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Back in black, Caps extinguish Flames

Regardless of whether you think an NHL season is a sprint or a marathon, at some point a race is involved. Sadly, the Washington Capitals couldn’t even get lined up without tripping over the starting block and have now spent the first quarter of the season getting lapped by the competition.

Injuries to key players — pretty much everyone not named left wing Alex Ovechkin and/or center Evgeny Kuzetsov — have decimated the Caps, creating a constant shuffling of lines and a complete lack of stability throughout the roster. Unless/until center Nicklas Backstrom, forward Tom Wilson and countless others are able to return to action and produce, it’s difficult to envision this year’s squad flipping some magical switch and going on an extended run.

Those remaining hopeful that better days are on the horizon can take solace in the fact that forward T.J. Oshie returned to the lineup and paid immediate dividends after being sidelined for 11 games due to a lower-body injury. Oshie scored a first-period tally, just his third goal of the season, and added an assist to propel Washington to a 3-0 win over the Calgary Flames. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov rounded out the scoring and goalie Darcy Kuemper stopped all 32 shots he faced to earn his second shutout of the season, as the Caps improved to 9-10-3.

The victory was also noteworthy because it represented the team’s first win in their Reverse Retro jerseys. During a season in which the franchise is celebrating 25 years at Capital One Arena it’s fitting that the Caps are turning back the clock with sweaters inspired by the color scheme of the 90s era team of Olaf Kolzig, Peter Bondra and friends.


Capitals run out of time in overtime loss to Vegas

When a front office constructs a veteran-laden roster, such as the case with the Washington Capitals, they are banking on smart and savvy established players rising to the occasion in key moments to guide their team to victory when it matters most. And make no mistake, Caps coach Peter Laviolette places a premium on experience and consistency when filling out his lineup card on game nights.

The downside to trotting out one of the oldest roster in the NHL is that players closer to the end of their careers than the beginning often times struggle to stay healthy. Case in point: Washington is without the services of Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Carl Hagelin and Connor Brown as they all recover from long-term injuries.

Compounding matters, Washington hosted the Vegas Golden Knights without defenseman John Carlson and forward T.J. Oshie, after losing both to lower-body injuries against Nashville. Vegas arrived with plenty of momentum, riding a four-game winning streak, as well as the best record in the Western Conference. The beleaguered Caps probably wanted nothing more than a nap and a night off, playing the second half of a back-to-back.

And yet, for the briefest of moment, it appeared as the Capitals had stolen a much-needed win as forward Garnet Hathaway lit the lamp at the end of regulation. Sadly, a replay review showed Hathaway’s goal came after time had expired. Vegas scored a goal that actually counted less than a minute into overtime and escaped with a 3-2 win over the Red Rockers.

Backup goalie Charlie Lindgren played well, stopping 28 shots in his home debut for Washington, who drops to 5-4-2 on the season.


Once again, Ovechkin torments former coach Bruce Boudreau

When it’s all said and done, Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin could go down as the greatest goal scorer in the history of the National Hockey League.

As he continues his quest to catch Wayne Gretzky on the all-time scoring list, former Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau loves seeing The Great 8 continue to excel all these years later … except when it’s at the expense of his current club, the Vancouver Canucks.

“If he played against me every day, he’d probably have 110 goals a year,” Boudreau said of Ovechkin last season. “He gets up for it. He marvels me at his age.”

The Canucks came to town for an early-season matchup hoping to see Boudreau earn his 600th career victory and, after 40 minutes of action, it looked like Vancouver would emerge victorious. But the Capitals, led by Ovechkin, responded with four third-period goals en-route to an entertaining 6-4 win.

Ovechkin, who had no goals and just one assist in his first three games, torched the Canucks for two goals and two assists. And much to the dismay of his former coach, the 37-year-old now has 23 points (11 goals and 12 assists) in 13 games against Boudreau-led teams. Additionally, Lars Eller, John Carlson and Dylan Strome all scored their first goal of the season for Washington in the win.One area of concern: forward Connor Brown, who the Caps acquired this offseason in a trade with Ottawa, suffered an apparent lower-body injury and could be sidelined for the foreseeable future.


Panthers rally (again and again), Caps eliminated (again)

The Washington Capitals have been eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. 

The Caps, who held a two-games-to-one series lead over the Florida Panthers, had numerous chances throughout the series, but simply failed to rise to the occasion when given ample opportunities. Washington held a lead in Game 4, 5 and 6, but the President’s Trophy-winning Panthers were able to battle back in all three contests and will now advance to the second round while the Capitals are once again faced with difficult decisions after a hasty exit.

“You have to shut down teams,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s obviously on us. It’s disappointing.”

Priority number one for general manager Brian MacLellan this offseason needs to be upgrading the goaltending situation. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek are both restricted free agents and either could be a solid backup next season. But neither has shown they can be the unquestioned starter for a veteran team in ‘win-now’ mode.

