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Sunday showdown: Caps, Jackets clash with a lot on the line

Sunday showdown: Caps, Jackets clash with a lot on the line

On Sunday evening, the Caps will face the Blue Jackets in the most important game of the season for both teams.

Washington owns a four-point lead on Columbus in the race for the Metropolitan Division title.

With a win in regulation, Alex Ovechkin and Co. can gain some welcome separation with four games left to play. A Blue Jackets’ triumph in regulation, on the other hand, could make things much more interesting by cutting the Caps’ edge in half. Columbus will also have four games remaining after Sunday’s showdown at Nationwide Arena.

Finishing atop the Metro figures to ensure a more favorable path forward when the playoffs begin later this month.

If the playoffs began Sunday, the Capitals would open the first round on F Street against the Bruins, who are surging but have collected 20 fewer points. Columbus’ path, meanwhile, would begin against Sidney Crosby and the defending champion Penguins. A Blue Jackets-Penguins matchup would also send one of the Eastern Conference’s top three teams home after just one round.

“You should be happy you’re playing big games this time of year,” veteran winger Justin Williams said. “And Columbus is a big one.”

For the Caps, the trip to Columbus also represents a chance to rebound following one of their more disappointing performances of the season, a 6-3 loss to the Coyotes in the desert late Friday night.  

Making that defeat sting even more was the fact that the Caps missed out on a major opportunity. Prior to losing to the NHL’s 29th place team, the Blue Jackets had fallen to the Western Conference-leading Blackhawks in Chicago.

“What’s more disappointing,” winger Daniel Winnik said, “is you do some scoreboard watching and you see [the Blue Jackets] lose to Chicago. So it really would have put us in a better position going into Sunday’s game.”

Coach Barry Trotz added:  “We’ve been working all year to try to get some separation, and we had an opportunity and we let it slip away.”

The Caps took Saturday off as they made their way to Columbus for the fourth leg of a five-game road trip.

So far, Washington is 2-1-0 on the trip, having earned victories in Minnesota (in overtime) and Colorado before losing to the Coyotes. In those three games, the normally stingy Caps have allowed a total of 13 goals.  

Overall, they are 7-1-1 in their last nine games. After Columbus, the schedule wraps up with games at the Maple Leafs, vs. the Rangers, at the Bruins and vs. the Panthers.

The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, are 2-2-2 in their last six contests and are in the midst of an offensive downturn. They’ve scored just nine goals during that six-game span and haven’t registered a power play goal in nine games. Columbus’ season concludes with games at Pittsburgh, vs. Winnipeg, at Philadelphia and at Toronto.

Sunday represents the fifth and final meeting between the Caps and Jackets. Washington is 2-1-1 in the four prior meetings, including a 2-1 shootout win in the teams’ most recent meeting on March 23.

“It’s just a big game,” Winnik said of the pivotal matchup. “Probably the most important one of the year.”  

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Who will the Caps' backup goalie be next season?


Who will the Caps' backup goalie be next season?

Very few teams have the luxury of having a backup goalie they can rely on for an extended period of time while the starter goes through a massive slump. The Capitals had that luxury in 2017-2018 thanks to Philipp Grubauer.

Not every team in the NHL has a dependable starter, let alone backup, so when a backup goalie goes 15-10-3 in a season with a 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage, that is likely to catch the attention of general managers around the league.

The 2018-19 season will likely be a season of transition for the Capitals behind Braden Holtby. General manager Brian MacLellan expressed his willingness Wednesday to possibly trade backup goalie Philipp Grubauer this offseason. With the season he just had, he could potentially yield the Caps a solid return.

But, if Grubauer is indeed moved, that leaves the question of who will play backup for the Capitals this season?

The initial plan appears to be to promote Pheonix Copley from the AHL.

“Yeah, I think he's capable of it,” MacLellan said when asked if he saw Copley as an NHL backup. “Obviously, he's unproven. I think he's done what he could do at the American League level. Got through probably a little bit of a tough patch this year recovering from an injury, but I think he has potential to be that guy, yes.”

Copley, 26, played last season with the Caps’ AHL affiliate Hershey Bears. He had a tough season with a 2.91 GAA and .896 save percentage in 41 games.

