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Caps trade punches with Predators, emerge victorious

The Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators do not play each other very often, which is probably a good thing considering how heated these two teams became during their not-so-cheerful holiday gathering. That said, while it might not have been hugely fun for the combatants, this action-packed event entertained the masses with eight goals and 68 minutes in penalties.

Capital One Arena was rocking throughout the first period, thanks to goals by Lars Elder, John Carlson and Nic Dowd. Unfortunately, the rink was tilted in the opposite direction for the second period, as Nashville battled by tie even the score at 3-3. This grudge match was ultimately decided when Evgeny Kuznetsov craned-kicked Nashville, via a shorthanded tally with less than six minutes to play to break the deadlock. Carl Hagelin added an empty-net goal in the closing moments to prevent any last-minute heroics by the Predators.

Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson all returned to the lineup after missing games recently due to injuries and/or COVID-19. And they weren’t the only new faces in the lineup. The game also marked the debut of rookie defenseman Alex Alexeyev and the triumphant return of defenseman Michal Kempny, who hadn’t played an NHL game since August 2020 because of three different serious injuries to his left leg.

Alexeyev became the 10th rookie to play for Washington this season, which usually means trouble. But the Capitals have been able to not only stay afloat, but remain competitive while still giving the youth movement a chance to see what it takes to play at the highest level. If this game is a sign of things to come for the Caps, and they’re able to avoid serious injuries and the COVID-19 list, then the last 50 games of the regular season could be a wild ride.


In marquee matchup, Capitals defense comes up short

When the Washington Capitals jumped out to an unexpected fast start this season, they did so with above average play from the back half of the lineup — namely the defensemen and goalies.

While Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov received ample love and attention as they accumulated points in rapid fashion, and the handful of rookies playing meaningful minutes every night made for a feel-good story, stout defensive play in Washington’s own zone was a key reason why the Caps held the best record in hockey a month into the season.

Unfortunately, since posted back-to-back shutouts just before Thanksgiving, Washington’s defense has taken a massive step backwards. After falling to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2, the Capitals have now allowed 30 goals in the nine games since Los Angeles and San Jose failed to score in consecutive outings.

Of course, it’s difficult to have consistency and stability defensively when you’re forced to play with a new roster seemingly every time you take to the ice. The Capitals faced Pittsburgh without bottom-six forwards Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, who are in NHL’s COVID-19 protocol. Additionally, forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Anthony Mantha remain sidelined as they recover from injuries.

And yet, no one in hockey will shed a tear for Washington. Peter Laviolette’s men either need to figure out how to limit opponents to under three goals a game or a once-promising season could derail quickly.


Caps done in by two posts and a Flower

You’ve got to give it to them — the Washington Capitals are anything but predictable this season.

Before the campaign even began, most entities based outside of Maryland, D.C. and Virginia took one look at an aging and expensive lineup that has been bounced from the postseason in the first round for three consecutive years and decided that the window for Alex Ovechkin and friends to bring home a second championship had firmly closed.

Additionally, more than a quarter into the season, the Caps have still not had the services of top-line center Nicklas Backstrom, who is still recovering from a hip injury. T.J. Oshie, Anthony Mantha and several other key contributors have also been in and out of the lineup due to various ailments, and yet, Washington entered the week with the NHL’s top record.

When the Chicago Blackhawks came to town, they were not enjoying the same level of success as the Capitals this season, struggling to find consistency this season as they reside in seventh place in their own Central Division. So naturally, just when you expect the Caps to cruise to a resounding win over a wounded opponent, the hockey gods had different plans.

On this night, Chicago bested the Capitals 4-3 via shootout, thanks in large part to the exploits of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and two goal posts. Goals by Nic Dowd, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Garnet Hathaway weren’t enough to prevent Washington from dropping to 0-7 in shootouts this season.


Alex Ovechkin and friends outlast Arizona

For the first 52 minutes of this encounter, nothing worked for the hometown Washington Capitals. Everything they threw at Coyotes rookie Karel Vejmelka was turned away, as the young netminder made spectacular stop after improbable save. 

Considering Arizona didn’t even register a shot on goal during the first 17 minutes of the contest, the game would have been an absolute blowout if not for amazing efforts of Vejmalka. Sure, one team came into the contest without a regulation loss while the other had yet to earn a win, but the 25-year-old’s 30 saves proved he was up to the task.

In the end, the better team won as Washington picked up a 2-0 victory, but it wasn’t the prettiest of showings for the boys in red. 

Alex Ovechkin finished the night with a goal and an assist, giving him 15 points for the season — tied with Connor McDavid for tops in the league. The 36-year-old Russian dynamo notched goal No. 739, bringing him within two of Brett Hull for fourth all time.

While Ovechkin continues to defy logic (and Father Time), this game marked the debut for 2019 second-round pick Brett Leason. In fact, because of injuries to Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Nic Dowd, the Capitals are in the midst of a bit of a youth movement these days.

Leason joined three other rookies in the lineup — Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre and Martin Fehervary — a welcome sight for one of the NHL’s most veteran rosters. Another aspect of the game that will bring joy to the fanbase was the strong showing by goalie Ilya Samsonov earning his fourth career shutout. Samsonov improved to now 3-0-1 this season, with a 2.43 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage.