Beyond the netminders, MacLellan has difficult choices to make with the top half of the roster as well. Backstrom clearly wasn’t himself this season as he battled through a hip injury. T.J. Oshie broke his foot early in the season, tried to play through it and ended up dealing with lingering back issues because of it. Alex Ovechkin entered the postseason with a left shoulder injury that caused him to miss the final three games of the regular season. Tom Wilson suffered a significant knee injury in the opening minutes of the playoffs and would not have been cleared to return to action even if Washington had been able to advance to the second round.

Will each of these core players be able to fully recover and remain productive for an aging Capitals team desperate to make one final run at glory? Or is this franchise in dire need of a more radical overhaul if the goal is to do anything more than simply qualify for the postseason at this point?


Caps crush Cats, cruise to convincing win

Considering how the Washington Capitals limped into the postseason — losing five of their final six regular season games — reasonable hockey fans had doubts about the team ability to magically flip a switch come playoff time.

Watching the team’s defensive struggles down the stretch and erratic goaltending all season long made even the most optimistic of individuals admit that this likely wasn’t Washington’s year.

Naturally, the Caps welcomed the President’s Trophy-winning Florida Panthers to town with an emphatic 6-1 victory to take a two-games-to-one series lead in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

During the regular season, the high-flying Panthers scored an impressive 340 goals while allowing just 246 goals against. Through three playoff game though, Florida is having a tougher time generating consistent scoring chances thanks to Washington’s improved play in the neutral zone. By getting back quickly and limiting odd-man rushes, the Caps are doing to the Panthers what stymied Alex Ovechkin and the Young Guns in their early run-and-gun days.

Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov, who sat out the first five periods of the series, started Game 3 and, much like he’s done throughout his 39 starts this season, immediately allowed a soft goal in the opening minutes of this matchup. Fortunately for the home team, the young netminder settled down afterwards and finished the night with 29 saves. With Samsonov having one of his strongest showings in recent history, all four lines in front of him played with a confidence and ease that hasn’t been seen all that often this season. Add in two power play goals and a perfect night for the penalty killing unit and this was the rare home playoff game that didn’t induce a panic attack for Caps fans.


Physical battle with St. Louis leaves Capitals battered, blue

The streaky Washington Capitals were unable to find a veteran goaltender before the NHL trade deadline, but that doesn’t mean they sat idle. General manager Brian MacLellan acquired a pair of forwards — Seattle’s Marcus Johansson and Arizona’s Johan Larsson — to bolster his team’s lineup in preparation for the postseason.

Johansson was back in D.C., where he spent his first seven seasons, in time to play the St. Louis Blues, while Larsson remains sidelined as he recovers from sports hernia surgery. MacLellan’s hope is that these veterans can provide coach Peter Laviolette with stability and consistency that has been lacking due to injuries and uneven play from rookies and younger players.

Unfortunately, Washington was unable to take advantage of Johansson’s first game back in a Capitals’ sweater since 2016 due to shoddy team defense and an overall lack of discipline.

“We gave up way too much in the first period,” Laviolette said after the 5-2 loss. “Too many mental mistakes, too many soft mistakes. Too easy to play against.”

The Caps were outshot 38 to 21, lost 63 percent of their faceoffs and generally looked a step slow on the night, as they dropped their second-straight home game. With 17 games remaining, nights like this are going to need to become few and far between for this season to end in anything other than disappointment.


Vanecek, power play get Caps back on track

When last we checked in on the Washington Capitals, they had boarded the struggle bus and were trying to figure out how a promising start to the 2021-22 campaign went sideways. The situation looked bleak as the Caps went winless at home during the entire month of February, but the return of several of key players from the injured list provided welcome reinforcements as the expansion Seattle Kraken came to town for the first time.

Vitek Vanecek, T.J. Oshie and Anthony Mantha were all in action after missing chunks of the season due to various injuries and ailments, and their presence absolutely made an impact. When Tom Wilson and Dmitry Orlov scored less than a minute apart in the first period, Capital One Arena was rocking. And when Seattle responded with goals late in the first period and in the first minute of the second stanza, the Capitals didn’t panic.

They instead turned to the power play, which has let Washington down for much of the season, to find a way to regain the lead. Power plays goals by Conor Sheary and Alex Ovechkin allowed the home team to once again push ahead and an empty netter by Sheary sealed the 5-2 victory for the red rockers. Vanecek made 29 saves en route to his 12th win of the season.

At the end of January, the Capitals’ power play ranked 30th in the league, converting on just 13.9 percent. In their last 13 games though, Washington has scored 13 goals on the man advantage, converting 30.2 percent of the time. Getting key players like Nicklas Backstrom, Oshie and Mantha back in the lineup has clearly made a different with the special teams unit.

Can these players provide the spark this team has lacked of late or do drastic measures need to take place between now and the trade deadline for this franchise to make another run at Lord Stanley’s most prized possession? Strap in for the ride, folks, because we’re about to find out.

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