Nicklas Backstrom

No controversy yet as Samsonov gets another start for Capitals

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With long-time starter Braden Holtby set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season (and with the team also needing to re-sign superstar center Nicklas Backstrom) it seems likely that the Washington Capitals’ goal crease will one day belong to prized prospect Ilya Samsonov.

Samsonov has shined in his first two starts this season and will be in net again on Wednesday night when the Capitals host the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This comes after Samsonov entered the Capitals’ most recent game, a 6-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, after Holtby surrendered goals on each of the first three shots he faced.

Given Samsonov’s strong play, combined with Holtby’s early struggles, as well as the fact this is the type of high profile game a team would normally give to its starter, it would be easy start thinking about a goalie controversy in The District. But coach Todd Reirden attempted to throw a bucket of cold water on that talk on Wednesday, talking about this as a “reset” opportunity for Holtby.

“This is the choice we’re making,” said Reirden, when asked what message he has for Holtby at this point. “And this gives you a good chance to reset here. I know Braden is an outstanding goalie and has been for us in the past. Just like any other player, they go through times they can play better than others, and right now as he as alluded to he needs a little reset and he has been able to have that yesterday and today and that will get him ready for his next chance.”

“We’ll evaluate after this game and do what’s right for our team like I did for tonight’s game, what’s right for Braden, what’s right for everybody involved. We’ll evaluate every day. It’s not a goaltending controversy at this point, Braden’s our No. 1 goalie.”

He didn’t seem to mean anything by it, but that “at this point” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.

When he is at his best Holtby has been one of the league’s best goalies with a Vezina Trophy (plus a second place finish in 2017), a Jennings Trophy, and a Stanley Cup ring to his resume. He has also been an outstanding big-game goalie with consistently great postseason performances, including during the team’s 2018 Stanley Cup run. But he also just turned 30 years old and there is no way to avoid the fact that his production has dipped over the past two years. Add in a slow start this season (18 goals against in five games with an .886 save percentage) and an early strong showing from the goalie of the future and it is only natural that some sort of discussion about the No. 1 job would be up for debate.

As long as the two players keep performing the way they have this season, that is unlikely to change. Especially if Samsonov continues to play well on Wednesday night against one of the league’s best offensive teams.

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.

Takeaways from Capitals’ OT win over Blues

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The St. Louis Blues raised their 2019 Stanley Cup banner on Wednesday, but it was the Washington Capitals who ended up raising their hands in victory. The Capitals charged back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Blues 3-2 in OT to begin their season on Wednesday.

Here are a few quick observations from Washington’s 3-2 (OT) win over St. Louis:

Big season for Jakub Vrana?

As usual, the combination of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson provided big problems for the opposition.

The Capitals could be downright scarier if they find other lines that work almost as well, and Wednesday provided some optimism there. Via Natural Stat Trick, the line of Jakub Vrana, T.J. Oshie, and Lars Eller generated a dominant 73.33 Corsi For Percentage in that game. That puck possession translated to success on the scoreboard, as Vrana scored the OT game-winner (assisted by Oshie), while Eller generated two assists.

Ed Olczyk singled out Vrana multiple times during the NBCSN telecast, and it seems like he did so with good reason.

Alex Pietrangelo is going to be rich(er)

Pietrangelo didn’t begin the night as the defenseman on the Blues’ top power play unit — that honor went to Vince Dunn, rather than Justin Faulk or Colton Parayko — but that might be a look St. Louis would be wise to consider. He absolutely walloped the puck on the Blues’ second goal of the night:

Then again, with Ryan O'Reilly joining Pietrangelo on the second unit, maybe the Blues can just spread the wealth?

Alex Ovechkin: still a quick-strike threat

Ovechkin might be someone you can’t leave alone in the slot — or allow access to in the slot — when he’s 50. He remains that way at age 34, as he befuddled Jay Bouwmeester and others on his latest goal:

After the Blues generated a 7-5 shot advantage in the first period, the Capitals managed a 29-15 edge through the rest of the game. They looked like a hungry team, and possibly well-rested after that tough Round 1 loss to the Hurricanes last season.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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: Blues raise Stanley Cup banner before meeting Capitals

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season begins with Wednesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals when the Blues raise their 2019 Stanley Cup banner. Coverage begins at 6:30p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blues will raise their first-ever Stanley Cup banner 364 days after the Capitals did the same thing following their 2018 championship season. The only repeat champion over the past 2 decades is the Penguins, who won in 2016 and ‘17 before losing to Washington in their quest to three-peat.

