Pheonix Copley

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Uncertainty with Kuznetsov threatens to hang over Capitals

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ARLINGTON, Va. — They’re no longer defending Stanley Cup champions, don’t know if one of their best players will be eligible for opening night, are over the salary cap ceiling and face expiring contracts for two franchise cornerstones after the season.

That parade feels like a long time ago.

No bigger question confronts the Washington Capitals at the start of training camp than the uncertain status of center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who tested positive for cocaine at the world championships. Kuznetsov has already been suspended from international play for four years and could face further discipline from the NHL.

”Teammates, from what I’ve gathered, have been supportive,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Thursday. ”Also, I think they’d like to hear from him at some point and he’ll address the team and just talk about his situation. I think that would be an important step for the whole team to move forward.”

Kuznetsov voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program and met with Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday. The team did not make Kuznetsov available to reporters like other players on media day because the NHL has not decided whether to levy further punishment.

League officials are occupied with collective bargaining negotiations but should make a determination on Kuznetsov well before the regular season opens. Washington visits defending champion St. Louis in the season opener Oct. 2.

”He realizes he makes mistake,” captain and fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin said. ”Sometimes the best thing is just support him and be at his side.”

Kuznetsov has plenty of support from teammates but is far from the only unknown for the Capitals this season. They may need to make a move before camp ends to get under the $81.5 million salary cap and still need to work on getting extensions done with center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby.

MacLellan talked to Holtby’s agent a few days ago and plans to meet with Backstrom’s camp soon. Each player can be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

”We’re going to communicate with both players,” MacLellan said. ”Both guys have been a big part of our organization, big part of our success. We’d love to keep both. We’re going to play it out until the end here.”

Holtby said he watched fellow goalie Sergei Bobrovsky‘s situation with Columbus last season in the final year of his contract and wants to make sure everyone is on the same page. Bobrovsky signed a $70 million, seven-year deal with Florida that would seem to set the market for Holtby, who might be hard-pressed to fit under Washington’s cap.

”There’s always that area where you can work with, but at the same time you have a responsibility to the other players in the league, too,” Holtby said. ”When it comes down to something like that, you can figure out what’s best for all sides and go through that kind of thing.”

Holtby backstopped the Capitals to their first title in franchise history, but the presence of top goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov and 2014 second-round pick Vitek Vanecek may make it easier for the team to move on. Samsonov and Vanecek will have the opportunity in camp to compete with Pheonix Copley for the backup job.

Backstrom has no such potential replacement coming. The 31-year-old Swede has been Ovechkin’s running mate for more than a decade and figures to play out the rest of his career in Washington – assuming a deal can be reached.

”We’ve been together since Day 1, and the chemistry that we have on the ice is tremendous,” Ovechkin said. ”I hope he’s going to stay.”

On the ice, the Capitals hope to have defenseman Michal Kempny back for the start of the season after surgery in April to repair a torn left hamstring. Winger T.J. Oshie‘s right shoulder is 100 percent after breaking his collarbone in the playoffs.

Capitals vs. Hurricanes: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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As far as storylines go, Capitals vs. Hurricanes is up there for Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At minimum, no two teams do the epilogue/final scene celebrating with ewoks better than these two teams.

First, you have Washington, the favorites. They didn’t just finally break their playoff curse last year; they also celebrated to the point that you basically need to fill in the blanks with “scene missing” screens.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, basically had an on-ice party after every home win via the “Storm Surge,” to the point that broadcasts would linger in Carolina to find out what they’d cook up (or reel in) next. Eventually, the storm built to the point where they had to eventually shut it down, for some combination of wanting to looking serious and maybe they also ran out of ideas.

Can the hockey of the Capitals and Hurricanes top those things? Tall task, but it will be fun to watch them try.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | USA, SN360, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 3 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | NBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Thursday, April 18, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | SN360, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Capitals @ Hurricanes | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD

FORWARDS

CAPITALS: If you paid attention to last year’s run … or, really, hockey in general, you probably know most of the deal.

Alex Ovechkin is the headliner, and he didn’t disappoint in 2018-19, winning his eight Maurice Richard Trophy with 51 goals. He’s joined by two stellar centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, along with T.J. Oshie and professional disturber Tom Wilson. (Wilson, by the way, justified that fat extension with 22 goals and 40 points despite being limited to 63 games.)

The scary thing is that you can argue this is a deeper group. Jakub Vrana‘s had a nice year, scoring 24 goals and 47 points. Brett Connolly might be the bargain to target in free agency this summer, as he scored 22 goals and 46 points despite averaging just 13:20 TOI per game. Even frequent doghouse resident Andre Burakovsky cannot be disregarded as a former first-rounder (23rd overall in 2013).

As a team, the Capitals are a group that tends to shoot at high percentages, making middling possession stats easy to stomach — and this isn’t a fluke, they’ve been doing this for years. Which brings us to …

HURRICANES: A group that, from forwards to defense, always made “fancy stats” people swoon, yet could never break through to the playoffs. While the Capitals made the most of every shot to a near-extreme, the Hurricanes have been posterchildren for quantity over quality. At least, that’s how it seemed.

