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Capitals’ suffocating pressure is frustrating Golden Knights

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Of all the ways the Washington Capitals have tried to win in the playoffs, none has been as effective as this.

They pushed the pace with speed and skill when Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were part of the ”Young Guns.” They made every game a coin flip with tight, Dale Hunter hockey. Each time, an early exit followed.

This year is different. Suddenly, the Capitals are a suffocating defensive team that clogs the middle of the ice and makes even the fastest of opponents look slow.

The Vegas Golden Knights are the latest to get frustrated by Washington’s neutral-zone pressure that took a toll on Columbus, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, paving the way for this run to the Stanley Cup Final. After cruising through three rounds with ease, nothing looks easy right now for Vegas because the Capitals have mastered the art of frustration, and are two wins away from hoisting the Cup for the first time.

”Offensive teams have certain tendencies, certain routes that they take through the neutral zone, plays they like to make, so if you can be on top of them and turn over some pucks, stifle them, make it hard for them to gain entry with possession, that frustrates skilled players,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said Sunday. ”If you can be in their face, just standing in the way, it’s amazing what that does.”

It’s amazing the transformation the Capitals have made since coach Barry Trotz challenged players late in the regular season to embrace this approach. It was clear as early as Game 4 of the first round that the 1-1-3 trap in the neutral zone had the ability to essentially shut down the opposing attack, and since the first two playoff games Washington is 10-2 when scoring first.

The Golden Knights have found how difficult it is to try to come back against the Capitals and need to adjust quickly down 2-1 in the Cup Final going into Game 4 Monday night. They have to make some adjustments before it’s too late.

”Our guys who have a lot of speed can go back deeper, gather some speed,” winger David Perron said. ”Then the defensemen can try to freeze the first forechecker, kick it wide. These guys coming with speed, if they’re confronted, which they will be most times at the blue line, you can put it in and go on the forecheck. You can have guys hang close to the right wing or up top, and as the puck is coming your way, win the one-on-one battle with support. … We also have to try to not let them set up, so if there’s a turnover, a quick one, we can punt it up, go back on offense.”

The Penguins and Lightning tried that and couldn’t crack the Capitals well enough to advance.

”They’re really good at slowing you down,” Lightning forward J.T. Miller said during the Eastern Conference final. ”Right when you want to just chip it and go, there’s a guy, there’s a wall there, and guys are ready to go back and get it on the other side. … It’s just their ability to stand up and make you force plays because it looks like there’s more ice than there is, and then all of a sudden they do a good job of staying in front and retrieving pucks.”

Vegas is built on speed, but it’s hard to harness it if players can’t get blue line to blue line with the puck to create any offense. When the Capitals took a lead in Game 3, they went into their now-patented scheme.

”It’s just kind of a group mentality to make life difficult on them,” winger Tom Wilson said. ”I think that’s when we’re at our best as a team is when we’re playing physical, we’re taking away time and space, making it difficult on their top guys.”

That difficulty wears on a team, and Trotz said it’s noticeable when an opponent tries to change its game and manage the puck differently to counterbalance the trap. When it works effectively, not only does it limit changes against, but it creates the kind of odd-man rushes that have paced Washington’s offense this postseason.

”It’s important to recognize moments when you can pressure, and we don’t want to get away from that, where we can send two guys and try to force teams into mistakes,” Niskanen said. ”If you can hold either the red line or the blue line with layers of support, you can force teams into turnovers, and we’ve done a good job of that.”

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• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Rangers begin training camp with goal of making the playoffs

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The New York Rangers have two clear goals this season: to keep improving and return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

The addition of forwards Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko, and defenseman Jacob Trouba this summer helped accelerate the team’s rebuild, and now the Rangers believe they are ready to take the next step in the second year under coach David Quinn.

”We want to make the playoffs,” Quinn said Friday at the team’s practice facility in Greenburgh, New York, ‘Obviously it’s something we want to accomplish. The moves we made over the summer are just a continuation of what we’ve been doing over the last 16, 17 months. Within the walls of our locker room and the walls of this building, we feel good about the direction we’re going in and we’re going to continue to get better daily.”

The Rangers went into rebuilding mode by dealing some veterans at the trade deadline in 2018 and continued it at last season’s deadline. There were a lot of ups and downs in the first full season of the makeover, and they finished 32-36-14. New York had just five wins in its last 21 games (5-10-6) to end up seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division, 20 points out of the last wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Now, the team that began training camp with on-ice testing on Friday has even higher expectations than the one that left for the summer five months earlier.

”I want improvement,” Rangers team president John Davidson told reporters one day earlier: ”Playoffs is a goal for sure, but there’s got to be improvement the right way that you can count on long-term to get gratification out of the season.”

Quinn believes the familiarity the returning players have with his system should help their second training camp together get off to a better start than a year ago. And they should be better prepared for their coach’s physical demands.

”They certainly have done everything we’ve asked them to do away from the rink,” Quinn said. ”They look in better shape, they’re a little bit older, a little bit more mature. We just want to continue to build on the progress they made last year.”

Signing Panarin in free agency was a big boost. The 27-year-old had 28 goals and 59 assists last season while helping Columbus get the last wild card in the Eastern Conference and then beat Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay to advance to the second round. He brings career totals of 116 goals and 204 assists in 322 games over four seasons with Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks.

