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With a tight race at the top, the Caps have plenty of incentive to finish strong

With a tight race at the top, the Caps have plenty of incentive to finish strong

Last season, the Caps owned a laughable 17-point lead in the Metropolitan Division on this date.

A year later, the Caps’ situation couldn’t be more different.

Barry Trotz and Co. still are in first place as the red-hot Flames come to town. But they share the division perch with the Blue Jackets (100 points apiece), while the Penguins and Rangers lurk just behind with 99 and 93 points, respectively.

And, oh yeah, Washington, Columbus and Pittsburgh are also 1-2-3 in the league standings.

Which leads us to the most discussed topic following Tuesday’s morning skate: Might a tighter race benefit a Caps’ team that coasted to the finish line a year ago simply because it could?

Nicklas Backstrom, for one, anticipates that it will.

“It’s very hard to shut the game on and off however you want,” Backstrom said. “So I think it’s a good opportunity [in] these last 11 games to make sure we play good hockey. We want to be a hard-working team and have all four lines going.”

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Backstrom pointed to the last three games—wins over Minnesota and at Tampa as well as an overtime loss to Nashville—as proof that the Caps have indeed turned things around after scuffling for a bit.  

“I feel like it’s on the way up,” Backstrom said. “Maybe 80, 85-percent. But I think we can play a lot better.”

Another pivotal stretch begins Tuesday against Brian Elliott and the Flames. Calgary has won 12 of its last 13 games and Elliott has won his last 11 starts.

The three-game home stand continues Thursday with a crucial game against Columbus and then wraps up Saturday against lowly Arizona.

The Caps own the second most wins on home ice (28) and considering what’s at stake, this would be a really good time for them to hit their stride. 

In addition to wanting to enter the playoffs on a roll, the Caps would be well-served by finishing first and hosting the eighth seed in the first round. The alternative? Well, it's not so pretty. As things stand now, slipping to second could set up a potential opening-round series against the Blue Jackets or the Penguins.

“You’re aware of it, for sure,” Backstrom said. “It’s going to be a battle to the end, to the last game. We want to keep this first spot [and] make sure we’re playing good hockey these last 11 games.”

Trotz also wants the Caps to finish first, of course. But he was quick to point out that he’s just as interested in seeing his team finish on the upswing.

“Every point right now is critical,” Trotz said. “We did a shootout drill [Monday] because we might need an extra point in the shootout. Going down the stretch we’re going to try to get as many points as we can. If we finish where we want to finish, great. If we finish lower, then that’s going to be the route we have to take. There’s nothing wrong with it; that’s the route we have to take, accept it and go through it.”

As for the importance of sprinting to the line, Trotz said: “You’re more confident. You trust your game more. You know it’s going to get ramped up and you’re closer to the mark than when you’re just easing yourself into it. So I think that will help us prepare for the playoffs, if we put the right focus in all those areas. It’s going to be a great race. It’s going to be a great opportunity for us to get trust back in our game in any areas that we don’t trust it, and get some real, strong emphasis in some areas where we can even be better. It's should be fun”

“Drop the puck,” he added, “let’s go.”

MORE CAPITALS: Winnik calls current playoff format 'the stupidest thing ever'

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Remembering the highlights of each of the Capitals' American players

Remembering the highlights of each of the Capitals' American players

The Capitals have a superstar Russian, an incredible Swedish center, a Canadian netminder, but the team also boasts several American players as well. On the 4th of July when American celebrate the birth of our nation, lets put down the barbecue, apple pie and fireworks for a few minutes to remember some of the top highlights from each of the team's Americans.

Travis Boyd: 4 goals for Hayden

In Feb. 2018, Boyd turned hardship into an inspirational moment. While with the Hershey Bears, Boyd's daughter, Hayden, developed a serious infection and had to go to the hospital. Boyd went with her on a Sunday and did not leave until Friday morning to prepare for that night's game, a game in which he would score four goals.

John Carlson: The golden goal

Carlson has numerous highlights from his career with the Caps, but on Indepence Day it seems only fitting to look back at his biggest goal for his country. Carlson represented Team USA in the 2010 World Junior Championships which was hosted by Canada that year. USA made it all the way to the final where the played the host nation. Tied at 5 through regulation, Carlson scored the golden goal off a 2-on-1 as he caught the goalie leaning anticipating the pass.

