WATCH LIVE: Capitals, Golden Knights on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues as the Washington Capitals host the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday Night Hockey at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The Golden Knights continue their five-game road trip Wednesday without the services of Paul Stastny. The center suffered a lower-body injury Monday in Buffalo and will miss at least the next three games. He’ll be re-evaluated after that, said head coach Gerard Gallant.

Cody Eakin, who’s yet to play this season, will enter the lineup vs. the Capitals.

While the hype around this game will be that it’s a Stanley Cup Final rematch, the Golden Knights aren’t looking into the past.

“One thing is that we have to stop talking about last year,” said forward Jonathan Marchessault. “It’s a new year now. Last year is over. It’s a new team.”

The Capitals, meanwhile, have had an interesting start to their Cup defense, winning their opener 7-0 over the Boston Bruins and then dropping a 7-6 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins the following night. Washington’s franchise record for goals through the first three games of a season is 17, set in 1988-89. The NHL record for most goals through the first three games of a season is 27, set by the Toronto Arenas in the League’s inaugural season of 1917-18; the modern-era record (since 1943-44) is 25, set by the Montreal Canadiens in 1975-76.

As Eakin returns for Vegas, Michal Kempny is expected to make his season debut for the Capitals after suffering a concussion during the preseason. Dmitrij Jaskin is also expected in for Washington after being claimed on waivers from the St. Louis Blues.

What: Vegas Golden Knights at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena, Washington D.C.
When: Wednesday, October 10th, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Golden Knights-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Jonathan Marchessault – William KarlssonReilly Smith
Max PaciorettyErik HaulaTomas Nosek
Ryan Carpenter – Cody Eakin – Oscar Lindberg
William CarrierPierre-Edouard BellemareRyan Reaves

Shea TheodoreDeryk Engelland
Brayden McNabbColin Miller
Jon MerrillNick Holden

Starting goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovBrett Connolly
Jakub VranaNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Andre BurakovskyLars EllerChandler Stephenson
Dmitrij Jaskin – Nic DowdDevante Smith-Pelly

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Capitals humiliate Bruins to begin title defense

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With the way they celebrated, you’d expect the Washington Capitals to suffer an all-time brutal Stanley Cup “hangover.” Instead, they extended the honeymoon with a 7-0 romp of the Boston Bruins to open the 2018-19 season.

That score might have actually been kind to the Bruins, who really had no answer for the Capitals’ speed, skill, and energy.

The defending champions made quite the impression as Todd Reirden debuted as head coach.

[Capitals ready to defend Stanley Cup.]

Washington came storming out of the gate in this one, with T.J. Oshie scoring 24 seconds in, and Evgeny Kuznetsov making it 2-0 less than two minutes into the contest. Tuukka Rask‘s night ended early after allowing five goals, with the lowest point coming during a stretch of three goals allowed on three shots.

You really can’t pin this all on Rask, even if Wednesday night brought back memories of his more embattled moments with Boston last season.

Speaking of bringing back memories, perhaps it was fitting to see Jaroslav Halak replace Rask in net, as Halak authored one of Washington’s most frustrating playoff losses of the Alex Ovechkin era. Halak had little power to deny the Capitals tonight, as Washington dominated virtually every facet of the season-opener.

Plenty of Capitals players came up big on what was already a special, banner-raising night.

[Check out the Stanley Cup banner-raising ceremony.]

Kuznetsov came close to collecting a hat trick, instead settling for two goals. Nicklas Backstrom generated three assists, pushing past the 800-point mark for his career (he’s now at 802). Both Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson enjoyed one-goal, one-assist nights … and each player scored from “Ovechkin’s office.”

The Bruins face the sobering reality that they have a lot of things to clean up, as they can’t simply blame this on a rough night for Rask. On the bright side, they won’t face a Capitals power play that went 4-for-6 every night.

