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Niskanen: 'I really wanted to pass that puck'

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Niskanen: 'I really wanted to pass that puck'

Afterward, it was hard to tell which was more memorable: Matt Niskanen’s incredible coast-to-coast rush and parting of the Orange, Black and White Sea … or the reaction it received on the Capitals’ bench.

“It’s like back to the 70s, Bobby Orr, all those guys,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said of Niskanen’s game-winning goal in the Caps’ 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers Sunday at Verizon Center. “… I think the whole building was surprised.”

Asked for his reaction, Capitals coach Barry Trotz grinned and said:

“Holy … 

“It’s a Sunday, I can’t. That’s what all the guys on the bench were thinking, because that’s a lot of what we were hearing.”

Niskanen’s Orr-like goal began near his own goal line and ended in Steve Mason’s goal crease, where he flipped a shot inside the right post for the game-winning goal 5:24 into the final period.

RELATED: Niskanen gives Caps third straight win

Niskanen, who entered the game with two goals on 91 shots, weaved through four different Flyers, each of whom played matador defense on the play.

“I really wanted to pass that puck to someone,” Niskanen said. “Either my vision’s getting worse or I couldn’t see anybody open. 

“There was open ice to skate in the middle and I was able to pick my way through there. Lucky shot, I guess. I wanted onto the puck too long I start to get uncomfortable.  I haven’t scored a goal like that in like 12 years.”

Flyers rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who along with Michael Del Zotto was the last line of defense for the Flyers, said he was surprised at how much room Niskanen was given to operate.

“I think myself and (Del Zotto)  could have done a better play,” he said. “We were kind of flat-footed, and we don't expect the D-man to have that much speed coming at us. I think we could have helped (Steve Mason) a little more. … I didn't expect him to carry it down that low."

Neither did the rest of the Capitals bench, which exploded in cheers, high fives and laughter.

Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said the last time he saw a player do what Niskanen did was a few days earlier when Oilers rookie phenom Connor McDavid went end-to-end for a goal.

“Maybe we can get the 1v1 Niskanen vs. McDavid tomorrow,” Alzner said. “I don’t think that was in (the Flyers’) pre-scout. As soon as he made that first move through the neutral zone it was like, ‘OK, he’s on a mission.’” 

Niskanen, who played a game-high 24:51, also played a key role in the Capitals holding the Flyers scoreless on five power plays, including a 53-second two-man advantage midway through the second period.

“That, to me, was the difference in the game,” Trotz said.

Capitals goalie Braden Holtby helped, stopping the Flyers’ final 12 shots of the game to improve to 25-1-3 in his last 29 decisions and a league-best 33-5-3 overall this season.

MORE CAPITALS: Holtby: 'The only stat I care about is wins'

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Key Caps questions: Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing long-term?

Key Caps questions: Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing long-term?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing a long-term contract?

Tarik: When a player has a career year and it coincides with the final year of his contract, the reaction from some fans and media is often a sarcastic, ‘Well, of course he did.’

And I’m sure there are some folks who wonder about Carlson’s breakout season and whether there was a connection between the uptick in his production and the potential of an enormous payday.

Indeed, the 28-year-old established highs in goals (15), assists (53), points (68) and ice time (24:47). He was outstanding in the postseason, too, amassing five goals and 15 assists while playing solidly in his own end to help lead the Caps to their first championship.

The financial reward came a couple of weeks later when he signed an eight-year, $64 million contract to remain in Washington.

Which brings us to today’s question.

It’s obviously impossible to say for sure what’s going to happen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had another big season. Why? A few reasons:

  • As good as he was, last year wasn’t a total outlier, either. Carlson racked up 55 points (12 goals, 43 assists) in 2014-15, which was tied for fifth best among blue liners that year.
  • He was at his best last season skating with trade deadline addition Michal Kempny. Kempny, of course, also re-upped, agreeing to a four-year extension. So, in theory, Carlson should be able to pick up where he left off.
  • Carlson has credited Todd Reirden with helping him take his game to new heights. Well, Reirden is now the guy in charge of the whole operation. How could that not help?
  • A major reason Carlson puts up so many points is his role on the power play. And that unit, which really hit its stride in the postseason (29.3-percent), returns all five skaters.
  • Carlson has also been pretty durable, which is critical to being productive. In fact, last season he skated in all of the Caps’ games for the sixth time in eight full-time seasons.

