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Ice time from Game 4 hints some players are struggling against Toronto

Ice time from Game 4 hints some players are struggling against Toronto

Much was made of Alex Ovechkin’s playing time in Game 3 as the team’s captain and best offensive player registered only 15:08 of ice time in a game in which the Capitals ultimately lost.

Following the Game 3 loss, Barry Trotz took responsibility saying, “That’s on me to get him the ice time.”

Ovechkin’s playing time went up in Game 4, but only marginally with 16:31. This time, however, it was easier to explain. Ovechkin registered only 4:51 in the third period, lower than both the first and second. With the Caps leading heading into the final period, there was less opportunity to get the captain more ice time and instead it went to more of the shutdown forwards on the team. Jay Beagle, for example, played 5:10 in the third period.

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For the most part, Ovechkin’s ice time from Game 4 appears to be a non-story, but there are other players from Game 4 who got their minutes slashed and it seems to suggest they may have found themselves in Barry Trotz’s dog house.

Of the Caps’ six defensemen, no one saw less ice time than Kevin Shattenkirk who registered only 12:54. Not only is that the least he has played in a game this postseason, it is the least he has played in the entire 2016-17 season.

When asked about Shattenkirk on Thursday, Barry Trotz told the media that the defenseman was not dealing with an injury and that his reduced playing time was based on the fact that the Caps had only one power play for the game and that assistant coach Todd Reirden, who manages the defensemen, was using the different pairs based on getting the right matchups.

“Todd's back there,” Trotz said. “He wants the certain matchups. We talk about it before the game and he goes from there.”

Shattenkirk did not play particularly well in Game 3 so the fact that his playing time dropped to his lowest should raise eyebrows as it could suggest less trust in him.

But Shattenkirk had it good compared to Brett Connolly.

With a 2-1 series deficit heading into Game 4, Trotz elected to make a minor line change by bumping Tom Wilson from the fourth line to the third and moving Connolly down to the fourth. The result for the third line was great as Wilson scored twice and the line appeared to be reinvigorated. The same could not be said of the fourth line.

Daniel Winnik saw his ice time slashed to 6:37 in Game 4, while Connolly played only 4:26 for the entire game.

When asked why Connolly’s time was so low, Trotz said, “A little bit situational, a little bit, I felt that the way they were going in terms of the minutes, I just felt, I was going with the 10 or 11 guys we were going with.”

When in a playoff game the coach is essentially saying he felt more comfortable going with 10 or 11 guys rather than playing Connolly, that seems pretty damning.

Prior to the line change, the fourth line was seen as one of the team’s best shutdown lines. That, however, is not the specialty of Connolly who is more of a skilled type player.

So while switching Wilson and Connolly seemed to benefit the third line, the same could not be said of the fourth line that suddenly seemed to lack identity and the fourth line was underutilized as a result.

This begs the question, if Trotz can’t find even five minutes for Connolly, would he consider switching him out of the lineup completely?

“Obviously [Connolly’s] on the fourth line right now and he just didn't get enough time,” Trotz said. “He's ok with it. He understands that this time of year we're going to do what we have to do and he's just going to be out there preparing like he is and be ready if he gets the call.”

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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

On November 16, 2017, the Washington Capitals were handed a brutal 6-2 loss in Denver at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. It was the second blowout loss the team had suffered in as many games and dropped the Caps’ record to 10-9-1. That moment would be the low point of the season.

A year to the day, the Caps returned to Denver. They were given every reason to quit Friday and repeat last year’s disastrous result and yet, the Caps rallied for a 3-2 overtime win to improve their record to 9-7-3.

Coming off a loss Wednesday in Winnipeg, Washington found out earlier on Friday that the team would be without both T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov who had both suffered injuries against the Jets. In net, Braden Holtby was out as well meaning the Caps would have to turn to backup goalie Pheonix Copley for his third start in as many games. Backing him up would be Ilya Samsonov, a highly touted prospect but a player without a single minute of NHL experience.

And, just in case that all did not seem daunting enough, the Caps also spotted the Avalanche a 1-0 lead just 68 seconds into the game.

One year ago, the Caps gave up the first goal of that game just 17 seconds in. When Colorado scored early again, it felt like Friday’s game was going to end up being just like that blowout loss from a year ago.

But it didn’t.

“We were shorthanded, everyone stepped up,” Tom Wilson said. “We talked about guys stepping up before the game and we got it done.”

The Capitals battled back and took control of the game in the first and second periods, tallying two goals to take a 2-1 lead. A late goal by Colorado would tie the game, but Todd Reirden reminded his players of what happened in Montreal – a game in which the Caps gave up three goals in the final four minutes of the game to lose 6-4 – and challenged them not to let that happen again. The team responded.