As MacLellan alluded, Copley suffered a serious injury at the end of the previous season and it clearly affected his season. The year prior, Copley managed a 2.15 GAA and .931 with Hershey in 16 games. He was considered Washington’s No. 3 goalie this season and was recalled for the playoffs as an emergency backup behind Grubauer.

Copley’s career includes only two NHL games.

There is another internal candidate who some fans may be hoping to see next season. That of course, is 2015 first-round draft pick Ilya Samsonov.

Samsonov, 21, signed an entry-level contract with Washington in May and will make the jump from the KHL to North America next season.

But don’t expect to see Samsonov backing up Holtby to start the NHL season.

Samsonov will be adjusting to the North American game and the smaller North American rink. Because of that, MacLellan believes he will benefit from time in the AHL before making the jump to the NHL.

"I think he needs time in Hershey,” MacLellan said. “We'll start him in Hershey I would anticipate and see how he grows, see how he gets accustomed to the small rink and hopefully get some good coaching, get our guys in that work with him. It'll be up to him. I think he'll adapt fairly quickly given his skill set.”


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Devante Smith-Pelly is hopeful he has found a home with the Capitals

Devante Smith-Pelly is hopeful he has found a home with the Capitals

“I didn't think I'd be here a year ago,” Devante Smith-Pelly told the media Wednesday. “That's for sure.”

In 2017, Devante Smith-Pelly was a member of the New Jersey Devils and thought that’s where he would play the 2017-18 season. Instead, Smith-Pelly was bought out of the final year of his contract, something that he was not prepared for as he only received word of the team’s decision on the same day they made the move.

New Jersey’s loss turned out to be Washington’s gain as the Caps signed Smith-Pelly for one year and he proceeded to score seven goals during the Capitals’ postseason run to the Stanley Cup.

“Obviously, at the start of the year, not knowing exactly where I would be to at the parade on Constitution, it's crazy," Smith-Pelly said. "I haven't really sat down and taken it all in, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. I had an amazing time this year. Obviously, it's the best year of my life.”

Now as a restricted free agent, Smith-Pelly is hoping he has found a home in Washington.

Despite being only 26-years-old, Smith-Pelly has already had somewhat of a journeyman’s career. The Caps are the fifth team in which he has played for.

The issue for much of Smith-Pelly's career has been consistency.

The 2018 playoffs was not his first breakout performance. He scored five goals in just 12 playoff games for the Anaheim Ducks in 2014, but he failed to live up to that level of production again until this year’s postseason with Washington.

“I don't think I needed to prove anything,” Smith-Pelly said. “I knew what I could do, it's just me getting a chance to do it and that's it. I got a chance here and I guess it worked out.”

Expecting him to score seven goals every 24 games in the regular season is likely unrealistic, but the Caps don’t need him to do that. Smith-Pelly developed a role with the Caps being a bottom-six player, a role that he thrived in throughout the season.

“He's become a big part of the team,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “He brings good energy, he's a good teammate, he's well-liked. You could tell the teammates really migrate towards him, they like him and then the crowd also likes him. They're chanting 'DSP' all the time so it's been fun to watch how he's got everybody to embrace him and his personality.”

Given when Smith-Pelly was able to do in the postseason, it is no surprise that the Caps would be interested in keeping him around. But at what cost?

Smith-Pelly was a bargain for Washington last season with a cap hit of only $650,000. He will be due a raise, but with John Carlson expected to get a monster contract, how much will general manager Brian MacLellan be willing to spend on a bottom-six winger like Smith-Pelly?

Despite the phenomenal postseason, Smith-Pelly had only seven goals and 16 points in the entire regular season. When it comes to a new contract, MacLellan will likely want to pay for that player while Smith-Pelly will no doubt look to be paid like the player who scored seven times in 24 playoff games.

As of Wednesday when he spoke with reporters, Smith-Pelly said he had not yet had any talks with the team about a new contract, but also noted that, as a restricted free agent, “there’s no real rush.”

The Caps own Smith-Pelly’s rights which helps their bargaining position. Smith-Pelly, however, is arbitration eligible and his postseason stats will undoubtedly bump his value when viewed by a neutral arbitrator.

But there's a good chance it may not get anywhere close to that point.

“On the ice and off the ice I feel like this is the best situation I've been in,” Smith-Pelly said. “Obviously, never know what's going to happen but I found a place and I want to be back.”