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Matt Niskanen's second career two-goal game helps Caps sink Isles

Matt Niskanen's second career two-goal game helps Caps sink Isles

Matt Niskanen came into the season hoping to contribute more offensively. And through his first 26 games, the Capitals defenseman had done a decent job of chipping in here and there.

But he hadn’t scored a goal. That is, until Tuesday night in Brooklyn, where he began making up for lost time by scoring twice to lift the Caps to a 4-2 victory over the Islanders.

The two tallies marked Niskanen’s first multi-goal performance in 191 games as a Capital and the second multi-goal game he’s produced in 682 NHL games. His only other two-goal game came as a member of the Penguins in 2013-14, which was the year he scored a career-best 10 goals.

Niskanen now has three points in the last two games, marking his most productive stretch of the season.

“It feels good,” he told reporters at Barclays Center. “It’s nice to see the puck go in. On that first one, it might have been the best chance I’ve had this year, so I’m glad that one went in at least.”

RELATED: Niskanen scores twice to give Caps their fifth straight win

Indeed, Niskanen’s first goal of the night was a big one.

Just 1:34 into the third period, he took a feed from Dmitry Orlov and, from the circle, picked his spot and ripped a wrist shot over Jaroslav Halak’s glove. And like that, the Caps were back up 3-2.

Niskanen’s second goal put the game on ice. With a 1:58 left to play, he fired a slap shot past a screened Halak, whose sightline was obscured by Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie and an Islanders defender.

“Matt is known more for his shutdown role. So, any time you get a couple of goals, I think that’s a feather in his play,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “The guys were excited. They were trying to get him a third one.”

Niskanen's second goal came his sixth shot of the game. No one else, on either team, had more than four.

Asked about his preseason comments about producing more offense, Niskanen said he doesn’t measure his success in that area solely by goals.

“My goal is to keep putting myself in that position, so I’m getting opportunities,” he said. “As a defenseman, you’re going to have a string of luck. I did tonight. Then you may go have another dry spell. So, just keep putting myself in the position to support the forwards on the rush, in the offensive zone and try to create by shooting the puck.”

Niskanen also addressed the Caps’ five-game winning streak, which matches their longest of the season.

“At that the start of this thing we weren’t too happy with the way we were playing. Guys were having meetings and coaches were pissed and all this,” he said. “And we still had a pretty good record. It’s better to fix things when you still have a good record; it’s a little bit easier. Each game we’re playing a little bit better, a little bit better. I thought we generated a lot tonight, a lot of shots, obviously, had the puck a ton.”

He added: “Our game is coming, and that’s a good thing.”

MORE CAPITALS: Islanders center takes skate blade to arm

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This won't be the first time Capitals turn to Lars Eller at 2nd-line center in playoffs

This won't be the first time Capitals turn to Lars Eller at 2nd-line center in playoffs

When the Capitals take the ice for Game 2 against the New York Islanders on Friday, they will be without center Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom is in concussion protocol and is unclear when he will be able to return. No team can lose a player of Backstrom's caliber and not feel that loss, but Washington does at least have a contingency plan in the form of Lars Eller. The team has had to turn to Eller on the second line in the playoffs before and, though the results were far from perfect, things did end up working out for the Caps. That year was 2018 and the Caps would go on to win the Stanley Cup.

One of the priorities of general manager Brian MacLellan is center depth. He puts a great deal of emphasis on the position and making sure the team is well-stocked in case of injury. That depth was put to the test in 2018 when Backstrom suddenly was out of the lineup in the playoffs with an upper-body injury. That injury turned out to be two fractures in his right hand and it kept him out for four games, starting with Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

With Backstrom out, Eller was called upon to center the second line in his absence.

“I love when those challenges happen because I think I don’t change the way I think about the game or the way I prepare myself," Eller said. "It will basically mean I will be playing more minutes probably than I otherwise would. My mentality is the same, trying to go out there and play a strong two-way game and create offense in every shift."

RELATED: LOSING NICKLAS BACKSTROM WOULD BE 'HUGE TROUBLE' FOR THE CAPITALS

Offensively, the results were great. In those four games, Eller recorded two goals and three assists. There is not much more that could have been asked of him in that respect. Defensively, however, it was another story.

