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Matt Niskanen scores twice to give the Caps their fifth straight win

Matt Niskanen scores twice to give the Caps their fifth straight win

The Caps won their fifth straight game on Tuesday as Matt Niskanen scored the game-winner and the insurance tally in a 4-2 win over the New York Islanders.

How it happened: The Islanders struck first in the first period thanks to a bad line change by the Caps. There appeared to be some confusion on the bench over who should be on the ice and Nelson took advantage of all the room he found in front of him, teeing up a beautiful wrist shot to the top shelf. Brett Connolly responded in the second period. Lars Eller did the dirty work with a physical breakout and Connolly deflected in the centering pass. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana teamed up on the power play later in the second to set up Justin Williams to give the Caps the lead, but the Islanders tied the game up as Nikolay Kulemin deflected a Nick Leddy slap shot past Holtby.

The third period turned into the Matt Niskanen show as he scored twice in the final frame to give the Caps the 4-2 win.

What it means: Tuesday's win was Washington's fifth straight, tied for the longest win streak of the season. The Caps have now improved their record within the Metropolitan Division to 3-4-2 on the season. Washington has earned points in 11 of their last 12 games against the Islanders (8-1-3) and in seven straight road games on the Island (5-0-2).

Scary moment: Islanders forward Casey Cizikas was rushed off the ice early in the first period after taking a skate to the arm. Just one minute into the game Cizikas was on the forecheck against Nicklas Backstrom when he fell to the ice. His momentum carried him along the boards into a scrum where it appears teammate Anders Lee stepped on his left arm (watch the replay here). As Cizikas was rushed to the locker room, he held a towel wrapped tightly around the arm. Proving hockey players are different from normal people, however, Cizikas actually returned to the bench later in the first period and resumed playing.

You shall not pass: Braden Holtby let in two goals on the night, but he slammed the door shut on the Islanders in the third period with three phenomenal saves including a juggling catch right on the goal line. Eleven of Holtby's 25 saves came in the final frame as he protected the Caps' lead.

Nisky business: Niskanen entered Tuesday's game with no goals this season. With his two goals on the night, he now leads the team's defensemen in goals.

Third line’s the charm: The Caps' third line of Connolly, Eller and Vrana combined for four points on the night. Connolly scored his third goal of the season to first get the Caps on the board. Eller played what was his best game as a Cap and Vrana earned the first two assists of his NHL career. Andre Burakovsky, meanwhile, was a healthy scratch for the first time this season.

Hot and cold: With his second-period assist on Vrana's goal, Kuznetsov extended his point streak to five games. Of his 15 points this season, six of them have now come in the past five games. Islanders star John Tavares, meanwhile, saw his five-game point streak snapped as the Caps managed to keep him off the scoresheet.

Look ahead: The Caps wrap up their brief two-game road swing on Friday in Carolina against the Hurricanes. Then it’s a quick turnaround as they host Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.

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Capitals’ losing streak extends to six in stunning OT loss to Sharks

Capitals’ losing streak extends to six in stunning OT loss to Sharks

The Capitals were one second away from snapping a five-game losing streak, but instead saw that streak extended to six games as Evander Kane scored with one second left to force overtime and Tomas Hertl scored the winner in a 7-6 overtime thriller. Here are five reasons the Caps lost.

Evander Kane’s miracle buzzer-beater

The Caps clung to a 6-5 lead late in the third when Kane found the puck on his stick in front of the net and shot it in with just one second remaining on the clock. Just one second away from claiming two points and ending a miserable five-game losing streak, Kane’s goal forced overtime and helped extend Washington’s streak to six.

Hertl’s hatty

Ovechkin netted a hat trick for the home team, but Hertl matched him with three goals of his own to win the game. Hertl scored two power play goals, including one in the third to pull the Sharks within one. He also scored the overtime winner to crush the Caps’ hopes of snapping their losing streak.

12 seconds

For a team that has lost five straight and looking for some confidence, you could not have drawn up a worse start to this game. A won faceoff for the Sharks went straight to Brent Burns at the blue line. He threw the puck towards the net and it bounced off John Carlson right to the stick of Joe Pavelski who backhanded it in. Braden Holtby had committed to the original shot and there was no way for him to recover leaving an empty net for Pavelski to shoot on.

It took just 12 seconds for the Sharks to get on the boards.

Too many penalties

You can’t give up six power plays in a game and live to talk about it.

San Jose tied the game at 2 in the second period thanks to a power play goal from Hertl who unleashed a one-timer from the slot to beat Holtby. In the third period Washington took two different minor penalties and the Sharks cashed in on the second. The goal came from Hertl who unleased a one-timer from the slot to beat Holtby.

