler as their No. 6/7 defensemen on their natural left sides. 

Fourth-line winger Chandler Stephenson also received his qualifying offer. AHL Hershey forward Colby Williams and goalie Vitek Vanacek also received qualifying offers from Washington.  

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