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Why the Capitals are the toast of the NHL

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Why the Capitals are the toast of the NHL

The Capitals officially hit the halfway mark of their season with Saturday night’s remarkable 4-3 overtime victory over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and what a first half it’s been.

Through 41 games, the Caps (31-7-3, 65 points) have elevated themselves from Stanley Cup contenders to Stanley Cup favorites. And if you listen closely inside the locker room, you’ll see why.

“We’re just trying to build that consistency every day,” said Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who is riding an incredible 19-0-2 streak in his last 21 decisions.

“That comes from not looking at streaks or even standings so much. We’re just trying to take that team we’re playing that night and prepare as best we can for them to get two points. If you get those two points you move on to the next one.

“A lot of guys on this team have won Presidents’ Trophies or Stanley Cups, so I don’t think that aura (of leading the NHL standings) really matters to us anymore. I think we’re just focused on making ourselves the best playoff team possible and give ourselves the best chance come spring.”

There are several reasons Caps fans can feel excited about the second half of the season and here are just a few:

Ovi’s on a mission: With a pair of goals Saturday night, Alex Ovechkin sits one goal away from becoming the fifth-fastest NHL player to record 500 goals. Ovechkin, 30, has 499 goals in 800 games.

Four players have gotten to 500 goals in fewer than 800 games: Wayne Gretzky (575 games, age 25); Mario Lemieux (605 games, age 30); Mike Bossy (647 games, age 28); and Brett Hull (693 games, age 32).

Ovechkin sits in a three-way tie for second-place in the NHL with 24 goals, one behind Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn.

Braden Holt-beast: No one will argue that as well as the Caps have played in front of him, Holtby has been their most valuable player. He leads all NHL goalies in wins (27) and ranks third in goals-against average (1.93) and fourth in save percentage (.932).

To put Holtby’s first half into historical perspective, he is on pace for 54 wins, six more than the NHL record of 48 set by Martin Brodeur in 2006-07.

Team lockdown:  It took a goal by Nicklas Backstrom with 5.7 seconds remaining in regulation to keep the streak alive, but the Capitals are an incredible 22-0-1 when leading after two periods. No one in the NHL is better.

Special special teams: The additions of T.J. Oshie (five power-play goals) and Justin Williams (three) have given the Caps’ power play a boost, forcing teams to play more honest against Ovechkin, who has eight goals on the man-advantage. As a result, the Caps rank second in the NHL on the power play at 25.4 percent.

The Caps are also among the NHL’s best on the penalty kill, where Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, Williams and Oshie have picked up where Jay Beagle left off. The Caps rank sixth on the kill at 86.4 percent.

Goals for/against: In their second year under Barry Trotz the Caps understand time, place and score more than at any time in recent memory. They have outscored opponents 36-27 in first periods, 40-25 in second periods and 48-31 in third periods.

Their goal differential of plus-43 is 10 better than any other team in the NHL. They rank second in the NHL in goals per game (3.17) and tied for second in goals allowed per game (2.15).

Organizational depth: Few NHL teams could survive losing their top defensive pair without taking a hit in the standings. Thanks the emergence of Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, the improved play of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, and the solid performances of Taylor Chorney and anyone the Caps have recalled from Hershey as an injury replacement, the Caps have gone 21-3-3 without Brooks Orpik and 5-1-1 without Orpik and John Carlson.

(According to Caps GM Brian MacLellan, Orpik and Carlson could be back skating at Kettler on Monday or Tuesday).

Fresher legs: Having a 16-point lead on the Rangers and Islanders has allowed the Caps to give Orpik and Carlson extra time to heal, but it’s also impacted the distribution of ice time under Barry Trotz.           

“It gives you some flexibility, no question,” Trotz said. “For example, against the Islanders (Thursday night) we had all our lines going and I think Backy and all them had their lowest ice time of the year.”

Indeed, Backstrom, who averages 19:24 in ice time, saw 17:49 against the Isles. Ovechkin, who averages 20:33, saw 16:36; and Oshie, who averages 19:12, saw 16:54.

“ Yeah, I spread it out a little bit more,” Trotz said. “You’re probably more relaxed at taking someone out or putting someone in, knowing you’re not fighting to get in.

“Last year we were trying to get in for the longest time. There were four teams within four points. We never had any breathing room. This year we have breathing room but the one thing I like about this team is it’s not sitting on anything.

“We don’t even look at our record, honestly. If you went in there last week and asked how many games we won, no one knew. I didn’t even know. We don’t look back. We look forward to the next challenge.”

There are 41 more challenges to go for the Capitals, beginning with what could be an historic night tonight at Verizon Center.

But it’s what the Capitals do after this 82-game season that ultimately will define them.

MORE CAPITALS: Ovechkin kicks off wild Capitals celebration

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Now the Islanders' coach, Barry Trotz explains why he left the Capitals

Now the Islanders' coach, Barry Trotz explains why he left the Capitals

DALLAS — Hours after being named head coach of the New York Islanders on Thursday, Barry Trotz made his first public comments since stepping down in Washington earlier in the week.

