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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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Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Friday’s loss to the Florida Panthers was disappointing in a number of ways for the Capitals, but some good may yet come from it with the emergence of the third line.

A poor performance in the opening frame led to Todd Reirden switching up his lines to start the second. No change had a greater effect than the addition of Jakub Vrana to the third line in place of Andre Burakovsky to play with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly.

The move yielded instant results.

Connolly scored his first goal of the season less than two minutes into the period and added an assist. Vrana also recorded a goal and an assist, while Eller had a three-point night with three assists.

“It was just to make something happen,” Eller said, “Not that [Burakovsky] did something wrong, but just to make something happen and it worked. We kept riding the wave from there on and got two in that period. That seemed to work so that was positive.”

Vrana, Eller and Connolly were three players who had been playing well for the Caps, but were just not producing.

Heading into Friday’s game, Vrana and Eller both had only one point apiece on the season. Connolly had four, but three of those points came earlier in the season while he was skating on the team’s top line.

Friday was his first goal of the season.

“It’s good to get a goal,” Connolly said. “Getting some assists and all that and being a factor on some goals, but it’s nice to see one go in. I’ve had a lot of chances to start the year, thought I’ve been playing well. Lot more shots, lot more chances than I had last year and throughout the last two seasons per game. So I feel I’m ahead of the game right now in terms of that.”

Depth scoring has been a major weakness for the Caps so far in the early season. Washington had gotten only two bottom six goals prior to Friday’s game, and both came in the team’s blowout win over Boston in the opener.

They needed a spark to get offense from the bottom six, and they just may have found it on Friday with that third line combination.

Don’t be surprised to see that Vrana-Eller-Connolly trio stick together in Vancouver for the Caps’ next game against the Canucks.

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Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

The Capitals managed to earn a point on Friday in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, but the game felt like a missed opportunity for Washington. After giving up four goals in the first period, seven power plays including two 5-on-3s, and two power play goals, the Caps knew they had no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

“We were still not quite there maybe emotionally,” Lars Eller said.

At least not for the first period. The Caps allowed four goals in the opening 20 minutes to dig themselves into a 4-1 hole. Each goal came from the slot as the Caps had no control over the front of their own net.

“Just tough to start that way, to kind of dig ourselves a big hole,” Brett Connolly said. “Obviously, it’s good to come back and get a point but we don’t need to do that to ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to get back in that game.”

Washington battled back to tie the game at 4, but penalties ultimately derailed their momentum, allowing Florida to retake the lead.

After scoring three straight goals, the Caps took three minor penalties in the final three minutes of the second period.

Alex Ovechkin was called for interference on Aaron Ekblad as he made no attempt to play a loose puck that trickled past the Florida defenseman. He was clearly focused on delivering the hit and nothing else.

Less than a minute later, Eller was caught on the ice a tad early, and Washington was called for too many men.

“I see Backy coming for a change, they had full possession,” Eller said. “I don't see behind my back, I think the guys are telling me he has one skate over so I think it was an unnecessary call, but what am I going to say? It's a tough one.”

With 1:15 of a two-man advantage to work with, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the go-ahead goal late in the period.

Even after a furious comeback, the Caps could not escape the second with the score tied because of the penalties.

Just 43 seconds after Huberdeau’s goal, Washington went right back to 5-on-3. Evgeny Kuznetsov was tossed from a faceoff by the linesman and argued the call, eventually earning himself an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He said something he shouldn't have said to the referee,” Reirden said of the call.

The Caps' penalty problems were exacerbated by the continued problems of the penalty kill.

Heading into Friday's game, Washington was only killing off 72.2 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed another two power play goals Friday as they continued to struggle when facing the extra man.

“We have room for improvement for sure,” Reirden said of his penalty kill. “It’s a new system, new with the way we’re killing, its new personnel. We’re learning. We’re missing a key guy in Tom on that as well. It’s not easy, either, when you’re 5-on-3 when they’ve got talented players that can convert in that spot. It’s definitely a work in progress and I didn't expect it to go smoothly to start with. That’s one of the areas that we knew was gonna be new to our team this year and it’s gonna continue to take some work. It’s something that definitely is a work in progress.”

Mistakes put the Caps down 4-1, they put them down 5-4, they cost them a valuable point against a previously winless Panthers team before a four-game road trip through Canada, and they are ultimately why the defending Stanley Cup champions are only 3-2-2 to start the season.

And they know it.

“We’re still trying to find our game,” Connolly said. “Would we have liked to have picked up where we left off? Yes. But it’s not easy. We played a lot of hockey last year and a short summer and you come in here and there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of that kind of stuff. We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some not so good things.

"I think if you look at last season we weren't very good either at the start. We weren't at our best. Just take the positives and know that we can overcome that. It hasn’t been disastrous. We’re still getting points, we’re still above .500 right now with a tough couple back-to-backs to start the year. So not the worst start, but obviously we have another level.”

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