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NHL Players Association head 'optimistic' about participation in South Korea Olympics

NHL Players Association head 'optimistic' about participation in South Korea Olympics

The 2018 Olympics in South Korea has been a bone of contention between the NHL owners, who don't want the season interrupted, and their players.

Speaking to assembled media at the Centennial Classic on New Year's Day, NHL Players Association head Donald Fehr expressed optimism that players will be able to participate. 

Via ESPN:

I'm more optimistic now that I ever have been, at least as far as we're concerned, that we'll be able to reach an appropriate agreement with the IIHF to allow for the players to go... "You get a sense of things as they go along, you get a sense of things and how they're likely to end up; doesn't mean you're always right, but you get a sense of things.

The situation is a complicated one on both sides. 

NHL owners are concerned about the expenses of interrupting the NHL season for the Olympics (including travel, lodgings and insurance), which the IOC has said it would not reimburse after doing so for previous Winter Games.

There's also the question of player health, with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman articulated in his remarks the same day. 

Absent some compelling reason, I'm not sure there's a whole lot of sentiment on the part of the clubs to go through the disruption of taking three almost weeks off during the season. We've been there, done that five times and while Vancouver and Salt Lake City were different, when you're halfway around the world [in Pyeongchang] it's not the easiest thing to have in our season. Not just the risk of injury ... the compression to the regular season is something that concerns us.

The NHL had previously offered to include a group of international games in the schedule (Olympics, World Cup of Hockey, etc) in exchange for a three-year extension of the current CBA.

The players union rejected that proposal, but Fehr suggested an agreement could be reached that would allow a "long-term international program" independent of the CBA. He also said he was hopeful that the sides could negotiate for the IIHF to cover expenses associated with NHL players participating in the Winter Games. 

At some point, the back-and-forth over these Olympics has to end. There's no real firm deadline, though ESPN reports that involved parties believe a decision must come by the end of January. 

The verdict here really matters to the Capitals. Capitain Alex Ovechkin, for one, has said he will play for team Russia regardless of whether the NHL participates. He joked that he could even be retired by 2018. Hopefully, if Fehr has his way, that won't have to happen. 

Ovechkin has the backing of Capitals owner Ted Leonsis on his decision. 

Other team cornerstones routinely represent their countries in international competition as well. Nicklas Backstrom is a perennial member of team Sweden, while starting goalie Braden Holtby represented team Canada in the recent World Cup of Hockey. 

MORE CAPITALS: 3 bold predictions: Cooling the red-hot Maple Leafs

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Caps GM Brian MacLellan doesn't think the Capitals are playing the right way

Caps GM Brian MacLellan doesn't think the Capitals are playing the right way

Braden Holtby's eyes immediately raised to the ceiling as he knew Ben Chiarot's one-timer had beaten him. The Montreal Canadiens defenseman scored the overtime winner on Thursday to hand the Capitals a 4-3 loss. Montreal came into Thursday's game with five straight losses including one to the lowly Detroit Red Wings. And yet, it was the Caps, a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, that saw its woes extended for yet another game.

Washington has now lost three games in a row for just the second time all season - and the first time since October. They have lost five of six overall and, since Dec. 23 have gone 11-11-1. Their impressive lead over the Metropolitan Division is now gone as Washington sits tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins with 80 points, but Pittsburgh holds a game in hand.

A Capitals team that does not often suffer through major adversity through the regular season is certainly doing so now. General manager Brian MacLellan knew that even before Thursday's loss.

"I don't think we're playing the right way," MacLellan said Wednesday. "I think there's a little cheat in our game. I think we're playing teams that are very well-structured in the neutral zone and we're not willing to do the right things to counteract that. I think we gotta get more in the mindset of we're willing to play a 1-0 game and we're not there right now. It's a team effort. The forwards contribute to it, defense contributes to it, and we got to get all on the same page here and play a tighter game."

The team acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon in a trade on Tuesday and, though MacLellan was firm that this was a move he would have made anyway, it is fair to wonder just how much the current state of the team forced his hand.

"I think sometimes our defense is getting pinpointed for it where I think team defense should be more the focus of the criticism," MacLellan said. "I think our forwards contribute to the pressure that's put on our D: wall play in our own end, back pressure, lack of a forecheck. I think our team game is off, and that results in poor defensive efforts from basically our team."

With the trade deadline on Monday and the team continuing to struggle in its own zone, will MacLellan's frustration turn into more additions to the roster? Given the team's limited cap space, that seems unlikely. If there are additions to be made, they will likely be depth ones unless MacLellan intends to trade away roster players in a sudden move to shake up the team.

More likely, the solution is going to have to come from within and the onus will fall on both the coaches and the players. Clearly adjustments are needed from the coaches to put the defense in a better position, but the responsibly also falls on the players who are making far too many mistakes on the ice with misreads, poor puck management and no team defense.

