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How the Caps fixed the team's lack of scoring from the defensemen

How the Caps fixed the team's lack of scoring from the defensemen

Everything just seems to be hitting the back of the net for Washington right now. Monday’s 6-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes marked the eighth straight game in which the Capitals scored four goals or more and the fourth time in the past six games the team scored six goals or more.

One factor in the team’s recent offensive explosion is also one of the most overlooked: The defense.

Through the first 25 games of the season, Washington had only three goals from its blue liners. Two of those goals were from Karl Alzner.

In the 22 games since, the defense has accounted for 15 goals including two from Dmitry Orlov on Monday.

RELATED: Caps score 6 unanswered to crush Canes

“He has a tremendous shot, obviously,” Alex Ovechkin said after the game. “We always tell him to shoot more pucks.

“He’s more like [Nicklas] Lidstrom. Russian Lidstrom.”

That’s lofty praise, but Monday’s game was not just about Orlov’s individual effort and neither is the defense’s sudden offensive production.

Carolina goalie Cam Ward was slow to react on Orlov’s second goal of the game as Lars Eller stood right in the face of the veteran netminder.

“Especially on the second goal, was in front of the goalie and I think he didn't see my shot so I think it's great for them,” Orlov said. “They go to the net and if I don't score at least [they] can keep the goalie in and get rebound.”

The goal highlighted one of the biggest points of emphasis for the Caps this season: Getting traffic in front of the net. With the staking themselves in front of the net, that has left more opportunities for the defense to step into the play and fire shots and get more involved in the offense.

“In order for a defenseman to score, especially from the [blue line] in this league, you need those screens and those screens to be thought out,” Braden Holtby said, “Not just stand in front of the goalie. We started working on crossing in front of the goalie and you can see the results since.”

It’s not just about making the pretty plays anymore. The team’s current hot streak has been more about deflections, screens and rebounds than finesse plays and breakaways. The goals may not be as pretty, but the final score sure is.

Holtby was quick to give credit to the defense as well, but as a goalie, he knows that it’s a heck of a lot easier to stop a shot from the blue line if he can see it all the way through as opposed to having to fight through traffic to locate the puck.

“Obviously you’ve got to shoot in the right place,” Holtby said. “I'm not taking anything away from the D, but in this league you've got to create traffic in order to give them a chance to score.”

MORE CAPITALS: ANDRE BURAKOVSKY NEARLY EARNS A HOCKEY SMILE AFTER HIGH-STICK HITS HIM IN THE MOUTH

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Washington Capitals.

It’s time for the Metropolitan preview you have all been waiting for, your hometown heroes, the Caps.

Washington learned firsthand how difficult it is to defend a Stanley Cup as they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes in what appeared on paper to be a favorable matchup. Now they head into the season with a different looking team, but not because of any knee-jerk reactions to an early playoff exit.

The entire offseason for the Caps has been dictated by the salary cap. With no money under the cap, general manager Brian MacLellan had to say goodbye to key pieces like Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, and Andre Burakovsky. The retirement of Brooks Orpik was also a key loss for the blue line.

Despite all the changes you have to give credit to MacLellan for managing to shed salary and still improve the team.

When you look at the numbers, Washington really struggled defensively last season. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps. Washington held the third-worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

As one would expect, this is leading to the team giving up more goals. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

To combat this MacLellan traded for Radko Gudas who was one of the Philadelphia Flyers’ best defensemen last season and who may prove to be an upgrade over Niskanen at this point in their respective careers. MacLellan also filled the hole on the third line left by Connolly with Richard Panik and added a pair of strong defensive fourth-line players in Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. The result should be better team defense and a stronger penalty kill.

The concern in losing players like Connolly and Burakovsky and focusing on the defense is that this team is not as offensively deep as it was. The entire top-six returns, but will Washington rely too much on its top scorers to carry the load? And can players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie who are all over 30 still carry that load? it is imperative that players like Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana continue their production from last season and Evgeny Kuznetsov returns to the Conn Smythe-worthy form we saw in the 2018 postseason that we only saw glimpses of last year.

As improved as the team looks overall defensively, a lot will be riding on Nick Jensen. He struggled after getting acquired at the trade deadline, but with Niskanen gone, he will be expected to take on a top-four role most likely alongside Dmitry Orlov. The loss of Orpik also means a regular spot for either Jonas Siegenthaler or Christian Djoos on the third pair with Gudas.

While money was an issue for the offseason, it will continue to hang over the team's head heading into training camp. The Caps remain over the salary cap and will have some tough moves to make. Chandler Stephenson will almost certainly start the season in Hershey, but that will not be enough. Will Djoos go to the AHL? Will we see Vitek Vanecek replace Pheonix Copley as Braden Holtby’s backup to save money? How will Holtby play on the final year of his contract? Will we see prospect Ilya Samsonov come into the NHL this year as next year’s potential replacement of Holtby?

Managing the salary cap is going to be a story all season long and this roster is still going to be shuffled in a fairly significant way even before the end of training camp just to get under the ceiling. That is something to keep an eye on in training camp.

And of course, there is coaching. Todd Reirden enters his second season as head coach. He navigated a rocky 2018-19 season very well leading the team to a division title, but the playoffs were a different story. Among the reasons for the team’s early exit were some curious decisions made by the coaching staff such as electing to play John Carlson on the left in response to the injury to Michal Kempny.

There are a lot of questions surrounding this team that could ultimately cost them their seat atop the division.

Having said all of that, even with how good the Metro will be this year and how much several teams have improved, Washington still maintains the best roster in the division from top to bottom and still should be considered the frontrunners for a fifth title. There are just a lot more potential pitfalls that could derail the season than we have seen in recent years.

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Islanders - Can Barry Trotz work his magic again?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Islanders - Can Barry Trotz work his magic again?

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The New York Islanders.

The surprise team of 2018-19 is back to prove that was no fluke. It was the Islanders who finished second to the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division last season, not the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was Barry Trotz who won the Jack Adams Award. It was New York who shook off the loss of star center Jonathan Tavares and somehow made the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs before a getting swept by the Carolina Hurricanes. 

The Metro appears tougher on paper this time around and the Capitals and Penguins still are formidable opponents. The Islanders also swapped out their best goalie (Robin Lehner) for more of a talented question mark (Semyon Varlamov). And they lost in the Artemi Panarin free-agent sweepstakes to the rival New York Rangers. 

None of that bodes well, but the Islanders do have plenty to build on. They have a balanced top six with Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson centering solid lines. Anders Lee led the team with 28 goals and he was re-signed. Josh Bailey had 56 points, which was second only to Barzal (62). 

And don’t forget about maybe the best fourth line in the NHL (Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck), which combined for 34 goals last season. Cizikas alone had 20.  

Without an 80-point game-breaker - though Barzal has the talent to get there - New York has to be steady in its own end and get close to the fantastic goaltending it received last year from Lehner and Tomas Greiss. 

This time it will be Varlamov and Greiss. In front of them is a fine top pair in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. But the blueline overall features almost no household names. 

The Islanders, thanks in large part to Trotz and some of the same assistant coaches who helped the Capitals win the Stanley Cup in 2018, shocked the NHL last year. It shouldn’t be a surprise this time if they remain in playoff contention most of the season. 

But the Metro has gotten better and New York at best remained in place. The Islanders won’t sneak up on anyone this time around. Just making it back into the postseason tournament would be a win.  

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