Things have really started to come together lately, though.

Nino Niederreiter seemed to tie the Hurricanes’ offense together like The Dude’s rug. In 36 games since being traded to Carolina, Niederreiter generated an impressive 30 points. The Hurricanes boast a mix of guys with numbers impressive enough that they shouldn’t sneak up on people any longer (Sebastian Aho‘s 83 points; Teuvo Teravainen getting 76) along with players whose value shines greatest when you consider their all-around games, such as Jordan Staal. Andrei Svechnikov‘s rise has been impressive as a rookie, too, and he should only become a bigger part of the mix as Rod Brind’Amour gains more trust in him.

Oh yeah, they also have “Mr. Game 7” and “Storm Surge” innovator Justin Williams.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals. The Hurricanes are more potent in this area than many might realize, but the Caps are in the upper tier.

DEFENSE

CAPITALS: John Carlson probably deserves more Norris buzz than he is receiving.

Last season brought some red flags, as he generated 68 points, with his 53 assists nearly matching a previous career-high of 55. Well, he topped all of that in 2018-19, scoring 13 goals and 70 points, the fourth-best total among NHL blueliners. Oh yeah, he also skyrocketed from a possession stats standpoint, so this was a great all-around year.

The rest of the group is less inspiring.

After being an important duo during that magical Stanley Cup run, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen have struggled this season, which is part of the reason the Capitals invested in Nick Jensen at the trade deadline.

All of this makes the loss of Michal Kempny tough to stomach. While the Capitals aren’t outright bad on defense, it could be an area of weakness.

HURRICANES: Carolina lost a similar understatedly-effective defenseman in Calvin de Haan to injury issues, but the difference is that they’re deep enough that they can handle the loss more gracefully.

Despite rarely getting the chance to be a top power play unit’s QB, Dougie Hamilton just keeps scoring, particularly goals. He generated 18 this season, and his 48 goals over the last three seasons ranks second to Brent Burns‘ 57 during that span.

Hamilton tends to be a strong play-driver, too, and he’s far from alone on Carolina’s stacked blueline. Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin can often dominate possession, and the duo of Justin FaulkBrett Pesce was effective this season, too. This group can move the puck up the ice, generally prospers in their own end, and can chip in offensively, too.

ADVANTAGE: Hurricanes. This could be a “coming out party” for one of the league’s better defensive groups. Carlson may be the best single blueliner among both teams, though.

GOALTENDING

CAPITALS: For the second straight season, Braden Holtby‘s stats have been modest — in the regular season.

That concludes about all the negative things I can muster about Holtby, and even his .911 save percentage is passable on a team that scores so proficiently, and doesn’t always win the possession battle. As you hopefully remember, Holtby was fantastic during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run, and he deserved credit for being a postseason beast before that, as his career playoff save percentage of .929 is just bonkers, and 82 high-pressure games count as a healthy sample size, too.

There’s some concern if Holtby gets hurt or melts down, and not just because Pheonix Copley‘s name is spelled Pheonix, but Holtby’s as close to a sure thing as you can get in the unpredictable realm of hockey goaltending.

HURRICANES: Curtis McElhinney‘s quietly built up a resume as a very very good backup over the years, making an argument to rise to the level of a platoon guy.

That’s exactly what’s happened lately, as Petr Mrazek went from a guy whose career was continuing to spiral out of relevance the first few months of this season (.894 save percentage in 23 games before the All-Star Break) to someone who generated a .938 save percentage in his last 17 games.

This unlikely duo has finally shown what Carolina can accomplish with good (or at least competent) goaltending: finally make the playoffs.

At the same time, McElhinney’s been a journeyman and Mrazek was trending in that direction, and a 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs matchup against a team full of sharpshooting scorers could really expose both of them.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals, by a healthy margin.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can the Capitals’ defense hold up?

Carolina’s defense and two-way forwards makes them a potentially tough matchup, and they’ve also been a strong penalty kill team. If these games end up being tight, low-scoring affairs, will Washington’s perceived weaknesses on defense get exposed?

Will Carolina’s goalies fall apart?

It’s fair to wonder if shabby netminding may dry out the “Storm Surge” before the thunder really gets cracking. There just aren’t a lot/any hockey humans who can shoot the puck like Ovechkin can, and the Capitals have other players who can make goalies look bad. Carolina’s goalies are as uncertain as Holtby is seasoned when it comes to postseason play (and playing the role of a No. 1 in general, really).

PREDICTION

Carolina in 6. Look, I know this is an aberrant pick, and most of the details above give me second, third, and 651st thoughts. But the Hurricanes’ playoff-friendly, two-way play make me feel better about going with my gut. Kinda.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
• Predators vs. Stars
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins

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 Lightning on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning head to the nation’s capital to take on the defending champion Capitals in Tampa Bay’s first game since clinching the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy. A reminder, the Capitals beat the Lightning in seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference Final on their way to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title.

