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Devils deliver baptism by fire to new-look Capitals

In a refreshing moment of honesty and self-reflection rarely seen in professional sports, the Washington Capitals shipped away five key veterans from an over-the-hill and underperforming lineup in an attempt to restock and retool on the fly.

After weeks of speculation over whether the Capitals fancied themselves buyers or sellers as the regular season winds down, general manager Brian MacLellan made the difficult decision to part with a number of good guys and fan favorites as Washington was one of the league’s busiest teams at the trade deadline.

The Capitals moved on from defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Erik Gustafsson, as well as forwards Garnet Hathaway, Marcus Johansson and Lars Eller, which essentially killed any of the admittedly diminished hopes of sneaking into the postseason as a wild-card team. Now, the front office will spend the rest of the season evaluating what the roster has, and just as importantly, what the roster lacks.

While MacLellan has his eyes on the future, Washington still has weeks of games remaining on the schedule. Capitals coach Peter Laviolette’s task down the stretch is to keep the locker room focused and motivated. Included in that mix are defenseman 23-year-old Rasmus Sandin, acquired from Toronto, and 33-year-old forward Craig Smith, acquired from Boston. A trio of young blue-liners — Vincent Iorio, Gabriel Carlsson, Alexander Alexeyev — have also been thrust into action thanks to trades and injuries. 

With so many changes, it’s probably a good thing that everyone wears their names on their sweaters. Getting to know a half dozen new teammates and developing chemistry with new linemates won’t happen over night, but that’s okay. Might as well throw all of the kids into live action and see if they’re able to sink or swim. On this night, the Caps lost to the New Jersey Devils via shootout, 3-2. But the hope is that a few of these fresh, new faces will ultimately usher in another era of respectability.


Caps continue to stumble at worst-possible time

With their season on the line and playoffs hopes rapidly fading, the Washington Capitals have gone cold at the worst-possible time. After no-showing the outdoor game, the Capitals returned home and showed many of the troubling signs that have plagued the franchise since the all-star break. 

For the fifth-consecutive game, Washington allowed the first goal and spent the rest of the evening in an uphill battle. And for the fifth-straight game, they were unable to overcome that early deficit and lost in regulation. With the trade deadline just days away, it’s difficult to see the team’s front office realistically viewing the Capitals, in present form, as capable of qualifying for the postseason — let alone being competitive in a seven-game series with the league’s elite.

If that’s the case, then general manager Brian MacLellan could find himself as a seller at the trade deadline for the first time, which could result in many aging veterans, underperforming players and/or pending free agents being shown the door. That could pave the way to center Lars Eller, ring wing Anthony Mantha and any defenseman not named John Carlson leaving town in the next few days, which would radically alter the Caps as presently constructed.

While potentially losing key contributors to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup winning season would be difficult for many, losing five-straight must-win games should open the door to some serious soul searching. And if/when MacLellan reaches the conclusion that this current group of players is no longer good enough to get the job done, he owes it to everyone involved to make the necessary changes.


No Ovechkin, no defense, no chance of victory versus Panthers

In their final tune-up before a highly-anticipated outdoor matchup with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Washington Capitals allowed six different skaters to score in a disappointing 6-3 loss to the Florida Panthers. 

While many individuals in and out of the organization might have been focused on the upcoming spectacle of playing in an outdoor venue for the fourth time in franchise history, the Panthers represented a much more immediate threat — especially with both teams neck-and-neck in the standings as they battle for a spot in the playoffs.

With the win, Florida pulled even with Washington at 62 points, erasing an 11-point deficit since New Year’s Day. While that speaks volumes for the Panthers, it also highlights a worrying trend for the Caps, who continue to struggle with consistency in 2023.

Left wing Alex Ovechkin missed the game after flying home to be with his family as they deal with the passing of his father, Mikhail. In his absence, the Capitals received goals from centers Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dylan Strome.


In heavyweight bout, Capitals drop Penguins

Two cities. Two franchises. Two captains who are among the best to ever play the game. Add it all up and you get plenty of respect but very little love for one another when the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins square off.

And sure, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are closer to the end of their careers than they are the beginning, but that only heightens the drama whenever this game pops up on the schedule. This particular matchup found the Caps and Pens both deadlocked for points as the Metropolitan foes currently hold down both wild card spots in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.

With roughly 30 games left in the regular season every single point matters and these two iconic franchises showed a sense of urgency from the moment the puck dropped at Capital One Arena. There were goals. There were timely saves. There were massive hits and gloves were even dropped. But the one thing the game lacked after regular and again after overtime was a winner. So a shootout was required and, thanks to centers Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington emerged victorious on this night.