“They’ve turned the page and moved forward,” said Blues GM Doug Armstrong. “There are still remnants of last year’s success — the ring ceremony opening night, maybe a visit to the White House or the Hall of Fame presentation — there are still moments that are connected to last year’s team. But once the guys walked into the room this training camp, they don’t talk about it.”

Washington enters this season with teo of its key players, Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom, entering the final year of their current contracts. With Alex Ovechkin two years away from free agency himself, and the Capitals tight against the salary cap already, it will be difficult for the team to retain every core piece from its championship group.

“I didn’t think we would be able to get enough money to sign Carlson, and we made it happen,” said Capitals GM Brian McLellan. “I am not ruling anything out. I mean, obviously it will be tough to do, especially if they both have good years. It is going to be hard to do, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Alex Ovechkin enters this season 13th on the all-time goals list with 658. He is 10 away from tying Luc Robitaille for 12th place, but it will take a while to move up beyond that. 30 goals would move him to 11th, 40 goals would move him to eighth, and if he can match his total from last season (51), he would take sole possession of seventh.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Washington Capitals at St. Louis Blues
WHERE: Enterprise Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Capitals-Blues stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Tom Wilson
Jakub VranaLars EllerT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinChandler StephensonRichard Panik
Brendan LeipsicNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Jonas SiegenthalerJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovNick Jensen
Martin Fehervary – Radko Gudas

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

BLUES
Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennVladimir Tarasenko
Sammy BlaisRyan O'ReillyDavid Perron
Robby FabbriTyler BozakRobert Thomas
Ivan BarbashevOskar SundqvistAlex Steen

Alex PietrangeloJustin Faulk
Jay BouwmeesterColton Parayko
Vince DunnRobert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jordan Binnington

Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN with a special 90-minute edition of NHL Live, as host Kathryn Tappen, analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp, and NHL insider Bob McKenzie preview the evening’s doubleheader and the upcoming 2019-20 season. Analyst Jeremy Roenick will be on-site in St. Louis to capture the scene outside Enterprise Center prior to the raising of the Blues’ first-ever Stanley Cup championship banner.

Mike Emrick, who returns for his 15th season as NBC Sports’ lead NHL play-by-play commentator, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Blues from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo.

PHT’s 2019-20 Eastern Conference predictions

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season begins with Wednesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals when the Blues raise their 2019 Stanley Cup banner. Coverage begins at 6:30p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

An historic season ended in a sweep. The Islanders used Barry Trotz’s defensive genius to reach 100 points. Those “Bunch of Jerks” in Carolina became everyone’s darlings. The Maple Leafs once again fell short at the hands of the Bruins. And the Senators, well, in the words of GM Pierre Dorion they were “a team.”

A lot has happened since. Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky went elsewhere in the Eastern Conference. Joel Quenneville is now behind the bench in Florida. Ray Shero and the Devils went all-in to get back into the playoffs, as did their rivals in the Rangers.

The 2019-20 NHL season begins Wednesday night, so let’s take a conference-by-conference look at how we’re feeling about where teams will finish and who will rep the East in the Stanley Cup Final. Playoff teams are outlined in red.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: WESTERN CONFERENCE / STANLEY CUP]

Let us know in the comments how you see both Eastern Conference divisions shaping up.

EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION

SEAN: The one good thing about being swept in Round 1 last season was the fact that the Lightning got plenty of rest this summer. That extra time of thinking about how it all went so horribly wrong should serve them well in 2019-20. Dominating the regular season as they did, Tampa took their foot off the gas in the second half and lost that edge that cost them dearly against the Columbus Blue Jackets. That won’t happen again.

JAMES: The Lightning had a meltdown last year, sure, but this team has shown an aptitude for deep playoff runs during the Stamkos era, and they’re so loaded that I just can’t pick against them. Do I feel good about it considering how foreboding the Atlantic is? Of course not.

JOEY: Tampa Bay has to get over the hump at some point, right? They were swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and I think they’ll learn from that experience. Oh, and they still have a dynamic roster. Brayden Point is signed, they made small additions like Pat Maroon, Kevin Shattenkirk and Curtis McElhinney. This is the year.

ADAM: I think the Washington Capitals have another championship run in them. Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom are in contract years and should be on top of their games, the team is still really good around them, and they had a couple extra months off after their 2018 Stanley Cup run.