So, yeah, it’s all setting up nicely for Carlson to have a strong 2018-19.

To me, the only unknown is whether he’ll have the same hunger and determination now that he’s got long-term security and that previously elusive championship ring.

Again, that’s impossible to predict. But I can tell you this: Over the course of two decades in this business, I’ve covered lots of players who inked life-changing contracts. With a few of them, I had immediate concerns.

I have no such reservations about Carlson's ability to play up to his new deal, particularly in the first several seasons of it.

JJ: There's nothing wrong with a player being motivated by a new deal, but I am always wary when players have career years on the last year of their contract.

The issue is whether or not a player can continue to play at the level they showed when a new contract is no longer a motivating factor. After signing a new deal for eight years and $64 million, Carlson won't have to think about money or contracts for a long time.

When it comes to motivation, a lot of the questions surrounding the Capitals this year will depend on how they react to winning the Cup. Of course everyone wants to repeat, but psychologically will they come into camp more motivated than ever to defend their title or will they be satisfied with finally winning it all?

For Carlson, there are several reasons to be hopeful. Tarik went over a number of those reasons above, but the two biggest for me are Michal Kempny and Todd Reirden.

This season, Carlson will have Kempny as his partner to start, rather than a cycle of practically every left-handed defenseman on the ice depending on the situation. Second, what Mitch Korn is to goalies, Reirden is to defensemen. With him as the head coach, I believe the ceiling for Carlson will only continue to climb.

Let's also go beyond the numbers. Matt Niskanen suffered an injury early last season that forced Carlson into a primary role on both ends of the ice. He was playing nearly 30 minutes a night and, with two rookies on the blue line who Barry Trotz did everything he could to shelter, those were very hard minutes. Yet, Carlson excelled. The offensive upside was always there, but the way he played defensively was a revelation.

While Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen will remain a solid pair for the Caps, I believe Carlson will be the guy heading into the season which will mean more minutes and more responsibility.

Plus, despite what he meant to the team's defense and despite leading all defensemen in points with 68, Carlson was not selected to participate in the All-Star Game, he was not one of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy and he was not among the four defensemen named to the end of season All-Star team. His incredible season earned him no recognition at all other than his new contract. A $64 million contract is a heck of a consolation prize, but his season deserved more recognition than that.

You don't often see a player of his caliber enter a season with a chip on his shoulder, but Carlson should have a fairly sizable one.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?
Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?

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Capitals re-sign Madison Bowey leaving Tom Wilson the lone remaining RFA

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Capitals re-sign Madison Bowey leaving Tom Wilson the lone remaining RFA

Defenseman Madison Bowey re-signed with the Capitals on Thursday, inking a two-year extension that will carry an average of $1 million.

Bowey carried a cap charge of $703,333 last season.

The 23-year-old appeared in 51 games for the Caps in 2017-18, amassing 12 assists, 24 penalty minutes and a plus/minus rating of minus-3.

Bowey also suited up in nine contests for AHL Hershey, though he finished the season as one of the Black Aces during Washington's run to the Stanley Cup.

With Bowey back in the fold, the Caps now have six of seven defenseman from last season’s roster under contract. (Veteran Brooks Orpik remains an unrestricted free agent.)

Bowey had an uneven first year in the NHL—he didn’t play following the late-February addition of Michal Kempny—but the Caps expect that the 6-2, 198-pound right-shot blue liner will become reliable full-time player with more seasoning.

Bowey’s deal leaves Tom Wilson as the Caps' only remaining unsigned restricted free agent. The sides are in discussions on a multi-year extension.

Including Bowey’s extension, the Caps have roughly $7.3 million in salary cap space remaining, according to CapFriendly.

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