Nic Dowd: Historic penalty shot

In Game 5 of the Caps' series against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019, Nic Dowd was slashed by defenseman Dougie Hamilton while he was in alone on goalie Petr Mrazek. Dowd was awarded the first penalty shot of his career and he delivered, dekeing right to open up Mrazek's pads and tucking the puck through the 5-hole. In addition to being his first penalty shot goal, the goal was also Dowd's first-career playoff point.

The goal also had some historic significance for the team as it was Washington's first ever playoff penalty shot goal.

RELATED: 2003 NHL REDRAFT

Garnet Hathaway: Shows his toughness against the Rangers

On Oct. 18, the Caps hosted the New York Rangers and it proved to be an pretty epic night for Hathaway. He was knocked out of the game in the second period with a broken nose after a big hit from Jacob Trouba, came back in the third, drew a cross-check, fought Brendan Smith (again, with a broken nose), the Caps scored on the resulting power play and Hathaway returned to score the empty-netter.

That’s a pretty unbelievable game.

Nick Jensen: Assisting on goal No. 700

Jensen has been with the Capitals for about a year and a half, but he will forever be linked to the team's greatest franchise player thanks to one assist.

Against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 22, Jensen grabbed a loose puck behind the offensive goal line and sent it back behind the net to keep the offensive cycle going. That allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to find Alex Ovechkin who scored career goal No. 700.


T.J. Oshie: T.J. Sochi

Who could forget about Oshie's incredible performance at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi?

Playing against Team Russia, USA leaned heavily on Oshie in the shootout. He would score four times on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky as USA walked away victorious.

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The biggest 'what ifs' for the 2019-20 Capitals' season: What if Vrana had a top power play role all season?

The biggest 'what ifs' for the 2019-20 Capitals' season: What if Vrana had a top power play role all season?

We are looking at some of the biggest “what ifs” for the Capitals for the 2019-20 season.

Today’s what if: What if Jakub Vrana had a top power-play role all season?

Jakub Vrana may be having the best season that no one is talking about. When you are teammates with one of the best goal scorers of all-time and a bonafide superstar, other players tend to get overshadowed. Just ask Nicklas Backstrom.

Vrana scored 24 even-strength goals in the 2019-20 season, tied for 11th in the NHL. It’s only four behind David Pastrnak, three behind Leon Draisaitl, one behind Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, tied with Jack Eichel and more goals than players like Mika Zibanejad (23), Nathan MacKinnon (23), Connor McDavid (23) and Brad Marchand. So why isn’t Vrana viewed as the same caliber offensive player as those others? The answer is the power play.

While Vrana ranks 11th in even-strength goals, he ranks tied for 35th overall with 25 goals. That’s right, he has one single power-play goal this season. The 10 players ahead of him in the even-strength goals list averaged just over 10 power-play goals for the season. An extra 10 goals would have tied Vrana with McDavid for 10th in the NHL.

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Vrana did not start the season on the top player play unit. He was actually only moved there late in the season as Washington’s power play struggled. Relegated to the forgotten and rarely used second unit, Vrana only recently started to see more opportunity on the power play resulting in just one goal which came on Jan. 11.

But what if Vrana had been on the top power-play unit all season? Would he have racked up enough goals to garner national attention?

RELATED: 2003 NHL REDRAFT

Probably not as much as you may think.

First, let’s remember that the power play has been terrible this season. It ranks 17th in the NHL overall, but is actually 24th since Dec. 23. Second, there is not a natural spot where Vrana fits on the top power play. He is a sniper, his best asset is shooting and he is not going to replace the player tasked with taking the one-timer from the far faceoff dot, Alex Ovechkin. Vrana was playing the goal line in place of Evgeny Kuznetsov. Based on how Washington's power play has worked the last few years, this spot is primarily for setting up the slot or bouncing it back to the half-wall. Vrana is a better set-up player than many give him credit, but this role really does not put him in the best position to use his shot. More time on the power play should increase his goal total just as a result of him being on the ice more, but based on how the power play has played and how he is used, it probably would not have boosted his totals into being one of the top 10-15 scorers in the NHL this season.

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