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Matt Niskanen says he'll wait to reach out to Sidney Crosby after sidelining him with a concussion

Matt Niskanen says he'll wait to reach out to Sidney Crosby after sidelining him with a concussion

PITTSBURGH—Two days later, Matt Niskanen still wonders what he could have done differently.

He also said it’s way too early to reach out Sidney Crosby—a friend and former teammate—about the incident Monday night that concussed the Penguins’ captain.

“I regret that it happened,” Niskanen said Wednesday after the Capitals’ morning skate. “But I’m adamant that I’m not sure, at that game speed, what I could have done different.”

“Obviously,” he continued, “in super-slowmo and in hindsight, I wish I had one hand on my stick and my hands were way down. But the collision happened fast and Sid’s trying to score a goal and he’s getting lower and lower as it happens.”

[Related: Game information for Caps-Pens Game 5 released]

“My intent was not to forcefully cross check him in the face. Anybody that knows me [knows] I’m not trying to hit guys in the head. I’m trying to play hard within the rules, hit guys in the body. And to be honest, I wasn’t even trying to hit him on that play. It was a collision that happened because he was coming in with a serious amount of speed and trying to score and getting lower and lower partially because he’s falling down.”

Asked if he’s heard the criticism about his role in Crosby’s injury, Niskanen said he’s focused on Wednesday's game and little else.

“Lucky [for] me, I’m not on social media,” he said. “There’s going to be some outside noise.”

Niskanen was also asked about the possibility of retribution from the Penguins.

“Possibly,” he said. “It’s a hockey game. Hockey players are emotional guys. If that happens, we’ll cross that bridge when it happens.”

Crosby, of course, is sidelined for Game 4—and possibly longer— with another concussion, his second this season. As expected, he did not participate in the morning skate.

[Related: Capitals vs Penguins: Game 4 time, TV channel, how to watch, live stream]

Without Crosby, the Penguins would seem to be nearing their breaking point when it comes to injuries to key players. They entered the postseason without top defenseman Kris Letang and goalie Matt Murray hasn’t played a postseason game. In addition, the Pens will be without winger Conor Sheary, who also suffered a concussion on Monday night.

Niskanen acknowledged the magnitude of Crosby’s absence. But he was quick to point out that the Penguins remain dangerous.

“Well, they are still a darn good team, first and foremost,” Niskanen said. “And we’re going to have to be real good to beat them. But [he’s] the best player in the world [and] he’s playing as good anybody has ever seen him. So, he’s tough to replace, for sure.”

Niskanen and Crosby overlapped as teammates in Pittsburgh from 2010-14 and Niskanen said he considers him a friend. He also praised Crosby as a great leader and a solid teammate. But the Caps’ blue liner indicated that he intends to wait a little while before reaching out to him.

“I don’t think there’s anything I could say that’s going to make him feel better about it,” Niskanen said. “I’m sure he’s pissed. When the time is right, I’ll probably reach out to him, after the boiling over kinda cools down. At this time, there’s not much I can say to him that’s going to make him feel better about it, or believe me.”

More Capitals: Jay Beagle challenges Phil Kessel to...Mario Kart?

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Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

The Capitals are a week into training camp and the opening roster is starting to come into focus. The first round of cuts was made on Thursday and while none of the names were all that shocking, it does tell us that the team does not intend to get cute with its roster makeup with Evgeny Kuznetsov out.

Here’s a projection of the Caps’ opening night roster through the first cuts and first week of camp.

Offense

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Lars Eller - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Travis Boyd - Richard Panik
Brendan Leipsic - Nic Dowd - Garnett Hathaway
Chandler Stephenson

Suspended: Evgeny Kuznetsov

The top two lines are all but set. They have been practicing this way for much of camp and it seems unlikely that Todd Reirden will start that way and then randomly shuffle his top six.

Stephenson did little to help his stock on Monday with an underwhelming performance in the preseason opener against a pretty bad Chicago lineup. I see him in Washington the first week but sent down to Hershey once Kuznetsov returns. He is someone who could probably clear waivers even if it not done on the traditional waiver dump right before the league season officially starts. Boyd did a little better than Stephenson on Monday and I think he will ultimately get to stick around this season in case the team wants to boost the offense of the fourth line. For now, he can be inserted in on the third line at center.

Defense

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Jonas Siegenthaler - Radko Gudas
Christian Djoos

The conversation around Kempny shifted a bit on Wednesday. The sense I was getting prior to that was that the team was all-in on Kempny being ready for the first game of the regular season. Reirden reiterated that on Wednesday, but also said he would like to get him into a preseason game if possible. To me, that may be a sign that Kempny is progressing. Even if he is not ready for the preseason, I do believe he is on pace for the start of the regular season at this point.

