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Prospect report: Why now for Jakub Vrana?

Prospect report: Why now for Jakub Vrana?

Hershey update: 11-4-3-1, 3rd in the Atlantic Division. Last week: 3-0-0-0

One of the players to watch this preseason was 2014 first-round pick Jakub Vrana.

Vrana has yet to make his NHL debut, but has shown clear talent in the AHL and was thought to be one of the few players with a chance of breaking into a stacked Capitals roster. Ultimately, he was cut and sent back to Hershey.

On Wednesday, Vrana was recalled to Washington and could potentially make his NHL debut on Thursday against the New York Islanders.

So what changed?

Vrana’s biggest weakness in the preseason was puck distribution. He has shown improvement in that area recently, however, with four assists in his last three games.

Vrana currently sits tied for third in the AHL with nine goals. Goal scoring is his clear strength, but he is showing more versatility now with seven assists as well.

The Caps have been inconsistent offensively of late which explains why they would look to someone like Vrana, but his recall was made possible because he now seems to be more responsible with the puck.

What other players could be playing their way into a call-up this season?

Christian Thomas’ signing did not garner much attention in the offseason, but he has been spectacular in Hershey. Thomas currently sits tied with Vrana for the team lead in goals. Travis Boyd notched two goals and two assists in Hershey’s last three games and now is tied for first on the team with 17 points (four goals, 13 assists).

Nathan Walker showed the NHL isn’t too big for him with an impressive showing in the preseason. He carried that momentum with him to Hershey. With two goals and one assist last week, the Australian prospect now has 11 points on the season. He also leads the team with a plus-13.

Defensively, Madison Bowey is day-to-day with an injury, but he has at least tried to stay ready should he get the call to the NHL.

“I watch the Capitals whenever I can and see their system because you never know when the call might come and you want to be ready,” Bowey told Don Scott of the Lebanon Daily News. “I take notes on what their D-men are doing because I know that will help me here and to get up there.”

Barring injury to Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer, we won’t be seeing Vitek Vanecek in D.C. anytime soon, but the way he has played certainly opens the possibility that he could get a shot next season.

Vanecek continued his impressive play with another two wins between the pipes. The Czech netminder earned his second shutout of the season with a 24 save performance over rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and added a second win on Saturday against Springfield. You can see highlights here:

Vanecek finished the game with 16 saves on 19 shots. One thing to note about all three goals he allowed is that they came in low. Perhaps that is an area in which he needs to focus over the next few weeks.

One quick injury update, Riley Barber has been out of the lineup since Nov. 13 with an upper-body injury. According to Scott of the Lebanon Daily News, Barber is not expected to return until January.

RELATED: FROZEN MOMENTS FROM THE 2016-17 SEASON

Other prospect notes:

— Damien Riat and Jonas Siegenthaler have both been named to the initial roster of Switzerland’s U20 World Junior Championship team. The team will have cuts after the first week of camp and again after two preliminary games so both players will have to earn their final spots in order to play in the tournament in Canada.

— One player who surprisingly did not make his country’s junior team is Regina defenseman Connor Hobbs. His exclusion from Team Canada’s roster is a surprise given that he attended the team’s development camp in the summer and is one of the WHL’s top scoring defensemen with 29 points in 21 games.

— Greg Harder of the Regina Leader Post did a feature on Hobbs and how the snub has motivated him to work harder. Check it out here.

— Shane Gersich had another impressive week offensively for North Dakota. On Friday, the forward prospect scored his 11th goal of the season and notched two more assists as he contributed to all three of his team’s goals on the night.

— Gersisch has clearly emerged as the top scoring threat on his team and one of the top threats in the nation and it’s a role he has embraced despite being only a sophomore, writes Tyler Buckentine of Minnesota Hockey Magazine.

— Goalie Ilya Samsonov may only be 19-years old, but he is already one of the best players in the world who is not yet playing in the NHL. Bleacher Report ranked the best players not currently in the NHL and the young Samsonov came in at No. 6.

“Samsonov is the backup goalie for his team but plays a lot and has been outstanding this season. The KHL is a strong European pro league, and Samsonov's strong performance at such a young age suggests the Capitals could have an impact goalie prospect on their hands.”

In 18 games this season in the KHL, Samsonov has registered an impressive .934 save percentage and 2.14 GAA.

One thing to note about the Bleacher Report’s analysis, however, is that it indicates the Caps may bring him to the AHL next season. They actually can’t do that because he is under contract with his KHL team until 2018. So for any fans out there who read the full article (which you certainly should), don’t get too excited. It will be at least another year before he plays in North America.

— One last piece of goalie news, congratulations to Adam Carlson who earned his first professional shutout on Sunday. Carlson turned aside all 19 shots he faced against Atlanta leading the South Carolina Stingrays to the win. Both teams were locked in a scoreless tie at the end of regulation, meaning Carlson had to stay perfect for over 60 minutes to get the win.

MORE CAPITALS: TROTZ SHAKES UP THE FORWARD LINES

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Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny helps take down former team in 4-2 win over Blackhawks

Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny helps take down former team in 4-2 win over Blackhawks

CAPITAL ONE ARENA — Michal Kempny tried to say it was just another game, but he could not keep up the ruse. Playing his former team meant too much. 

The Chicago Blackhawks gave up on Kempny last February. He was traded to the Capitals after months in and out of the lineup. He wondered if his time in the NHL was coming to an end. Maybe it’d be better to just go back to the Czech Republic.

