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Sanford held off the scoresheet, but shows potential in return from Hershey

Sanford held off the scoresheet, but shows potential in return from Hershey

After recording only one point in his first 19 games in the NHL, Zach Sanford's mission in his return to the Capitals seemed relatively simple: Generate points. He was unable to do that on Saturday in Washington's 2-1 loss to Montreal, but he did show flashes of what Barry Trotz hoped he could bring to the lineup in his return from the AHL.

“I think the trip down to Hershey was helpful for me," Sanford said following Saturday's loss. "With my skills and just the little plays, I think coming back tonight I felt pretty good.”

Sanford scored four goals and three assists in six games with the Bears, showing an offensive flair that was absent in his first tour with the Capitals. But his return came against a tough Montreal team that smothered the Caps’ offense on Saturday.

The Canadiens held Washington to only 21 shots on goal, far too easy a workload for Carey Price, arguably the best goalie in the NHL.

Skating on the third line with Lars Eller and Jakub Vrana, Sanford did not record a shot on goal.

RELATED: CAPS' WIN STREAK CLIPPED BY CANADIENS IN NARROW LOSS

After the game, Sanford said generating shots on goal was “a big focus for me” and that getting shots through the defense was one of the biggest challenges of the NHL as compared to the AHL. That was evident Saturday as all three of Sanford’s shot attempts on the night were blocked.

Sanford also noted the speed of the game in the NHL.

“You get a lot less time here when you get the puck. [In the AHL] you might be able to take an extra stride or move the puck just a little bit more, but here it's bang-bang. You've got to get it off quick.”

But while the scoring opportunities weren’t there Saturday for Sanford, they were there for Vrana who seemed to have an instant chemistry with the fellow rookie on the third line.

“I think it could be a good thing,” Sanford said. “[Vrana’s] a shooter first and I'm kind of a passer first and I think we both play with speed and he's a really skilled player. I think if we keep working together I think it'll work out nicely.”

Head coach Barry Trotz offered a lukewarm review of Sanford's night, calling his performance “fine.".

“I looked at his game and I can't say he wowed me or anything and I can't say that he did anything poorly. But that was our team a little bit, they were just not quick enough tonight.”

For a rookie straight out of college looking for an offensive spark in his return to the NHL, playing against Price and the Canadiens was perhaps too tall a task. But while his performance didn’t generate any points on Saturday, it did leave enough for him to build on going forward andk, for a rookie who was in need of a confidence boost, that’s what’s most important for him at this point.

Sanford’s lack of production through the first 19 games was negatively affecting his play. That was not the case on Saturday.

Now with budding chemistry between him and Vrana and a greater appreciation for the speed with which he needs to work with at the NHL level, Sanford showed Saturday that the offensive potential is there.

Now he just needs to keep his confidence up until the points come.

“It's tough to lose, but personally I felt pretty good and my legs felt good,” Sanford said. “I was making some plays with the puck. Obviously there's a couple plays I'd like to have back, but overall I thought it went pretty well.”

MORE CAPITALS: BEAGLE: NHL TEAMS ARE CUTTING OFF PUCK CYCLING

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Stanley Cup Playoffs Power Rankings: Are the stars aligning for another Capitals Cup run?

Stanley Cup Playoffs Power Rankings: Are the stars aligning for another Capitals Cup run?

Let’s get one thing straight: There are no easy roads to a Stanley Cup. Capitals fans know that better than most after seeing their team dominate the regular season just to get upset in the first or second round of the playoffs for several years. Having said that, seeing Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Calgary and Winnipeg all lose in the first round, it seems like things are setting up very nicely for Washington.

The Caps should have one thing and one thing only on their minds on Monday and that is the Carolina Hurricanes. Washington still needs one more win to advance and they should not catch themselves looking ahead to possible future matchups.

But we can look ahead.

The top seeds in both conferences have been eliminated in the first round for the first time. Long-time nemesis Pittsburgh is out. Either Boston or Toronto will soon be joining them plus there is a possibility that both Nashville and San Jose could still lose as well.

This is not meant to discount any of the teams the Caps could still play. Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders swept the Penguins and earned a spot in the second round. He has proven his worth as a coach and his team is going to be incredibly tough for anyone to score on, let alone beat. The Columbus Blue Jackets jumped out to a 2-0 series lead on Washington last season and got better this year as they showed Tampa Bay with a four-game sweep. Whoever comes out of the West no doubt will be a great team as well.

But if you were to draw up the best-case scenario for the Caps through the first round, having Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Calgary and Winnipeg all lose would likely be part of that scenario.

The Cup is truly up for grabs. This is true every year in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it is especially true this year. If the Hurricanes find a way to win Game 6 and shock the Caps in Game 7, we are going to look back at this season as a missed opportunity considering the number of contenders ousted in the first round.

SEE THIS WEEK’S STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF POWER RANKINGS HERE

Here are a few recent observations and thoughts on the Caps.