And, from the sounds of it, his departure was mostly a business decision.

“Yeah, obviously, I love the D.C. area,” he told reporters on a conference call. “But when it came to the business aspect, from my standpoint, I felt that it wasn’t really sincere [given] what we did together. So I decided that it was better to just move on.”

“I thank the fans,” he added. “I’m glad we could get it done. I said we could get it done in four years, and we did.”

Although the value of his contract with the Islanders has not been publicly disclosed, Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman reported that Trotz is set to earn “at least $4 million” per year—or more than twice what he was earning in Washington.

A source told NBC Sports Washington earlier this week that Trotz, who directed the Caps to their first Stanley Cup two weeks ago, sought $5 million per season for five seasons. The five-year term, that source said, was a non-starter as far as the Caps were concerned, given the relatively short shelf life of NHL coaches and the fact that Trotz had already been in Washington for four seasons.

When it became clear that the sides weren’t going to close the considerable gap between their positions, Trotz offered to step down and the resignation was accepted, making the 55-year-old a free agent.

When “I got the [counteroffer], I guess I knew it was time to go in a different direction,” he said.

In New York, Trotz replaces Doug Weight, who was fired earlier this month along with GM Garth Snow. Lou Lamoriello, a longtime NHL executive, took over for Snow and immediately started a search for a new head coach.

Once Trotz became available, it didn’t take Lamoriello to zero in on the NHL's fifth all-time winningest coach. The two met, exchanged ideas and quickly realized that they had found a good fit in one another. Trotz said he's already reached out to the Islanders' star captain, John Tavares, who could become the biggest prize on the free agent market on July 1. 

And, like that, Trotz now is the coach of a Metropolitan Division foe. The Caps and Isles will face off four times next season, beginning with a Nov. 26meeting in New York.

It’ll be weird, for sure. But professional sports is a business. And all sides involved in the Trotz saga were served a painful reminder of that this week.

Asked if he felt wanted in Washington, Trotz said: “Well, I’ll leave that up to the Caps to answer that. I think, absolutely. We just won a cup together and so I don't think that was an issue. I think it was more principle.”

In the end, Trotz wanted to be compensated like one of the top coaches in the game. And now he will, settling in behind big market coaches such as Toronto’s Mike Babcock ($6.25 million per year), Chicago’s Joel Quenneville ($6 million) and Montreal’s Claude Julien ($5 million).

“It’s good to be wanted,” he said. “It happened really quickly because you go from one emotion of winning the cup to the next emotion of leaving the team that you just won the Cup with, and you have to make some quick decisions. I know the timing of it—end of the season, the draft coming up, free agency [and] all that—there was some urgency on that. Both parties knew that, so we went to work at it and got it done.”

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The NHL salary cap numbers are in, what does it mean for the Caps?

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The NHL salary cap numbers are in, what does it mean for the Caps?

The NHL released the salary cap range for the 2018-19 season on Thursday. That sound you hear is the general managers frantically typing numbers into adding machines to figure out which of their players they can afford and which they are going to have to let walk.

The cap ceiling will rise from last year's $75 million all the way up to $79.5 million with the cap floor set at $58.8 million.

So what does this mean for the Capitals?

Here's a look at the team's pending free agents:

Unrestricted free agents: Jay Beagle, John Carlson, Alex Chiasson, Tyler Graovac, Jakub Jerabek, Michal Kempny, Anthony Peluso, Zach Sill, Wayne Simpson

Restricted free agents: Riley Barber, Madison Bowey, Travis Boyd, Adam Carlson, Philipp Grubauer, Tim McGauley, Liam O'Brien, Devante Smith-Pelly, Tom Wilson

We will not know exactly who will make the roster, so to project how much money the Caps will have to work with, let's assume Nathan Walker makes the team and Shane Gersich goes to the AHL. That will give the Caps a little less than $14.8 million with which to work.

Considering the team will need to use about half of that number if not more to re-sign Carlson, that's not a whole lot to work with.

Is $7 million enough to re-sign Beagle, Kempny, Bowey, Smith-Pelly and Wilson? Probably not and that does not even account for prospects who will try to compete for the NHL roster such as Barber and Boyd.

Here's what the cap ceiling tells us:

  • The team's entire offseason will depend on if the team can re-sign Carlson and for how much.
  • Carlson's cap hit last season was just under $4 million. A $4.5 million increase in the salary cap ceiling doesn't mean much when Carlson is going to get a raise of $3 million or more.
  • Grubauer will almost certainly be traded because he is an asset and because there won't be enough money for the team to commit $1.5 million or more to the backup goalie like they did last season.
  • If Carlson returns, fan favorite Beagle has almost certainly played his last game as a Cap. Everyone wants him back, but he would have to take a severe discount for the Caps to fit him and even then, he would be taking away a roster spot from a young prospect ready to make the jump to the NHL.

Free agency opens July 1.

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