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Who will drop the gloves for the Caps this season?

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Who will drop the gloves for the Caps this season?

For many fans, fighting is one of the major aspects of the game of hockey. Only in the NHL can two players actually square off and wail on each other. It's what sets the sport apart from all the others. 

While there may be some who believe that the day of the hockey fight has come and gone, so long as it remains a part of the game, teams have to have players willing to drop the gloves. For the Caps in the past two seasons, that player has been Tom Wilson.

According to hockeyfights.com, the Caps have had 67 fights in the past two regular seasons combined. Wilson has been in 26 of them.

Now the team loses players John Erskine, Tim Gleason and Aaron Volpatti and even Troy Brouwer who dropped the gloves three times last season and brings in two players in Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie who have never had more than one fight in a single NHL season. That could put more pressure on Wilson to protect his teammates.

That is not an ideal situation for him, however.

RELATED: Caps likely to rotate at third line center this season

Though Wilson has primarily been used as a tough guy, bottom-six enforcer in his first two full NHL seasons, let's not forget that he was a first-round draft pick in 2012, selected before notable players such as Tomas Hertl and Teuvo Teravainen and just five spots behind Filip Forsberg. Teams do not take enforcers in the first round. Yes, George McPhee was the one calling the shots at the time, but Brian MacLellan was the assistant general manager. That doesn't mean he saw in Wilson what McPhee saw, but it's also not as if he simply inherited Wilson either.

The point is that this is a contract year for Wilson and he needs to start showing some of the offensive potential this team saw when they drafted him and it's hard to do that if you're sitting in the penalty box all the time.

"I don’t see him as a fourth-line winger for the Washington Capitals," head coach Barry Trotz said in May. "To me he’s better than that."

But with some of the other team's enforcers on their way out of D.C., who will the Caps turn to when other teams begin agitating?

That responsibility may fall on Michael Latta. Despite limited NHL action the past two seasons, Latta recorded 10 NHL fights. Latta may have some competition to make the roster, however, given how well Stanislav Galiev played last season and the addition of Zach Sill.

Another option is to fight less. The Caps' 31 fights last season tied them for seventh most in the NHL. For those who believe that good teams need to fight, it turns out that's not necessarily true. Playoff teams last season averaged 24.9 fights last season while teams that missed the playoffs averaged 27.2 fights. In fact, Chicago had the second fewest fights in the NHL last season with 15 and it didn't seem to hurt them on their way to their third Stanley Cup in six seasons.

Teams are actually fighting less in general across the league. Last season the NHL saw the lowest rate of fights per game since hockeyfights.com began keeping track in the 2000-01 season.

Whether fighting is actually on its way out in the NHL is a debate for another day, but it would be fair to say that fighting does not seem to be as important as it once was. If the Caps want to drop the gloves as much as they did last season, however, they will need someone other than Wilson will have to answer the bell.

MORE CAPITALS TALK: NHL 16 adds new feature that should excite Caps fans

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5 keys for the Caps to win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final

5 keys for the Caps to win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final

It all comes down to this.

The Eastern Conference Championship is on the line Wednesday as the Capitals take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa. Here are five keys for how the Caps can win and advance to face the Vegas Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup.

Score first

Game 7 is in Tampa Bay, the Lightning are deeper offensively and defensively and have a goalie capable of shutting down an offense.

Oh, and the Lightning are 8-1 when scoring first this postseason.

The Capitals are at their best when they are dictating the play. They want to play physical, trap the blue line and counter against the Lightning. None of those are particularly great strategies for chasing a game.

That makes the first goal critical.

The Lightning fans have seen their team lose twice at home already this series and fail to close out the Caps in Game 6. They have watched their team reach the conference finals two straight years in 2015 and 2016, fail to win the Stanley Cup in either year and fail to even make the playoffs in 2017.

Not only does playing with a lead better suit their game plan, but if Washington scores first that crowd is going to get very uncomfortable very quickly.

Gauge the referees

The Caps were very physical in Game 6 and they found success with that game plan. You would expect them to have a similar approach to Game 7, but they need to be careful.

In Game 6, it was clear the referees had put away the whistles. There were a few questionable plays on both sides that the referees let go. In a Game 7, you would hope the referees take the same approach, but they may not.

Tampa Bay’s power play is very good and the Caps cannot afford to give them many opportunities, but Washington will still want to play a physical style. It’s a fine line to walk so the Caps will need to quickly figure out how strictly the referees are calling the game and adjust accordingly.

Win the goalie matchup

In this series, Andrei Vasilevskiy has had two bad games and four good ones. He lost both of his bad games and won three of his good ones. He did not win the fourth, however, because he was outplayed by Braden Holtby.

Vasilevskiy was great in Game 6, but Holtby matched him save for save as both teams battled to get on the board. When the Caps finally did, Holtby shut the door to make sure the Lightning could not climb back. Vasilevskiy allowed just two goals on 32 shots, but Holtby turned away all 24 of the shots he faced for the shutout.

This is Game 7. There is no Game 8 just because you run into a hot goalie. If Vasilevskiy is on his game again on Wednesday, Holtby will have to be just as good if not better to make sure the Caps win.

Beat the fourth line

Playing at home in Game 6 allowed the Caps to get away somewhat from the Alex Ovechkin vs. fourth line matchup the Lightning have found success with. At 5-on-5, Chris Kunitz played 6:55 against Ovechkin, Ryan Callahan played 6:22 and Cedric Paquette played 6:12, considerably less than the 13:04, 13:46 and 13:42 each respectively logged in Game 5.

With Game 7 in Tampa, Barry Trotz will not be able to get away from that matchup. That means Ovechkin will just have to beat it.

That does necessarily mean he has to score a hat-trick. Ovechkin was one of the team’s top performers in Game 6 despite not logging a point as he helped establish a physical tone that ignited the team. But he has to make sure at the very least that his line is not outscored by the fourth like it was in Game 5 when Paquette and Callahan each scored.

Have a short memory

If you have a bad game in Game 1, you know you can bounce back in the series. A Game 7, however, is winner take all. If there’s a bad bounce, a bad call by the referees, a bad play, a missed save, whatever it may be, the Caps have to be able to put it out of their minds quickly.

There is no room for the “here we go again” mentality on Wednesday. The fate of this season will be determined within 60 minutes. If Holtby is not on his game, the Caps will have to battle through it. If Ovechkin has a bad night, the Caps will have to battle through it. If the referees decide they are going to call everything down to the letter of the law, the Caps will have to battle through it.

If something goes against them, they cannot allow it to bog them down mentally as we have seen at times in Game 7s of the past.

Likewise, if things go well they need to put that out of their heads as well. Desperation will grow among the Lightning as the game goes on. This is not the time to sit on a lead or circle the wagons.

Washington can’t let mistakes or success go to their head until the clock hits 00:00.

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Capitals Faceoff Podcast: A trip to the Stanley Cup Final is on the line

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USA TODAY Sports

Capitals Faceoff Podcast: A trip to the Stanley Cup Final is on the line

The Eastern Conference Final is going the distance!

After losing three straight to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Capitals won Game 6 to force a Game 7 in Tampa Bay. Can the Caps beat the Lightning one more time and advance to the Stanley Cup Final?

JJ Regan, Tarik El-Bashir and special guest cameraman Mike D break it all down.

 

PLEASE NOTE: Due to schedule and time constraints, this podcast was recorded by phone and the audio quality is not up to our usual standards.

Check out their latest episode in the player below or listen on the Capitals Faceoff Podcast page.