It’s dangerous to put too much weight into any single game of the regular season, as tempted as it might be with hockey back upon us. As it turns out, it’s also dangerous to count out the Capitals as they begin their pursuit of “back-to-back” Stanley Cup titles.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Bruins on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season starts with a doubleheader on Wednesday featuring the Washington Capitals vs. the Boston Bruins at 7:30 p.m and the San Jose Sharks vs. the Anaheim Ducks at 10:30 p.m. ET.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovBrett Connolly
Jakub VranaNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Andre BurakovskyLars EllerChandler Stephenson
Nathan WalkerNic DowdDevante Smith-Pelly

Christian DjoosJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

[WATCH LIVE: 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live stream here]

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciDanton Heinen
Ryan DonatoSean KuralyDavid Backes
Joakim NordstromNoel AcciariChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
John MooreBrandon Carlo
Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Capitals ready for challenge of defending Stanley Cup title

The summer of celebrating is over and on Wednesday night the Washington Capitals will raise a Stanley Cup banner to the Capital One Arena rafters. The distributing of their rings and the pre-game ceremony signifies the turning of the page from the 2017-18 season for the defending champions.

The Capitals’ players know that a slow start can have dire consequences in April and the focus must be on the now and not what happened that June night in Las Vegas. But for Lars Eller, his goal that broke a 3-3 tie in the Cup-clinching Game 5 is a memory he probably won’t stop looking back on this season.

“I don’t have a number,” Eller said earlier this month when asked how many times he’s called the goal up online, “but I’ll keep watching. If I’m in a bad mood I’ll put it on.”

***

As the Capitals go about defending their title this season, they know they have the target on their backs. Every night, teams will want to knock down the champs and they’ll be on the receiving end of opponents’ best games. They feel ready to accept that challenge. T.J. Oshie recalled that when they played against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the seasons after their most recent Cup wins, it was used as a measuring stick game. You want to see how your team, with all of its changes from the previous year (or in Washington’s case, the lack of changes), stack up against the team who had it all go right for them. 

That’s the expectation the Capitals will have for every game this season.

“It’s going to be a different scenario when we walk into the first game,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “At the same time, we have so much to build off of. This gave us confidence. If we can keep that going I think it’s going to be a good year again.”

[How will Golden Knights follow up historic first season?]

When asked during training camp last season, captain Alex Ovechkin stated his goal for the season quite simply: “We’re not gonna be suck this year.” He ended up being quite right. So how do the Capitals follow that up in 2018-19?

“Not suck back-to-back,” Ovechkin said at the start of training camp.

The Capitals’ Cup win also doubled as the removal of a monkey from Ovechkin’s back. Since entering the NHL in 2005, he’s had to watch Sidney Crosby and the Penguins win three titles as his team felt short of expectations numerous times, unable to to even get past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But when Evgeny Kuznetsov backhanded a shot through Matt Murray’s legs in overtime of Game 6, demons were exorcized and the series-clinching goal opened up the opportunity for them to finally get over the hump.

Now the 33-year-old Ovechkin won’t have to worry about ending his magnificent NHL career without a championship.

“It’s gone,” he said. “Right now, we have to think of different questions.”

The question now facing Ovechkin is whether the Capitals can repeat. They have a new coach with former assistant Todd Reirden stepping in for Barry Trotz and a very similar roster to the one that was on the T-Mobile Arena ice in June passing the Cup around. Gone is goaltender Philip Grubauer and forward Jay Beagle and back are key pieces to their championship run in Tom Wilson, John Carlson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Michal Kempny, and Brooks Orpik.

Repeating comes with its own set of challenges. Only three teams since 1990 have been able to win back-to-back Stanley Cups, with the Penguins achieving the feat twice in 1992 and 2017 and the Detroit Red Wings repeating in 1998. Three other defending champions have lost in the Cup Final, while another five fell in the conference final.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Of the 28 champions since 1990, nine have been booted in the first round and three missed the playoffs completely the following season. The dreaded Stanley Cup hangover with a short summer full of celebrating has affected plenty of teams. Having a target on your backs every night and knowing opponents will really get up for your games is another hurdle to overcome. Personnel losses in free agency have made major impacts on repeat opportunities, as well as injuries derailing the quest for another title.

The Capitals will be reminded of last season often in 2018-19. The repeat talk will come up if they’re having another successful year and find themselves back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in April. But that can be a distraction.

The best way to approach it? Take Kuznetsov’s advice.

“That’s history already,” he said. “I already forgot about that. If you keep talking about that, keeping thinking about that, we’re going to be bad. You have to focus. The league gets better every day… We’ve got to get back to that mentality when we get hungry, when we want to win every game.