  • The Caps are, at their core, a physical team. That is how they ultimately find success and they went away from that earlier in the series, especially in Games 3 and 4. When they reestablished it in Game 5, they blew the Hurricanes away. Any team can play well for one game. Any team can respond after losing a really good player for one game. The real test is to see how they play in Raleigh where they were beaten so thoroughly and the offense was held to only a single power play goal and zero 5-on-5 production.
  • If you want to know why physical play still matters in today’s NHL, watch Brett Connolly’s Game 5 goal again. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton is in a footrace with Alex Ovechkin to get the puck behind Carolina’s net and he completely gives up on the play. He does not go into the boards and put himself in a position to get checked by Ovechkin. It looked like he thought the play would be called icing, but if you’re not 100-percent sure you need to get to that puck even if it means taking a hit. Hamilton looked like he wanted no part of that which allowed Ovechkin to get the puck and set up a goal.
  • The Caps may finally have settled on defensive pairings. The defense has been a work in progress ever since Michal Kempny’s injury, but Todd Reirden may have finally found three pairs he can stick with. After making his playoff debut in Game 4, Jonas Siegenthaler played on the top defensive pair with John Carlson on Saturday. We have seen Reirden mix and match his defensive pairs throughout games, but things stuck in Game 5 as Siegenthaler and Carlson played 11:19 together at 5-on-5. The most Carlson played with any other defenseman at 5-on-5 during the game was 51 seconds. I asked Reirden afterward if he felt he had found his top defensive pair and he remained non-committal saying he still would mix and match as needed depending on the situation, but the numbers speak for themselves. Siegenthaler is a defensively responsible player, he has not looked rattled at all by the forecheck and, perhaps most importantly, he’s a left-handed shot allowing Carlson to play on his natural right side. I like the look of this pair a lot.
  • Nick Jensen has had a rough series. In fact, it looks like it has been a rough transition from Detroit to Washington since he was acquired. That’s OK. Sometimes players take time to adjust to a new team and a new system, but because of that, it benefits the Caps more to have him play on the third pair than the top, especially if moving him up means playing with Carlson on the left. That’s a lot to ask. With Siegenthaler up top, Jensen moved back down to the third pair on Saturday and it was easily his best game of the series. Pairing him with Brooks Orpik allows Jensen to step more into the offense, an area of the game in which his skills are greatly underrated. Jensen looked good on both ends of the ice in Game 5 and was particularly strong on the penalty kill. He can be a top-four defenseman, but I am not sure he is ready for that type of role in Washington yet. He is a definite asset on the third pair, however, and he showed that on Saturday.

The Caps are one win away from advancing to the second round. Here is where they stand among the other playoff teams in this week’s Stanley Cup Playoffs Power Rankings.

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NHL Playoffs 2019: Capitals at Hurricanes Game 6 How to watch, streaming, TV channel, time

NHL Playoffs 2019: Capitals at Hurricanes Game 6 How to watch, streaming, TV channel, time

After capturing a dominant 6-0 victory over Carolina in a crucial Game 5 Saturday, the Washington Capitals seem to be getting back on track after dropping Games 3 and 4.

Washington now holds a 3-2 series lead and the chance to eliminate the Hurricanes in Game 6 on Monday. However, it'll be difficult to manage as they head back to PNC Arena, where they have yet to capture a victory this postseason.

Here's everything you need to know about Game 6. The puck drops at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

Capitals at Hurricanes Game 6 How to Watch:

What: 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Eastern Conference First Round. Game 6: Washington Capitals vs Carolina Hurricanes
Date: Monday, April 22, 2019
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Location: PNC Arena, Raleigh, North Carolina
TV Channel: NBC Sports Washington (Channel Finder)
How To WatchStream pregame and postgame coverage Game 6 of Capitals vs. Hurricanes on the MyTeams by NBC Sports app or tune into NBC Sports Washington.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network (106.7 The Fan FM)

Don't already have the MyTeams By NBC Sports App? Click to download here and stream the Capitals-Hurricanes live!

Capitals at Hurricanes Game 6 TV Schedule:

NBC Sports Washington Daily TV Listing

NBC Sports Washington TV Schedule:

6:00 PM: Caps Faceoff Live
6:30 PM: Caps Pregame Live
7:00 PM: Capitals vs. Hurricanes
9:30 PM: Caps Postgame Live
10:00 PM: Caps Overtime Live

Capitals at Hurricanes Game 6 Injury Report:

Capitals: Michal Kempny (torn hamstring, out for season), T.J. Oshie (broken clavicle, out)

Hurricanes: Micheal Ferland (upper-body, out), Jordan Martinook (upper-body, out)

Capitals at Hurricanes Game 6 Players to watch: 

Nicklas Backstrom, F, Capitals (5 G, 3 A, 8 P)

With a four-point night Saturday, Backstrom has proven to be an absolute force and hero in this series. He has five goals in five games against Carolina in this round and is expected to be even better with the stakes raised higher Monday.

Jaccob Slavin, D, Hurricanes (0 G, 5 A, 5 P)

The Hurricanes have their backs against the wall, and Slavin is someone who has to step up. He not only is one of their top blueliners, but he has been able to generate scoring chances with five assists in his last four games. Look out for him Monday.

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