"It's frustrating to be where we are at this point," MacLellan said, "But I think it's a work-in-progress and hopefully it's a bit of a wake-up call that we have to (play) that way."

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Brenden Dillon's debut and Ovechkin's 699 overshadowed by Capitals OT loss

Brenden Dillon's debut and Ovechkin's 699 overshadowed by Capitals OT loss

The hope was that the addition of Brenden Dillon would solve a lot of the Capitals' problems on defense, but that did not happen on Thursday in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

Defense is still a work in progress even with Dillon

Dillon made his Caps debut on Thursday. One aspect in which he was supposed to help the team's defense improve was controlling the net-front. The Canadiens, however, marched right in front of Braden Holtby and refused to budge. Montreal's first two goals were the direct result of traffic in front of the net. Brendan Gallagher provided the screen for a Shea Weber slap shot goal and then scored himself as he again parked himself in front of the Caps net and was able to win the loose puck off a failed deflection, turn and shoot with three Caps staring at him.

Controlling the front of the net has been an issue for Washington, but Thursday was disturbing considering they added a player in part to address this particular weakness and he and John Carlson were on the ice for all three of Montreal's regulation goals.

Yes, It's Dillon's first game for Washington and some time to adjust is expected, but the Caps need to start clicking on defense. Their wiggle room in the standings is now completely gone and this team needs to string some wins together.

Speaking of a work-in-progress, Michal Kempny was bumped by Dillon to the third pair for this game where he played with Radko Gudas. That experiment should be over. That pair looked awful together. They gave up two breakaways in the first six minutes of the game, the second of which earned Gudas a 10-minute benching. One game is a small sample size, but I don't know that we need to see much more from that combo to know that it just doesn't fit.

An inexcusable mistake

In the midst of a two-month slump and after losing control of the division, you can't have the leader of the defense attempt a bank pass to himself in traffic behind his own goal line. That's exactly what Carlson did in the third period as he tried to bank a pass to himself past Tomas Tatar. Tatar got in front of the puck and the resulting turnover led to Ben Chiarot's goal, giving Montreal its first lead 30 seconds into the third period.

Those are the kind of mistakes you just can't make at this point in the season.

The good news

The news wasn't all bad. It was mostly bad, but there were some bright spots. First, the Pittsburgh Penguins lost in regulation on Thursday so Washington pulled into a tie for first place with its point. Pittsburgh has a game in hand though.

Holtby was fantastic again. He looks like he has completely turned his game around and he was the only thing keeping Washington in it early on and through the entire second period. The thrid line also was pretty good.

At this point in the season, however, with the team in a battle for the division, if the two positives you can take from a game was the goalie played well and the third line was pretty good, that's just not enough.

There was one other bright spot....

One goal away

Alex Ovechkin broke his season-long goal drought and now sits just one goal shy of 700. When the game went into overtime, it seemed like the stars were aligning for another special Ovechkin moment (though the life of every beat reporter flashed before their eyes. Getting 700 in overtime would have been...challenging), but it was not meant to be.

Will 700 continue to hang over his head and drag into another drought or will getting 699 open up the flood gates for Ovechkin again?

Turning point

With the game tied 2-2 at the start of the third period, Carlson tried to bank the puck to himself through Tatar behind his own goal line. It didn't work. Washington was completely out of position defensively as everyone thought Carlson was going to launch the breakout. All five Caps players collapsed deep into the zone and Tatar kicked the puck out to Ben Chiarot who had about a year and a half to aim and shoot. That goal gave Montreal its first lead of the game just 30 seconds into the third. From there, the Caps played catch up only managing to earn a point thanks to a Tom Wilson goal with 20.1 seconds remaining.

Play of the game

Lars Eller is the tiger, but on this play he looked like a Detroit Tiger.

It wasn't just batting the puck out of the air that made this play impressive, however. Eller shrugged off a hit from Nick Suzuki, skated past Jeff Petry and then batted the puck after Brett Kulak tipped it up. Heck of a play.

The goal fulfilled the legal mandate that states Eller must score whenever he plays Montreal. 

Stat of the game

The Caps are the best team in the league with the goalie pulled. Their eight goals with the extra attacker are the most in the NHL.

Quote of the game

Shockingly, Dillon did not step into the lineup and just fix the defense in his debut. Todd Reirden stressed after the game that it's not on Dillon, but on the entire team to improve as a five-man unit.

"He’s not going to solve all of our problems at the front of the net. So, that’s a group effort and whether that’s a low forward in that situation, whether that’s both of our D, whatever it is, we’re going to have to find people that can clear that area out and those will be the people that are playing in those situations. That’s an area we need to improve on, there’s no doubt about that. That’s winning hockey in this league over the long term in the regular season and certainly in the playoffs.”

Fan predictions

Well, he was on the ice for three of Montreal's goals, but that's probably not what you meant.

Um...maybe eventually. For this game, however, you could not have been more wrong.

Hey! That's a win, right?

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