Kuznetsov, Capitals not interested in your narrative

Before the season even started, the Capitals were already doomed. Saddled with an old and expensive roster and unproven goaltenders, conventional wisdom suggested Washington would likely struggle to secure a playoff spot. 

Similarly, center Evgeny Kuznetsov was deemed an unwelcome distraction, who should have been shipped out of town months ago. Even if he only brought back pennies on the dollar, it was said, moving on from Kuzy was addition by subtraction. 

And yet, it was Kuznetsov – with two goals and an assist – who led the way for Washington in a 6-3 thumping of Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche at Capital One Arena.  

Although the Avs were widely considered a Stanley Cup favorite heading into the season (more narrative!), the Capitals took the lead early on a Kuznetsov breakaway and never looked back. Speaking of highly-paid centers, a hip injury has sidelined Nicklas Backstrom for the start of the season, which enabled rookie Connor McMichael to make his season debut. It was the 20-year-old’s second NHL game and he looked completely at home playing with a veteran-laden Caps squad. 

Elsewhere on the ice, Caps goalie Ilya Samsonov made his first start of the season and looked shaky early, allowing two goals on the first seven shots he faced. Thankfully for the home team, he settled down as the game went on and finished with 24 saves. 

Nick Jensen, Anthony Mantha and Nic Dowd each scored their first goal of the season and Alex Ovechkin sealed the win with his 734th goal, an empty-netter from roughly 140 feet away.

Kuznetsov is now tied Ovechkin for the team lead in points with six (two goals, four assists). Ovechkin (four goals, two assists) has a goal in each of the team’s first three games this season. 


Tom Wilson beats up Flyers, who beatdown Caps

Philadelphia prides itself on toughness. So much so, they actually built a statue of fictional boxer Rocky Balboa.

While the “City of Brotherly Love” is busy fawning over make-believe pugilists, Capitals forward Tom Wilson has made a name for himself as a real-life tough guy — kicking ass and taking names (and winning the Stanley Cup, for good measure) during his seven seasons in Washington.

For reasons that will likely forever remain unclear, forward Nate Thompson and defenseman Robert Hagg each thought it was a good idea to drop the gloves against Wilson on this night. Harkening back to the days of Mike Tyson in his prime, Wilson dropped both would-be challengers with relative ease.

Unfortunately, the rest of the roster was unable to rise to the occasion in similar fashion, and the Capitals fell to the Flyers, 5-2.


Caps Fans Are Still Basking in Last Season’s Stanley Cup Victory

For 44 years, the Washington Capitals were consistently good enough to get their fans hopes up. As soon as those fans let their guard down, the team promptly self-destructed in the most soul-crushing way imaginable.

Losing a quadruple-overtime playoff game—on Easter Sunday? Check. Being eliminated, time and time again by the Pittsburgh Penguins, their most hated rivals, rubbing ample amounts of salt in the wounds? Yep. Winning the President’s Trophy as the league’s best regular season team, just to blow a 3-1 series lead to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens? Even the most cynical sports fans had a tough time bouncing back from that one.

Those postseason failures definitely affected the way many longtime Caps fans supported their favorite hockey franchise. At the slightest sign of adversity, panic inevitably started to set in. After decades of mental anguish, it was clear that Capitals fans had become conditioned to expect the worst. And, I’ll admit, I was part of the problem. If the Capitals were on the verge of being bounced from the postseason, I no longer wanted to be in the building. Rather than subjecting myself to yet another sad Metro ride home, I opted for the safety and security of my basement, where I could hunker down for the team’s annual collapse.

But a magical thing happened along the way—my 7-year-old son began regularly watching Caps games with me and, just like when I was his age, fell in love with the boys in red. While players like Scott StevensAl Iafrate, and Olaf Kölzig drew me in all those years ago, my son watches Alex Ovechkin “unleash the fury” on the power play, Nicklas Bäckström deliver the perfect puck through traffic, and Braden Holtby stand on his proverbial head to will his team to victory. And he can’t get enough of it. He hasn’t been around long enough to know what the Capitals have and haven’t done over the last four decades. He’s seen them win more games than they’ve lost, and that’s good enough for him.

When the postseason rolls around, my son is convinced that this is their year. And if it isn’t, there’s always next year. Watching games with him has changed the way I support the franchise. I’m far less likely to fixate on a bad call or an ill-advised penalty and much more likely to cherish the victories, big and small.

And then the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup. Charlie Brown finally kicked the football. The dog finally caught the car. The hockey franchise that was always its own worst enemy suddenly achieved true greatness.

Months later, it still seems unfathomable.

For the players, everything is pretty straightforward. Each of them got to spend a day with the cup, snag a ridiculous championship ring (retail cost: $12,018), and then watch as the team raised the championship banner to the rafters at Capital One Arena. Minutes later, the puck dropped on a new season. Their attention could no longer be focused on the past.

“I think that the time that I spent with the Cup, sharing my happiness with my teammates, with all the fans, all the people who I know, it was something special and you just want to do it over and over again because when you taste it, you don’t wanna let it go,” Ovechkin recently told reporters at a luncheon. “Last year nobody was expecting us to win but we won and right now everybody is gonna play against us hard. But the motivation, it’s like you just want to repeat it and do it over and over because the days spent with the Cup is something that we’ll never forget.”

To read the full column, head over to the City Paper’s website.

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