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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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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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