The two power play goals looked almost identical. The second made the score 6-5, pulled San Jose within one of Washington and sparked the comeback.

The first minute of overtime

For nearly the first minute of overtime, the Caps looked as dominant as a team can look. They would not allow the puck to get out of the Sharks’ zone and got a number of opportunities to finish the game including a 3-on-1 with Tom Wilson’s shot just deflecting wide.

If the losing streak has taught Washington anything, it’s that they must take advantage of their opportunities. They didn’t finish the Sharks at the start of overtime and Hertl ended up with the game-winner.


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How a team meeting can help stop Caps’ slide


How a team meeting can help stop Caps’ slide

ARLINGTON — The Capitals met as a group, the doors shut to the outside world. Not even the coaches were invited after an embarrassing 8-5 loss in Chicago on Sunday. 

You could call it a “meeting” as several players did. “A chat” was the word used by defenseman Matt Niskanen. On Monday the coaches were back for more talk and more video. Owners of the NHL’s longest current losing streak at five games, everyone has the same goal: How to get back on track as fast as possible.

“At the end of the day we’re pretty close, we’re a team. This group isn’t guys yelling,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “We’re close, we know how we need to play. We just needed to address it, we needed to talk it out a little bit, get on the same page. And then the same sort of thing with the coaching staff and the players. Go over some stuff, get on the same page, refocus, reshuffle the deck a little bit and get back at it.” 

Maybe they didn’t blister the paint off the walls in the locker room at United Center on Sunday, but these aren’t exactly genteel get-togethers, either. Video doesn’t lie and Washington hasn’t been near good enough during an 0-4-1 stretch that has it technically in third place in the Metropolitan Division and just one point ahead of fourth. That’s not a spot the defending Stanley Cup champs expect to be. 

Immediate comparison will be made to the infamous blistering former coach Barry Trotz gave his players after back-to-back blowout losses in games at Nashville and Colorado left them at 10-9-1 just 20 games into the 2017-18 season.

The Capitals returned home and responded by winning 10 of their next 13 games. But these things are rarely linear. Despite spending all of January in first place in the Metro last year, by March players and coaches were right back in the meeting room. That time it was to overhaul its defensive system after the team sleepwalked through a 9-9-4 stretch from Jan. 18 to March 8. 

“In that discussion last year, there was some major changes being made and that stuff is already in place,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “Now it's just about players doing their job, executing their responsibilities within that system and being better.”

Coaches can hold players accountable by reducing roles, changing lines or scratching them entirely. Reirden has done all of that, including putting center Evgeny Kuznetsov on the third line in Sunday’s loss. In dire circumstances, coaches can go nuclear as Trotz memorably did last season. That can get a team’s attention immediately - provided the tactic is not used too often. 

But it’s the players themselves who ultimately demand the most from each other when things go wrong. Washington has a veteran locker room. These players have won a Stanley Cup together. No one was willing to speak on the record about what was said in the players’ meeting or who did most of the talking. But it’s not hard to figure out, either.

Eight players (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller, Braden Holtby, Matt Niskanen) have nine years or more of NHL experience. Wilson, Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov have all played at least six years each for Washington. It’s an experienced roster that has been together, won together, lost together and knows its own strengths and weaknesses.    

“I think we’re a pretty loose group. That’s our nature. It works for us,” Niskanen said. “I don’t think we can get too uptight, but I think we’ll have a real determined, focused effort here the next couple nights. The guys recognize the situation that we’re in, accept it, take responsibility for it and work to try to change it.”

That rebound will have to come on back-to-back games with San Jose at home tonight (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington) and on Tuesday at Toronto. Both of those teams have Stanley Cup hopes and both are struggling, too. 

The Sharks (28-16-7, 63 points) have lost three games in a row, but remain in second place in the Pacific Division. The Maple Leafs (29-17-2, 60 points) have lost two in a row and seven of 10. They are in second place in the Atlantic Division. 

These are all teams who could use the upcoming All-Star break and bye week to recharge. Washington will not practice again as a full group until 2 p.m. on Jan. 31. Holtby and Carlson will have a shorter rest period because they are going to San Jose on Thursday for NHL All-Star weekend, but even they will get a few days off to recharge. 

That escape from the mental anguish of a losing streak can help. But multiple Caps players said Monday that without at least one win it’s almost worthless. They’ll just be sitting on a beach thinking about what’s gone wrong and focusing on how to fix it. They need a win – and the lessons of last season can provide a blueprint.  

"The main thing is we've got to remember, be honest with ourselves for the last two years or so, that things haven't come easy,” Holtby said. “That's something that can be lost in the fact of winning. Because things weren't easy last year. We had to grind our way through to get where we were, and that's going to be what we have to do this year.”