On offense, Alex Ovechkin scored his 32nd goal of the season and Marcus Johansson chipped in his 13th tally of the season while Darcy Kuemper stopped 35 shots en route to the 3-2 win. The Capitals now hit the road for two games before taking some much needed time off during the all-star break.


Traffic stymies Washington in Wild affair

The Minnesota Wild are content to zig when many other franchises are zagging. As many teams try load up on smaller, faster skaters during a season that has featured an unexpected, but welcome offensive explosion, the Wild are content to stockpile a roster full of size and bulk.

Minnesota has no interest in engaging in your foot race. They’re lining up massive trees specifically designed to send your sports car crashing into the boards. By willfully slowing down the pace of games and bringing the physicality every night, the Wild are attempting to engage in playoff hockey for an entire season. There are worse ways to take to the ice, even if it might not make for the most aesthetic encounters.

The Washington Capitals have a ways to go before they can focus on the postseason. For now, they’re much more focused on getting their core players back into the rotation after an absurd amount of games lost to injury during the first half of the regular season.

With their focus inward, the Capitals failed to recognize and/or counter the Wild’s straightforward tactic of placing a large gentleman in front of the opposing goalie, thereby limiting his ability to read and react to incoming shots. Minnesota scored three goals in this manner and headed home with a 4-2 win, leaving the Capitals to contemplate how they were done in by traffic in a town that has ample experience with the topic.


With reinforcements incoming, Caps fall prey to Predators

If rumors are to be believed, injured forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson are nearing a return for the Washington Capitals. Neither of which has played in a game this season, with Backstrom undergoing a fairly radical procedure on his hip and Wilson tore his ACL during the opening minutes of Washington’s playoff matchup with the Florida Panthers last season, so getting two proven veterans back in the lineup for the second half of the season would be massive.

In the interim though, there are still games to be played on the schedule and these matchups are vital for fringe players who will inevitably find minutes more difficult to come by when the dynamic duo returns to action. With the Nashville Predators in town, two bottom six forwards made a compelling case that coach Peter Laviolette should keep them in the lineup — as Sonny Milano and Nicolas Aube-Kubel each scored for the Capitals.

Unfortunately for the home team, the other primary storyline on the night was how many times the Capitals allowed the visitors to take the lead. Nashville opened the scoring barely four minutes into the contest on a goal by center Tommy Novak before Milano tied it up midway through the first period with his seventh goal of the season. The Predators regained the lead roughly five minutes later on a goal by center Yakov Trenin, only to see Washington tie it up once again on Aube-Kubel’s second goal of the season.

With less than four minutes to play in regulation though, the Caps’ luck ran out when defenseman Ryan McDonagh scored his first goal of the season.

“It was a tight game,” said Laviolette, of the 3-2 loss. “It was going to come down to who scored a goal in the third period or overtime or the shootout. I felt like it was fairly tight both ways. You had to fight for your ice out there.”

In a slightly different context that last sentence takes on an entirely different meaning. It’ll be interesting to see if guys vying to remain in the lineup receive the message now or are forced to confront it later.


Ovechkin surpasses Howe, turns attention to Gretzky

In their final game before Christmas, the Washington Capitals defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-1 to secure their fourth-consecutive victory and sent Caps fans home feeling an abundance of holiday cheer. Oh, and Alex Ovechkin scored the 801st and 802nd goals of his prolific career — moving him past “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe for the second-most goals in NHL history.

Ovechkin now stands just 92 goals away from tying the “Great One” Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 career goals. A record that was once considered untouchable now seems shockingly within reach for the 37-year-old left wing.

“It’s nice to get it done at home, in front of our house, family, our friends — obviously fans,” said Ovechkin. “It’s a big thing.”

Forward Sonny Milano and center Nic Dowd also scored for Washington, which has now won nine of their last 10 games thanks in large part to The Great 8. Ovechkin opened up the scoring with his 21st goal of the season with roughly 90 seconds left to play in the first period and then found the back of the net once more with exactly 60 seconds left in regulation.

In a moment of absolutely class and a massive sign of respect, the entire Jets bench took to the ice once the game ended to congratulate Ovechkin. It was basically the NHL’s vaunted postseason hand-shake line … but only for Alex. Clearly that isn’t something you see every day, but then again, no one ever thought a modern-day player would assault the goal-scoring list with such precision and malice. Unprecedented times clearly call for unprecedented measures.

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