Good thing he didn’t. Kempny found a home in Washington and quickly became a top-four defenseman who helped stabilize the blueline and help the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup. The disappointment upon leaving Chicago was behind him. That didn’t make Wednesday’s game against the Blackhawks any less weird.  

“It feels really nice. I have to say it wasn’t an easy game for me to play,” Kempny said. “I know a lot of guys from Chicago. I spent almost two seasons there. But big win for me and our team.”

Kempny made sure of that. He scored a goal at 9:28 of the second period – his first of the season – and that proved to be the game winner in a 4-2 victory against Chicago. It wasn’t quite as big as Kempny’s last goal, which came in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 4 against the Vegas Golden Knights, but it meant something nonetheless. 

“It’s huge. After every practice I see him shooting pucks,” teammate and fellow Czech Republic native Jakub Vrana said. “He works on his shot and today it went through for him. Helps his confidence. I bet it feels pretty good.”

Kempny became the second Caps player in two games to score against his former team. At Bell Centre in Montreal on Monday, Lars Eller was being booed by the fans who used to cheer him there. He promptly scored the game-winning goal in overtime to stick it to them. Eller always loves playing the Canadiens, where he never felt he was given a chance. Kempny was more conflicted. Joel Quenneville, Chicago’s coach when he was there and a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Blackhawks, was fired on Nov. 6. It wasn’t quite as personal. But like Eller he has landed in a good spot. 

“It always adds a little bit of extra fire to guys,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “I thought [Kempny] was skating well. Great to see him get rewarded with a goal there and I thought he had a strong game. Made some good plays at the end, some good blocks, and his skating was a factor, which is always important. I thought he did a good job of breaking pucks out, but he was ramped up for it for sure and then he settled into it and had a real strong game.”

Kempny almost added a second goal with a chance in the slot in the third period at 9:40. He had a tip on goalie Corey Crawford in the second period. It’s all part of the Capitals asking more of their defensemen given a brief lull in their five-on-five play and without key forwards T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who are out with upper-body injuries. 

After the game, Kempny caught up with his former teammates. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews approached in the hallway outside the Chicago locker room and other former teammates stopped by to say hello. 

“I don’t know. It feels a little bit weird,” Kempny said. “The first period I was really excited from the game. After the first I was trying a little bit to settle down and keep playing my game and help my team to win.”

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Five reasons Capitals beat Blackhawks 4-2

Five reasons Capitals beat Blackhawks 4-2

The Capitals returned home from a long four-game road trip and showed no ill affects in Wednesday’s 4-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks. 

Here are five reasons the Caps won: 

Tom Wilson’s goal 54 seconds into the game. 

The Capitals (11-7-3, 25 points) were without the big man for 16 games due to an NHL suspension. His first game back was supposed to be Wednesday against the Blackhawks, until an arbitrator reduced that to 16 games last week. He’s making up for lost time. Wilson scored 54 seconds into the game, driving the net while Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom played tic-tac-toe. He even creamed Chicago goalie Corey Crawford in the process, but the puck was already in the net and there was no penalty like Wilson’s first goal back against Minnesota on Nov. 13, when he scored AND got a penalty for goalie interference. Wilson continues to do the little things well and he now has six points (two goals, four assists) in five games.  

Braden’s back

Braden Holtby hadn’t started a game since Nov. 11 thanks to an upper-body injury. He did come on in relief Monday against Montreal and stopped the final 22 shots of the game to help the Capitals rally for a 5-4 win. Holtby’s been playing well for a while now, though – even with that three-game interruption on the last road trip. He stopped the first 18 Chicago shots, 37 of 39 and dating to a Nov. 7 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins he has saved 152 of 160 shots for a .950 save percentage. 

Former Friends

Asked on Wednesday morning if there was any extra juice playing the Chicago Blackhawks, his former team, Michal Kempny just smiled and said no. He couldn’t completely keep up the facade, though. Kempny admitted things just didn’t work out for him with the Blackhawks last year when he was limited to 31 games well into February. By the end of the season, after a trade to Washington, he was playing a top-four role on a Stanley Cup champion. So you know his goal at 9:28 of the second period had extra meaning. He felt like the Blackhawks gave up on him. 

Kempny’s slap shot beat goalie Corey Crawford and made it 3-0 Washington. It was his first goal of the season. It was the second game in a row a Caps player got his former team. Lars Eller was being booed by the crowd in overtime against Montreal on Monday and ended the game moments later with a goal.   

Caps PK

The penalty kill is still a work-in-progress and there isn’t anywhere to go but up when you enter a game ranked 28thin the NHL (70.3 percent). Take it step by step. Washington killed three Chicago power plays. And while the Blackhawks are scuffling with the man advantage at 9-for-64 (14.1 percent) entering the game, they still have the skill and talent to make teams pay if they spend too much time in the penalty box. But the Caps held Chicago to just three shots on goal on the PK. 

Secondary scorers

Andre Burakovsky scored his second goal in 12 games. The Caps need more of that from him given the absence of T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov to upper-body injuries. Burakovsky finished a pretty spinning backhand pass from teammate Jakub Vrana at 6:36 of the first period to put Washington up 2-0 early. 

It can’t always be Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson or Nicklas Backstrom with the current injuries. The Capitals got secondary scoring from Kempny and Devante Smith-Pelly, too. That was big. Stick tap to Vrana, by the way. He had the primary assist on Burakovsky and Kempny’s goals. Burakovsky and Vrana took advantage of some late power-play time with the second unit. Washington’s power play is now 20 for 67 (29.9 percent).

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