With all the momentum on the side of the Avalanche, Devante Smith-Pelly drew a holding penalty with less than two minutes remaining and Nicklas Backstrom would score on the resulting power play in overtime.

“When you have a lot of guys hurt, it was nice to see that we really got together, played a good defensive game, everyone was on the same page and blocking shots and doing all the little things right,” Backstrom said.

The game was reminiscent of the Game 6 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs last season. With one win separating them from advancing to the conference final, Washington had to somehow find a way to beat their biggest rival in Pittsburgh and they had to do it with no Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky or Tom Wilson. When their backs were against the wall, the Caps responded and managed to defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions 2-1 in overtime.

“It was important for guys to step up in different situations with obviously very key guys out, but we did it in the playoffs,” Smith-Pelly said. “We had key guys out at times. I guess this group is used to guys coming in and out and stepping up.”

The Caps returned most of their Stanley Cup winning roster for the 2018-19 season and fans have been waiting for this year’s team to start playing like last year’s again. A record of 8-7-3 heading into Friday’s game was hardly what people expected from this team early on.

But the win in Colorado was one of the team’s most impressive wins of the season, and perhaps the closest Washington has come since the 7-0 win in the opener to looking like that championship squad. Not because they looked dominant – they didn’t – but because when their backs were against the wall, you saw what this team was really made of mentally. Every time they were challenged in the playoffs – whether it was going down 2-0 to Columbus, playing the unbeatable Penguins, facing elimination against Tampa Bay or facing the red-hot Vegas Golden Knights – the Caps responded.

On Friday, Washington was challenged and again, and the Caps responded.

Last year’s game in Colorado proved to be a turning point. The team was at a cross-roads. They could check out and watch the inevitable coaching and roster shakeup happen, or they could rally to save the season. The Caps made a choice and the rest is history.

Maybe Friday’s game will mean nothing in the greater context of the 82-game season, or maybe this game will again prove to be a turning point. Maybe in the spring we will again circle Nov. 16 and remember it as the game in which the defending champs put the rest of the league on notice that they’re still here, they’re still the champs and they’re not going down without a fight.

“Every time we have injuries, it’s going to happen and it’s going to get other guys to get that opportunity,” Backstrom said. "I thought we played pretty good today, we didn’t give them a whole lot. That was a nice win, we needed that.”

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How Todd Reirden saved the game in Colorado by calling a coach’s challenge he knew he would lose

How Todd Reirden saved the game in Colorado by calling a coach’s challenge he knew he would lose

With the Caps clinging to a 2-1 lead in the third period against the Colorado Avalanche Friday, disaster struck as Colorado forward Colin Wilson hit a puck out of midair past goalie Pheonix Copley to tie the game.

But Todd Reirden was going to make sure this game did not spiral out of control.

Reirden made what at the time seemed like a curious decision to challenge the goal for goalie interference. Avalanche forward Matt Calvert was right in Copley’s face, but there was, at best, minimal contact and certainly nothing that would suggest it hindered Copley’s ability to make a save. Sure, you never know what the refs will find when you watch in slow motion, but the challenge had almost no shot.

It was a curious call and a curious reaction when the call stood as a good goal. Reirden seemed legitimately angry, more so than you usually see from him.

But it was all calculated.

“Just thought there was some contact there, but to be 100-percent truthful on that, our team needed a timeout at that point so I had to make sure I was selling it properly,” Reirden said after the game.

Reirden knew the challenge was not going to be successful, but he wanted the opportunity to give the team an important reminder after they gave up the game-tying goal.

“It was a situation where a few weeks ago we had the lead and let it go against Montreal and it was something that we discussed with our team. I thought it was worth a try – I didn’t think it was very high percentage it was going to be reversed – and it gave me an opportunity to talk to our players about the fact that we’ve been in this situation before. Have we learned and are we going grow from that? Sure enough, we did and we end up stringing together a couple decent shifts of no panic and doing the right thing and we draw the penalty and are able to convert on the power play.”

On Nov. 1, the Caps held a 4-3 lead over the Montreal Canadiens with less than five minutes remaining in the game. The game spiraled out of control, however, when Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored a game-tying goal. Washington allowed three goals in the final 3:04 of the game to turn a road win into a two-goal loss.

Reirden was determined that was not going to happen again on Friday so he challenged a goal and reminded his team of what happened in Montreal during the review. The Caps responded by drawing a late penalty and winning 3-2 in overtime in a game in which they were without Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Braden Holtby.

“That’s important for me, early in the season, to have those growth moments as a team,” Reirden said. “That was actually what was going on behind the scenes there so that set us up for success.”|

But wait, why not just call a time out?

Because the Caps had nothing to lose. You still get the timeout and a chance, no matter how miniscule, of taking a goal off the board. And if you lose the challenge, all you lose is the timeout you would have used anyway.

Worth a shot, right? 

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