“It’s not going to be easy. The way we finished last year people are going to expect us to start in the same way, right?”

————

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.

How far can Sharks go with Erik Karlsson?

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At some point, it will feel natural for hockey fans to see Erik Karlsson wearing San Jose Sharks teal. Such a vision may never stop feeling unsettling for their unfortunate opponents.

In November 2005, the Sharks sent shockwaves through the NHL by landing Joe Thornton, who went on to win the Hart Trophy, propel San Jose to years of being Stanley Cup favorites, and make Jonathan Cheechoo rich. Could the Sharks reap similar rewards by acquiring Karlsson in a blockbuster trade? Might things work out even better – with San Jose landing that elusive championship – or far worse, with the blockbuster flopping “Waterworld”-style?

No doubt, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer must be giddy to make the most of a foreboding defense that now includes Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Then again, he’ll look pretty foolish if he can’t cook with such premium ingredients.

Let’s consider the biggest factors working for and against the Sharks as PHT previews the 2018-19 season.

[Predictions, including first coach fired and overrated teams]

The Sharks were already a playoff team

In 2015-16, the Sharks fell two wins shy of finally winning that Stanley Cup. They’ve clinched playoff berths three seasons in a row, only missed once since 2003-04, and only missed twice since 1997-98.

(Easy to forget how much success this team has enjoyed, huh?)

Even with Thornton on the mend from a knee injury that ultimately required surgery, the 2017-18 Sharks managed to sweep the Kings before falling to Vegas during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Fittingly, a splashy trade (landing Evander Kane) propelled San Jose to a higher level.

The Pacific Division arms race may have complicated things at times, but don’t forget that the Sharks have been favorites to win the division even before they bamboozled Ottawa to grab Karlsson.

World-class talent

Karlsson, 28, is a two-time Norris Trophy-winner, and you could make a sound argument that he’s been the best defenseman in the world for more than just two seasons.

The stupendous Swede’s scoring should speak for itself, but as a reminder, he finished sixth in scoring among defensemen (62 points, only six behind leader John Carlson) despite missing 11 games and possibly being banged-up physically. Oh yeah, he managed that deluxe season – poor by his terms, miraculous by most others’ – with the drama-rich, talent-poor Ottawa Senators.

Of course, it’s not just about the scoring with Karlsson.

Even a “down” season places Karlsson among the truly elite. Simply put, Karlsson tilts the ice in his team’s favor when he’s on duty, and he’s been the sort of big-minutes defenseman who can carry a team to, say, overtime of Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Final.

Other All-Star defensemen almost always pale in comparison to Karlsson when it comes to crucial puck possession and transition skills. (Sorry for linking this, Brent Burns.)

[How will Vegas follow its incredible first season?]

Some quibbles with Karlsson, and the Sharks

Granted, there are some caveats when it comes to Karlsson.

The biggest concern, particularly if the Sharks aim for a contract extension, comes down to injury risks.

As you may remember, hockey fans got their first real introduction to Eugene Melnyk’s eccentricities when the Senators owner wanted a crime-scene investigation regarding Matt Cooke tearing Karlsson’s Achilles tendon back in 2013.

Karlsson’s incredible play during the Senators’ deep playoff run became downright jaw-dropping when you consider that he was gutting it out through hairline fractures in his foot. Plenty wondered if Karlsson was hindered by that issue through last season, and who’s fully certain that he’s even at full speed now?

Overall, Karlsson hasn’t always enjoyed the greatest injury luck.

Considering all of the mileage he’s put on his body, you could probably get away with calling Karlsson “an old 28.” He’s easily worth the risk of lingering issues, but it’s a risk nonetheless.

Loaded defense

It’s remarkable that the Sharks’ defense was already in the NHL’s upper crust before adding Karlsson.

Burns is the only defenseman who’s really matched or exceeded Karlsson’s offensive production, so the Sharks boast the most offensively explosive duo of defensemen in recent memory.

After years of lugging around some limited (or downright abysmal) defensive partners in Ottawa, Karlsson figures to play alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic, easily one of the most proficient “shutdown” blueliners in the NHL.

