It won’t be pretty, but Capitals can still contend

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Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan admitted that his team is experiencing a championship “hangover” without the benefits of a Stanley Cup, which sounds even worse than a headache without the party.

And, no doubt about it, this last swing for the fences was the mightiest they could muster.

MORE: MacLellan on the championship hangover without the championship

Still, it’s easy to linger on this letdown and forget that sports can be pretty strange. Sometimes a big run happens well after people expect it.

Who, in their right mind, expected Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks to shock LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2011? Hockey has plenty of examples of surprise runs, including the Predators going from the 16th-ranked playoff team to two wins from a title.

No doubt about it, the Capitals will feel the sting in losing Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson, Nate Schmidt, and maybe a little confidence in Barry Trotz.

Even so, the very Pittsburgh Penguins team that torments them can also be a beacon of hope: you don’t need a perfect regular season to win it all.

The Capitals are no longer in a position to run away with the Presidents’ Trophy each year. Instead, they just need to make the best of things like … you know, just about every salary-cap era contender.

An aging core … but not an old core

Look, the most important members of this team no longer qualify as spring chickens. Alex Ovechkin‘s gray hair stands as a reminder of our mortality, really.

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Rather than being a reason for panic, the ages of their most important players emphasize the notion that they need to keep hammering away:

Andre Burakovsky: 22
Evgeny Kuznetsov: 25
John Carlson: 27
Braden Holtby: 27
Nicklas Backstrom: 29
Matt Niskanen: 30
T.J. Oshie: 30
Alex Ovechkin: 31

Sure, some of those important contributors might slip, but that’s still a core group most franchises would envy. They still have an elite goalie, dangerous scorers, two strong centers, an experienced head coach, and some capable defensemen.

Promotions?

One key development might be the rise (or fall?) of Jakub Vrana.

The 21-year-old has enjoyed solid – though not spectacular – success in the AHL, and also got his feet wet at the NHL level. He didn’t go wild for Washington, but with that first-round pedigree (13th pick in 2014) and solid numbers in Hershey, there’s some reason to believe that he could at least be a meaningful contributor.

Vrana could ease the sting of losing one of those key forwards.

In defending keeping Brooks Orpik around, MacLellan points to a similar possibility among Washington’s defensive prospects:

Diving into the bargain bin

Here’s some advice for MacLellan: as painful as times are now, don’t go on vacation just yet. The Capitals should take advantage of a free agent market that is low on stars but potentially high on value.

The Capitals could go with veteran forwards such as Jaromir Jagr,* Thomas Vanek, or Jiri Hudler. All three of those guys aren’t that far removed from success.

They can also take on some interesting “reclamation projects.” Nail Yakupov and Brandon Pirri are just a couple of players who could be this year’s answer to Sam Gagner.

And, yes, the pickings are slimmer on the blueline, but Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles could provide solid depth help.

MacLellan seems aware that these options are out there, at least broadly speaking.


Is this situation perfect? No, not really.

Still, the Capitals have suffered despite seemingly boasting championship rosters on paper. Maybe they can win ugly after all these painful times losing with the prettiest roster?

* – Yes, he had a bad stay in Washington, but that was approximately a billion years ago.

The Buzzer: Kempe, Schwartz record hat tricks; Leafs honor Gord Downie

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Players of the night: Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues / Adrian Kempe, Los Angeles Kings

The Blues forward tallied his third career hat trick during a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Schwartz scored the game’s first two goals before completing his hat trick with a late empty-net goal to stave off a Chicago comeback.

Wednesday’s feat for Schwartz came three years to the day of his first career three-goal game.

Kempe, meanwhile, tallied his first NHL hat trick and finished with four points during LA’s 5-1 rout of the Montreal Canadiens. Two of his three goals were assisted by Mike Cammalleri, who also finished the night with four points.

Highlight of the night:

Eddie Olczyk returned to the NBC broadcast booth as he continues his battle against colon cancer. Olczyk, along with Doc Emrick, called the Blues-Blackhawks game from Scottrade Center Wednesday night.

MISC:

Auston Matthews recorded the 20th multi-point game of his career. He now has six goals and 10 points on the season.

Patrick Marleau became the 18th NHL player to reach the 1,500-game mark.

Jake Allen kept his shutout bid alive with this great stick save on Patrick Kane late:

-The Kings are off their best start in franchise history at 5-0-1. They’ve allowed only 10 goals against through six games.

Jeff Carter left the game in the first period and did not return after tangling with Jeff Petry. Afterward, Kings head coach John Stevens said the forward will miss some time.

-Finally, The Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie passed away from cancer at age 53 on Wednesday. The Maple Leafs paid tribute before their game against the Red Wings.

Factoid of the night:

Scores:

Maple Leafs 6, Red Wings 3

Blues 5, Blackhawks 2

Kings 5, Canadiens 1

Cammalleri, Kempe power Kings over Canadiens

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Adrian Kempe recorded his first career NHL hat trick and Mike Cammalleri added two goals as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-1.

After Paul Byron opened the scoring for Montreal midway through the first period, the Kings responded with five unanswered goals to hand the Habs their sixth straight defeat.

Cammalleri, who inked a one-year deal over the summer to return to the Kings, had a hand in four of LA’s five goals. He started the scoring for the Kings in the first period by celebrating the Dodgers’ playoff run with his own special kind of baseball swing.

Kempe, who finished with four points as well, scored his three goals over a span of 10:50 in the third period to help the Kings to their best start in franchise history (5-0-1).

LA remains the only NHL team yet to lose in regulation this season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Jaden Schwartz’s hat trick leads Blues over Blackhawks

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Jaden Schwartz‘s third career hat trick helped power the St. Louis Blues over the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 in a Central Division clash Wednesday night at Scottrade Center.

Schwartz’s eventful evening began with a goal 4:46 into the first period. It was nearly ended minutes later after a scary crash into the end boards following a scoring chance.

After missing some time, Schwartz returned in the second period and doubled the Blues’ lead with his fourth of a season, thanks to a great outlet pass from Allen.

As the Blues built up a 4-0 lead, the Blackhawks spoiled Allen’s shutout bid with a pair of late power play goals 80 seconds apart. The furious rally was stopped, however, and Schwartz capped off his hat trick with an empty netter to put the game out of reach.

St. Louis dominated the first two periods, outshooting the Blackhawks 26-8 as they built up their 2-0 lead. The Blackhawks’ power play failed them early in the game, missing out on five chances to capitalize with the extra man through 40 minutes.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Canadiens at Kings

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The Montreal Canadiens play their second game of a three-game west coast trip Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Kings.

It hasn’t been the best start for the Habs, who sit tied for last in the Eastern Conference with a 1-4-1 record. They’re winless since an opening night win over the Buffalo Sabres. On the other side of things, the Kings are the only NHL team that has yet to lose in regulation. Their 4-0-1 start puts them a point behind the Vegas Golden Knights, and their game in-hand gives them the opportunity to leap into first place in the Pacific Division with a victory.

You can check out tonight’s game on NBCSN (10:30 p.m. ET) or online via the live stream.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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