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Will Caps again dive headfirst into free agency?

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Will Caps again dive headfirst into free agency?

A little more than a year into his tenure, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is realizing that his job is a treadmill of decision-making.

After a relatively quiet weekend in south Florida, where the Caps drafted a goaltender and three defensemen, matching their lowest-ever intake of draft picks -- MacLellan and his staff are back in Washington huddling over the club’s game plan for NHL free agency, which opens at noon on Wednesday.

“We’ll do some free agent meetings and try to get a better handle on what cost is and what players are going to be available for free agency,” MacLellan said.

“… I anticipate not being active right off the hop. I don’t know if we have the money to be able to do that. We’ll see what goes on the first day. We’ll monitor the market, see where the levels are at financially, and see where we can jump in.”

Barring any quick resolutions, the Caps will go into Wednesday’s free agency without contracts for restricted free agents Braden Holtby, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Stanislav Galiev and Chris Brown.

To retain their rights the Capitals are believed to have met today’s deadline for qualifying offers to each of those RFAs.

Defenseman Patrick Wey, who was also on the Caps’ list of RFAs, has reportedly decided to retire because of multiple concussions, including one suffered in a one-sided fight with Nashville Predators enforcer Rich Clune on March 30, 2014, Wey’s first NHL bout.

With contracts for Holtby, Johansson, Kuznetsov, Galiev and Brown still pending, the Caps have just seven forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders under NHL contracts, leaving them with roughly $20.6 million of cap space to sign five forwards, one defenseman and Holtby.

MacLellan said he’s made a “huge” and “competitive” offer to Holtby, who is expected to carry a cap hit of at least $5 million a year. Johansson, who has arbitration rights, is likely seeking about $4 million a season, while Kuznetsov’s cap hit could fall in the $3 million range.

If those estimates are accurate, MacLellan would have roughly $8.6 million to spend on Galiev, Brown and a free-agent market that will include Anaheim left wing Matt Beleskey [27 years old, 22 goals], Los Angeles right wing Justin Williams [33 years old, 18 goals] and Winnipeg right wing Drew Stafford [29 years old, 18 goals].

Beleskey, whose 22 goals were 13 more than his previous career high, reportedly has attracted interest from a dozen NHL teams and plans on visiting with a few Eastern Conference teams this week.

MacLellan said he was considering bringing one potential UFA to Washington for a visit.

Last year, MacLellan dived headfirst into free agency, signing defensemen Brooks Orpik [five years] and Matt Niskanen [seven years] to a total of more than $67 million.

That won’t happen on Wednesday.

“Last year was different,” he said. “We had specific needs and we were willing to overpay for them and we addressed it. It was a decent free agent market last year. The UFA market had a little more opportunity for teams to grab guys.

“This year is a little tighter. I think it’s a little thinner so it’s going to be more competitive and I think you’re going to have to really overpay to get guys because it’s more competitive this year.”

Asked if the Caps are in a position to overpay, MacLellan said, “No, we’re not.”

With that in mind, MacLellan said he is more likely to address the Caps’ needs through a trade.

“If you’re evaluating both markets, the trade market is the way to go,” he said. “After the draft it becomes less about [trading] picks and more about [trading] players.”

 

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George McPhee's Vegas Golden Knights advance to Stanley Cup Final

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USA TODAY Sports

George McPhee's Vegas Golden Knights advance to Stanley Cup Final

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Ryan Reaves scored the winning goal, Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves and the Vegas Golden Knights pushed their remarkable expansion season into the Stanley Cup Final, beating the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 on Sunday in Game 5 of the Western Conference final.

Alex Tuch also scored for the Knights. They lost Game 1 in Winnipeg before winning four straight to become the first expansion team since the 1968 St. Louis Blues -- when the six initial expansion teams were put alone in the West -- to get to the final.

Vegas will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Washington Capitals in the final. Tampa Bay leads the Eastern Conference final 3-2, with Game 6 set for Monday night in Washington.

Josh Morrissey scored for the Jets, and Connor Hellebuyck made 30 saves.

Reaves, the bruising Winnipeg native acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins before to the trade deadline in February, snapped a 1-1 tie with 6:39 left in the second period when he tipped Luca Sbisa's point shot past Hellebuyck for his first goal of the playoffs.

Winnipeg got a power play early in the third, but couldn't muster much of anything. The Knights smothered much of the Jets' attack for the next 10 minutes, with Hellebuyck having to come up with big stops on William Karlsson and Eric Haula to keep his team within one.

The Jets pressed with under 4 minutes to go, with Fleury stopping captain Blake Wheeler on the doorstep, but it wasn't nearly enough as the Knights closed out their third straight series on the road.