PHT’S SEASON PREVIEW:
2019-20 NHL Power Rankings
PHT’s 2019-20 season previews
Which 2019 NHL playoff teams are in danger of missing this season?
• NHL Awards, free agent busts, overhyped teams
Breakout players, bold predictions for 2019-20

Variety of champs shows there’s no one Stanley Cup blueprint

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Had the night of June 12 gone differently, maybe NHL rivals would be looking to the Boston Bruins as the model to follow to win the Stanley Cup.

”We were one game away to change the narrative of how teams should be structured,” Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said.

The Bruins lost Game 7 of the final to the big, heavy St. Louis Blues, who bruised and battered their way to the Cup. In recent years, that might have led teams around the league to bulk up and try to follow the Blues’ lead – but that is unlikely.

The differences in recent champions – from fast and skilled to physical and punishing – illustrate how many different blueprints there are to win a championship in today’s NHL. They also show the importance of tailoring style of play to personnel and perfecting team chemistry.

”There’s so many different ways,” Blues playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Most of the players in the league, you’re not going to change. You change little things and make adjustments, but you’re not going to change the players that they are. So it’s finding your group of players and getting them to play the most effective way.”

Over the past decade, the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins won it all with speed, skill and talent. The Los Angeles Kings, Washington Capitals and Blues had plenty of skill, sure, but also used size to wear down opponents.

In a sport where whoever lifts the Cup tends to swing the pendulum on how to build a winner, it’s become more of a race to see which team can impose its will come playoff time.

”Every year is different,” said Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, who started in two finals and was the backup when Boston won the Cup in 2011. ”The way you build your team, everybody needs to be comfortable with that. You can win many different ways as long as your team’s comfortable playing that style of game.”

The Blues under coach Craig Berube got comfortable playing a defense-first style predicated on taking the body and winning series by attrition. O’Reilly concedes a lot has to go right to play that way.

The 2016 and 2017 Penguins battled attrition and overcame injuries to win the Cup. They weren’t the biggest team by any means but had the ingredients to go toe to toe with anyone when it mattered most.

”Playoffs is a whole different beast, and obviously there’s more hitting,” Chicago winger Alex DeBrincat said. ”Even if you’re a skilled team, you’re going to hit more.”

Jonathan Marchessault, whose Vegas Golden Knights lost to the Capitals in the 2018 final, said it’s important to ”stay true to the identity of your team” – whatever that is. Yet there remains a notion that when the regular season ends and the playoffs begin, the NHL trend toward speed and skill ruling the ice is no longer the case.

”It’s different hockey,” said Anze Kopitar, who won with the Kings in 2012 and 2014. ”In order to get into the playoffs, you’ve got to be fast and skilled and everything. Playoffs is a little bit different. You’ve got to wear teams down, and that’s what it is. It’s not as high-scoring as it is during the regular season. You still obviously have to have some grit and some hard-nosed guys that are willing to do that.”

Players talk about feeling like there’s less room to maneuver in the playoffs, like the surface shrinks and each decision must be made a half-second quicker. That does put a premium on turning up the toughness level.

”Even if the game is going skill and finesse, generally speaking, speed, skill, if you ask anyone around the league, going into a rink where you know it’s going to be a heavy style, there’s an intimidation factor there,” said Tom Wilson, who recorded 15 points, blocked 12 shots and dished out 100 hits during the Capitals’ Cup run. ”That’s why hockey’s great. That’s why it’s a physical sport. When you’re playing a team and you know they’re going to finish their checks, you know they’re going to be heavy on the puck, you know they’re going to battle, that’s important.”

Battling isn’t just about the Kings, Capitals or Blues finishing thundering checks and separating opposing players from the puck. It’s about gutting through injuries, winning races to the puck and dictating the tempo of the game to suit a certain style.

”You always have to stick to what gives you success throughout a regular season,” Krug said. ”We play a certain way where we can match up against any style. If you want to play fast, we’ll do it. You want to play heavy and in your face, we have the players that can do that as well, and we won’t shy away from it.”

The Blues’ blueprint could help a team like Winnipeg lift the Cup. Maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning can take a page from the Penguins’ playbook. Or perhaps the San Jose Sharks win with the depth on defense that earned the Blackhawks three championships in six years.

Based on the variety of champions and the parity of the NHL , which will be the last team standing and how they do it is anyone’s guess.

”The fun part about the year we won and this year is that anyone can win,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. ”Everyone can win, which is great.”