I felt Jensen looked pretty comfortable in the preseason opener on Monday. Granted that was against a bad roster, but he red plays well, jumped up into the offense and, critically, he was able to hold his own on the left side which is something he was really dreadful at last season.

Gudas scored a goal on Wednesday, but I thought he looked a bit slow in his own end. As of now, I still give Jensen the edge in that race and I think Gudas will be better off on the third pair anyway.

Djoos was better than Siegenthaler on Monday, but I feel Siegenthaler bought himself some time with his performance in the playoffs last year. It is going to be really hard for the Caps to justify Djoos’ salary as $1.25 million is too much for a No. 6-7 defenseman. Ultimately, the onus is on him to show the team he is someone they simply cannot afford to lose.

There is a way for the team to keep Djoos, but it depends on who backs up Braden Holtby.

Goalie

Braden Holtby
Vitek Vanecek

Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov played well enough on Wednesday that replacing Pheonix Copley seems like a real possibility. You need to see more from them than simply half a preseason game, but we will get that chance as the preseason rolls along. The problem here is Copley’s $1.1 million cap hit. If Vanecek and Samsonov can get the job done for less money -- and it looked like they could against St. Louis -- then Copley is likely headed to waivers.

Why Vanecek over Samsonov? First off, with this roster projection, the team could afford to keep Djoos with Vanecek as a backup with his $716,667 cap hit, but not with Samsonov's $925,000 cap hit. The cap is that tight. Getting Samsonov consistent playing time is also important for his development. He will get that in Hershey, but not in Washington. Vanecek is waiver exempt so the team will still be able to shuffle Samsonov and Vanecek to make sure they both get NHL playing time. That added flexibility is a plus as well. Otherwise, it would mean putting Copley on waivers in the middle of the season when he is probably more likely to get claimed.

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Capitals roster cuts: Draft picks Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas headline initial round

Capitals roster cuts: Draft picks Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas headline initial round

The Capitals made their first round of training camp cuts on Thursday, trimming 18 players from the team’s roster including preseason standouts Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas.

McMichael was Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2019. He tallied an incredible assist in Monday’s preseason opener, backhanding a no-look pass to a wide-open Damien Riat. His solid performance earned him another game on Wednesday where he moved up to the third line. The highlight of the night was McMichael attempting a between-the-legs shot on Stanley Cup champion goalie Jordan Binnington.

“It’s a pretty good goalie he was trying that move on,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “He has some swagger to him, he has some confidence. He’s not afraid to try plays. That’s some of the stuff that pushes guys into the first round.”

McMichael’s strong play in camp and in the preseason opened the door perhaps for him to compete to stay in Washington for the start of the season.

With the suspension to Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington finds itself down a center for the first three games. With Lars Eller moving up to the second line, that leaves an opening on the third between Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik, where McMichael played on Wednesday.

That, however, does not appear to be in the cards as McMichael is headed back to his junior team, the London Knights.

Protas, who scored a goal and two assists on Monday, was also among the players cut. A third-round draft pick in 2019, Protas was extremely impressive in the preseason for his all-around game. He showed good awareness, vision and speed. His skating form needs work, but this is a player who looks like he has an NHL future ahead of him which is not always the case for mid-round draft picks.

The fact that McMichael and Protas were among the first cuts should not be seen as an indictment of their play by the team. Junior players are usually among the first cuts so they can return to their teams during training camp. The only reason this was a question was because of Kuznetsov’s suspension, but ultimately the team has other candidates to turn to at third-line center. With a brutal October schedule, the first week of the season may not be the best time to get cute or creative with roster choices.

Here are all of the cuts the Caps made on Thursday:

Loaned to their junior teams:

Eric Flrochuk (Saskatoon, WHL)
Alex Kannok-Leipert (Vancouver, WHL)
Connor McMichael (London, OHL)
Aliaksei Protas (Prince Albert, WHL)

Released from their ATOs:

Hayden Hawkey
Beck Warm

Assigned to Hershey:

Casey Bailey
Erik Burgdoerfer
Tommy Hughes
Kale Kessy
Chris McCarthy
Matt Moulson
Logan Thompson
Matthew Weis
Steven Whitney

Kody Clark and Riley Sutter, who are both dealing with upper-body injuries, were reassigned to Hershey as well to continue rehab.

In addition, Damie Riat has been returned to his European team EHC Biel-Bienne of the NLA in Switzerland.

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