Kakko was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s NHL draft, and Trouba was acquired in a trade with Winnipeg and then signed as a restricted free-agent.

Davidson, who rejoined the organization in May after stepping down as the president of the Columbus Blue Jackets, knows Panarin well.

”He’s competitive, really competitive,” Davidson said. ”The big spots in games, he likes to find a way. … He’s’ a guy that’s going to show up for work every day and you don’t have to worry about him.

”He’s very strong, strong on the puck, strong in loose-puck battles.”

Some other things to know as the Rangers head into their first practice sessions on Saturday:

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Henrik Lundqvist back for his 15th season after going 18-23-10, with career-worst of a 3.07 goals-against average and a .907 save-percentage. It also marked the first time he had fewer than 24 wins.

Alexandar Georgiev is coming off a solid season as the backup, going 14-13-4 with a 2.91 GAA. The 23-year-old could be challenged for the No. 2 spot by Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft, who has come over from the KHL.

Davidson and Quinn both said they don’t have a target for games in mind for Lundqvist, but don’t want to overuse him.

”We want him to have a great season so that when we do make the playoffs he’s in a position where he’s fresh,” Quinn said.

LINE COMBINATIONS: Quinn said he plans on starting camp with Pavel Buchnevich joining the first line with Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. Filip Chytil will get a look at centering the second line with Chris Kreider on the left wing and possibly Kakko or fellow rookie Vitali Kravtsov on the other side.

Lias Andersson and Brett Howden will get chances in the middle on subsequent lines. Ryan Strome is likely to start out on a wing, but could also see some time at center.

O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN: The Rangers haven’t had a captain since trading Ryan McDonagh at the deadline in 2018, and there doesn’t appear to be a standout favorite to fill that role.

”I think we’d like to have a captain but that’s something that’s going to evolve,” Quinn said. ”We’re in a situation where it’s going to happen and the captain will pick himself in a lot of ways.”

Wild signs Jared Spurgeon to 7-year, $53 million extension

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One of Bill Guerin’s first big moves as general manager of the Minnesota Wild was to make sure one of his team’s top defenders will remain with the team for quite a long time.

The team announced on Saturday that it has signed veteran defender Jared Spurgeon to a seven-year, $53 million extension. The contract, which begins at the start of the 2020-21 season, will run through the end of the 2026-27 season and carry a cap hit of $7.575 million. That salary cap hit is the largest one ever handed out by the Wild, just barely topping the cap hits belonging to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

Spurgeon was set to become an unrestricted free agent this upcoming season and would have almost certainly been one of the top players on the open market. Instead, he remains in Minnesota where he will continue to play for the only team he has ever known.

In the short-term, Spurgeon is worth every penny to the Wild. He may not be a household name among the NHL’s elite defenders, but he is an excellent top-pairing player that excels in both his own end of the ice and offensively. The only potential downside to the deal is that Spurgeon turns 30 in November and will be turning 31 in his first year of the new contract.

That is an expensive investment in a player on the wrong side of 30, something the Wild already have a lot of. With Spurgeon’s contract in place the team now has more than $38 million committed to seven players next season that will be over the age of 30. That number would only increase if they re-sign Mikko Koivu.

How Spurgeon’s career holds up will go a long way toward determining how this works out for the Wild.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blues turn back the clock with alternate jersey

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The St. Louis Blues unveiled their alternate uniform for the 2019-20 season on Saturday, and they are going back to the days of Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Wayne Gretzky, and Chris Pronger.

For three home games this season the Blues will wear their mid-1990s uniforms that feature a diagonal yellow musical staff, some red, and a trumpet on the shoulders.

The Blues will wear these uniforms on Nov. 21 against the Calgary Flames, Feb. 27 against the New York Islanders, and March 31 against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Blues offer a closer look at all of the features of the jersey.

What do you think, Blues fans? Are you happy with this temporary retro look for this season?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Capitals’ Kuznetsov suspended 3 games for ‘inappropriate conduct’

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The NHL announced on Saturday that Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov has been suspended for three regular season games, without pay, for what the league is calling “inappropriate conduct.”

In late August, Kuznetsov was given a four-year ban from the IIHF after testing positive for cocaine at the 2019 World Championships. That ban came just months after a now-deleted social media video surfaced that included Kuznetsov in a hotel room with white powder on a nearby table.

Kuznetsov met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman this week to discuss the failed test. That meeting resulted in the three-game suspension.

The NHL also announced that Kuznetsov informed the league he will not be appealing the suspension.

Kuznetsov released a statement, via the Capitals:

“I have decided to accept the NHL’s suspension today. I am once again sorry that I have disappointed my family, my teammates, and the Capitals organization and fans. I promise to do everything in my power to win you back with my actions both on and off the ice. I also understand that I am fortunate to have an opportunity to make things right. Thanks to the Capitals, NHL, and NHLPA, I have taken many steps in the right direction and I’m confident that I will continue on that path. I am grateful for everyone’s support and I’m looking to move forward from this point. While I can appreciate that people may have additional questions, I will not be commenting further on this matter.”

Kuznetsov will miss games against the St. Louis Blues, New York Islanders, and Carolina Hurricanes.

He will be eligible to make his 2019-20 debut on Oct. 8 against the Dallas Stars.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.