DeBoer could easily mix and match in other ways, as while Vlasic – Karlsson makes sense on paper, he might conclude that Vlasic and Burns could be the better match. After all, the Sharks have other nice defensive options, with Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon standing out.

It’s to the point where the Sharks might need to part ways with a fairly productive depth defensive scorer in Tim Heed, as Elliotte Friedman discussed in the Sept. 27 edition of his “31 Thoughts” podcast.

Finding the right fit

All of that said, DeBoer must figure out a way to align all of these pieces in the right way, and the power play stands as the most fascinating challenge.

According to Left Wing Lock, the Sharks’ current top power play unit features Karlsson, Burns, Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture. It’s easy to picture that set of five players enjoying immense success considering the mixture of handedness (three right, two left shots), hockey IQ, and sheer talent.

This remains a situation to watch, however.

After all, Karlsson and Burns are both right-handed defensemen who are used to calling the shots – and in Burns’ case, taking a ton of shots – while quarterbacking a power play. Talent tends to trump these concerns, but it’s also worth noting that analytics argue that you tend to get more out of an alignment of four forwards and one defenseman than you would from the more traditional three-forward, two-defensemen setup.

There’s also some evidence that, for all of his strengths, Karlsson hasn’t always been dynamite on the power play.

By going with Karlsson and Burns on the top unit, Evander Kane and others settle for secondary opportunities.

As much as anything else, this task may come down to managing egos.

[Karlsson trade part of a dream summer for hockey fans]

Again, there are counterpoints for why this would work, even beyond the obvious notion that San Jose is just loaded with talent. Burns was drafted into the NHL as a forward, so he likely would know what he’s doing if deployed in more of that way on the PP.

It’s also promising at A) DeBoer seems generally to be a bright coach and B) he’s already shown a knack for integrating star players. Burns’ ice time skyrocketed around the time DeBoer took over in San Jose, and the coach deserves a decent chunk of the credit for the Wookie-like defenseman getting the green light to shoot the puck with reckless abandon.

(DeBoer also frequently pushed all the right buttons with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk in New Jersey.)

Old and new

In the grand scheme of things, Karlsson possibly being “an old 28” isn’t a huge worry in 2018-19.

Things could go sideways if Father Time comes knocking with other players, though. Beard or no beard, Thornton is 39 and comes off of knee surgery for the second consecutive year (both knees). Pavelski is somehow 34, and Burns isn’t far behind at 33. Both Vlasic and Braun are 31. Even Couture is 29, nearing the big 3-0, when the aging curve can sometimes be cruelly steep.

Wear and tear can really rear their ugly heads for older players, especially ones who’ve regularly made the playoffs and represented their teams in international competition.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

On the other hand, the Sharks have some decent younger forwards who could conceivably stem some of the tide. Timo Meier generates hype as an up-and-comer, and supplied some steak with that sizzle already considering his 21 goals in limited ice time last season. Kevin Labanc isn’t a superstar in the making, but he’s another guy who can step up if there’s serious decay and/or injuries.

A legit contender

This post breaks down many of the fork-in-the-road concerns for the Sharks, but what’s the general outlook?

Well, Karlsson gives the Sharks the most offensively dynamic defense in the NHL – on paper – and you could make a legitimate argument for San Jose having the flat-out best defense overall. NHL teams rarely get two Norris winners on their rosters, particularly in the salary cap era. (The Ducks landing Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger comes to mind, and even then, Karlsson makes San Jose’s combination younger.)

Combine an elite defense with a robust offense and a reliable goalie in Martin Jones, and the Sharks don’t really have many – if any – glaring holes.

As we saw with the Golden Knights team that dispatched the Sharks in 2017-18, there’s a ton of uncertainty in the NHL. Adding a superstar to an established winner isn’t the slam-dunk for the Sharks as it is for, say, the Golden State Warriors.

We can only speculate about how well Karlsson will mix with San Jose’s impressive group, but with the information at hand, it sure seems like a tide-turner for the Sharks. It might just be enough for them to finally win it all.

PHT’S SEASON PREVIEW:
• Atlantic Division
• Metropolitan Division
• Central Division
Pacific Division
Power Rankings: Who is the NHL’s best team entering 2018-19?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.