The Jets beat the Knights 4-2 in Game 1, but Vegas snatched home ice with a 3-1 victory in Game 2 before picking up 4-2 and 3-2 wins at T-Mobile Arena.

The Knights, whose jaw-dropping inaugural 109-point campaign included a Pacific Division crown, swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, and knocked out the San Jose Sharks in six games.

The Jets had the NHL's second-best record with 114 points in the regular season. They advanced to the first conference final in city's history with a five-game victory over the Minnesota Wild in the opening round before topping the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in Game 7 on the road.

The usual raucous, white-clad crowd at Bell MTS Place -- not to mention the thousands of fans outside the arena attending a street party on a sun-drenched spring afternoon -- were silenced just 5:11 into Game 5 when Tuch jumped on Morrissey's turnover and fired his sixth past Hellebuyck.

The Jets were tentative to start and it got worse after the opener as Vegas dominated the next couple of shifts, forcing some good saves from Hellebuyck before Winnipeg got its feet moving.

After being outshot 7-1 in the first 7 minutes, the Jets finally pushed back and turned the tide with the next nine attempts on goal, culminating with Morrissey making amends for his early gaffe with 2:46 left in the period.

Bryan Little won a faceoff in the offensive zone straight back to second-year defenseman, who blasted his first career playoff goal past Fleury's glove.

One of Winnipeg's downfalls in the series through four games was an inability to maintain momentum. The Knights scored within 1:28 of a Jets' goal in each of the first four games -- a crushing 12 seconds after Winnipeg tied Game 3, and an equally gut-wrenching 43 seconds after the Jets knotted Game 4 -- but they managed to take the game to the locker rooms tied 1-1.

Both teams had chances in the second period before Reaves made it 2-1, with Jets center Mathieu Perrault just missing on a pass from Little that had too much speed.

Right after Reaves scored the second playoff goal of his career -- and first since 2015 with St. Louis -- Winnipeg's Nikolaj Ehlers rang a shot off the post on Fleury.

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The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

When the starting lines were announced on Saturday, you may have been surprised to hear Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were starting against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan.

Because the game was in Tampa Bay, the Capitals had to give their starters first. That means Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw the Caps’ were starting their top line and decided to put out his fourth.

And it worked.

On Saturday, Paquette scored just 19 seconds into the game and Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period. Ovechkin’s line did not manage a shot on goal for the first two periods of the game. Ovechkin did finally score, but it came late on a six-on-five with Braden Holtby pulled and it was not against the fourth line.

The fourth vs. Ovechkin matchup is something the Lightning began in Game 2. No three forwards have played more against Ovechkin at five on five in any game since Game 2 than Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan. Prior to Game 5, they matched up against Ovechkin around six to seven minutes per game. On Saturday, however, Cooper went all in.

At five on five play, Kunitz was on the ice against Ovechkin for 13:04, Paquette for 13:42 and Callahan for 13:46. The results speak for themselves as that line outscored Ovechkin's 2-0. In fact, for the series Ovechkin has produced six points and only two of them have come at five-on-five play.

A fourth line vs. a top line matchup is a risky move because it takes time away from your top offensive playmakers. You typically see top lines face each other or a first line against a second line because, when you line match you are letting the opposing coach dictate how much your own players play. With a fourth line matchup getting essentially top line minutes, that takes time away from players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

If you look at the five-on-five time on ice for Game 5, Kucherov skated 14:06 and Stamkos 13:37 while Kunitz was on for 14:00, Callahan for 14:45 and Paquette for 14:57.

It is a risky move, but it makes sense for the Lightning. Through four games, the Capitals were the better team five-on-five, but Tampa Bay’s power play was unstoppable. Using the fourth line is a good strategy for Cooper in situations like in Game 3 and Game 4. The Lightning slowed Washington’s five-on-five production and Stamkos and Kucherov still produced enough on the power play even with reduced minutes. It also works for games like the one we saw Saturday.

In a game like Game 5 when your team jumps out to a 3-0 lead, you can afford to roll your lines even if it means giving the fourth line more minutes than the first.

You would think a fourth vs. first matchup would give the Capitals a distinct advantage, but it has not worked out that way. The fourth line has been able to stifle Ovechkin and Co. enough and the Lightning's power play has made up the production lost by the first line's reduced minutes. When the fourth line can score two goals of its own, well, that's just an added bonus.

Ovechkin has to lead his line to a better performance in Game 6. If the Caps’ top line can’t get the better of the Lightning’s fourth, then this series will be over on Monday night.

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