Eller is a good defensive player, but Backstrom is one of the team's best defensive forwards and has been one of the top two-way forwards in the league for much of his career. When you are on the second line you are typically going to get more difficult defensive assignments and Eller struggled at times against those assignments. In Game 6 against the Penguins, Washington allowed only one goal. It came off a faceoff that Eller lost in the defensive zone. In Game 3 of the Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Eller took three bad penalties, one for closing his hand on the puck, one for slashing and one for cross-checking. Tampa Bay would score on his first penalty and earn their first win of the series.

This is not to suggest that Eller was or is a defensive liability, it's just a reflection of the difference between him and Backstrom. Eller is a high-end third-line center. That is where he is at his best and he makes the Caps one of the deepest offensive teams in the NHL. He can plug into the top-six when needed, but he is a third-line center. The Caps are very fortunate to have a player like him who can step into the top lines, but the longer Backstrom is out for, the more noticeable his absence becomes and 2018 is evidence of that.

Now, fast-forward to 2020. Eller will once again be called upon to play on the second line due to an injury to Backstrom. He even is expected to play with the same linemates -- Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie -- as he did in 2018.  If it's just for a game or two, you may not even notice a difference. With every passing game, however, the absence of Backstrom will loom larger, not because of Eller, but because of how good and important a player Backstrom is.

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How to watch Capitals vs. Islanders Game 2

How to watch Capitals vs. Islanders Game 2

After getting out to an early lead in Game 1, a few critical mistakes led to the Capitals falling to the New York Islanders 4-2 to begin their Stanley Cup run.

Now, in Game 2, Washington will look to get back on track and even the series. A physical Game 1 means more fireworks are probably in store for Friday.

You're not going to want to miss this one. Here's how to watch. 

CAPITALS vs. ISLANDERS HOW TO WATCH 

What: No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders
Where: Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada 
When: 8:00 PM ET 
TV Channel: Capitals vs. Islanders will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington.
Live Stream: You can live stream Capitals vs. Islanders on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and on the MyTeams App.

CAPITALS vs. ISLANDERS TV SCHEDULE

7:00 PM: Caps Pregame Live (LIVE)

8:00 PM: Capitals vs. Islanders (LIVE)

10:30 PM: Caps Postgame Live (LIVE)

RELATED: GAME 2 PREVIEW

CAPITALS VS. ISLANDERS SCHEDULE (ISLANDERS LEAD 1-0)

Game 1: Wednesday, August 12, 4:04 p.m. (Islanders Win 4-2)

Game 2: Thursday, August 14, 8:00 p.m.

Game 3: Sunday, August 16, 12:00 p.m.

Game 4: Tuesday, August 18, 8:00 p.m.

Game 5: (If necessary) Thursday, August 20, TBD

Game 6: (If necessary) Saturday, August 22, TBD

Game 7: (If necessary) Sunday, August 23, TBD

CAPITALS vs. ISLANDERS WHAT TO WATCH 

Braden Holtby took the blame for the Game 1 loss, and Washington will need him to rebound on Friday. Goaltending may be the most crucial aspect of playoff hockey and Washington is hoping they can rely on Holtby for one last deep run.

Anders Lee's hit on Nicklas Backstrom was the talk of Game 1. It was a reason Backstrom had to exit and will not play in Game 2 as he enters the concussion protocol. Both teams were very physical for the rest of the matchup and that should continue on Friday with tensions rising. 

CAPITALS vs. ISLANDERS PLAYERS TO WATCH 

T.J. Oshie (26 goals, 23 assists, 49 points): Oshie was the Capitals' only source of offense on Wednesday. With two goals early on he set the tone and showed that he has a knack for showing up in the big moments. Though the Caps will need others to help, it's always good to have Oshie putting the puck in the net. 

Mathew Barzal (19 goals, 41 assists, 60 points): Barzal didn't net a goal in Game 1, but he didn't need to. His presence was still felt on offense, however, as he recorded two assists on the afternoon. If he can continue to distribute, and score every once in a while, the Capitals could be in trouble.

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