Last night, Washington won at New Jersey, 4-1, for its ninth win in the last 11 games (9-2-0). With the victory and the loss by the Islanders, the Caps overtook New York for the top spot in the Metro Division. Tied 1-1 after the first, Washington outscored New Jersey 3-0 in the second period. Four different players scored for the Capitals – Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson – while Alex Ovechkin added one assist to extend his point streak to four games (2G-3A). Ovi now has 1,204 career points. Pheonix Copley stopped 20 of 21 shots for Washington in his sixth straight win. Nicklas Backstrom had one assist to total 50 for the season – his sixth straight 50-assist campaign – no other player has an active streak longer than three.

The Lightning secured the NHL’s best regular-season record in their 73rd game, the second-fewest games to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy since it was introduced in 1985-86. The 1995-96 Red Wings accomplished the feat in 71 games. Tampa Bay also clinched the Presidents’ Trophy before any other team in the Eastern Conference clinched a playoff spot.

Clinching the Presidents’ Trophy wasn’t the only thing that was accomplished Monday. Steven Stamkos scored his 36th goal of the season, bringing his career total to 384 goals. With that goal, Stamkos passed Vincent Lecavalier for most goals in franchise history.

This is the second of three meetings between these two teams this season. The Lightning topped the Caps 6-3 last Saturday in Tampa in a game that saw Alex Killorn record his first career hat trick. They’ll play their third and final meeting on March 30 in Tampa, their third matchup in 15 days.

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

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitals
WHERE: Capital One Arena
WHEN: Wednesday, March 20, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Ondrej Palat – Steven Stamkos – J.T. Miller
Tyler JohnsonBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Alex Killorn – Anthony Cirelli – Mathieu Joseph
Yanni GourdeCedric PaquetteAdam Erne

Victor HedmanMikhail Sergachev
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Braydon CoburnJan Rutta

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars Eller – Brett Connolly
Andre Burakovsky – Nic DowdChandler Stephenson

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

MORE: Nikita Kucherov is a master of deception

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.

————

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.

Capitals prepare for Lightning test with warm-up win against Devils

The Washington Capitals didn’t have to expend a lot of energy on Tuesday night, and that’s a good thing.

Washington will play the second half of a back to back against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday (live on NBCSN), so the New Jersey Devils were the warmup, and Washington made quick work of them in a 4-1 win.

Washington led just 2:52 into the first period before giving up a goal with one second left in the frame. The late adversity didn’t phase the defending Stanley Cup winners, however. Brett Connolly regained the lead 5:57 into the second with his 20th (which stood as the eventual game-winner) and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson scored a 1:12 apart to ice the game with a period to play.

The rest of the game was a cure for insomnia.

Pheonix Copley got the start in this one as the Caps rested Braden Holtby for Wednesday’s big game. Copley made 19 saves for his sixth straight win. He barely looked like he broke a sweat.

With the New York Islanders losing 5-0 to the Boston Bruins, the Capitals moved two points ahead of their Metropolitan Division rivals for first place. The Caps have won nine of their past 11 as they try to win another division title.

Much of the game was centered around Alex Ovechkin and if he’d hit 50 on the night.

He came into the game with 48 career goals and faced a mouthwatering matchup against a poor Devils team. But Ovi was held at bay, collecting just an assist in the game on a nice dish to Wilson.

The Devils have had a rough March thus far.

They’ve won just twice and have been shutout three times as the race for Jack Hughes (or Kaapo Kakko) continues for them. They’re on 63 points, fifth worst in the NHL and entered Tuesday with a 9.5 percent chance of taking down the first pick on April 9’s NHL Draft Lottery.

Kenny Agostino, who scored New Jersey’s lone goal, now has six points in his past six games — in a bright spot in a lot of darkness this season for the Devils.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Matthew Tkachuk gets first hat trick before Keith did

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Three Stars

1. Matthew Tkachuk

Matthew generated his first NHL hat trick at age 21 … and 89 days. His father, Keith Tkachuk, generated his first hat trick at age 21, but at 209 days. Getting to that mark sooner than Keith? That’s impressive stuff.

Tkachuk’s third goal was an empty-netter, but he also had an assist in Calgary’s 6-3 win against Vegas, so that’s an impressive four-point night overall. He now has 29 goals and 67 points in 69 games this season, lining himself up for a substantial second contract.

The Flames were so potent offensively, they deserve at least two of the top three spots. At least since no one else really produced on the same scale on Sunday.

As a bonus, there’s this remarkable photo from Getty Images, with also includes Brady Tkachuk, who’s basically unmistakable:

via Getty Images

2. Michael Frolik

As is often the case with the three stars, your preference likely comes down to what you weigh the heaviest. It seems too boring to just reward the entire “3M Line” with all three stars, really, so we’re going to need to make a distinction here.

Again, Mikael Backlund has a strong case. He scored two goals and one assist, with his helper being a primary assist. All of those points came before Tkachuk’s empty-netter.

One of Frolik’s four assists were on that empty-netter, but … four assists, everyone. That’s quite impressive.

It’s been an up-and-down season for Frolik, as this four-point outburst ended what was a six-game pointless streak. Frolik has been a healthy scratch this season, and has generally struggled to convince Bill Peters that he should maintain the 3M-edness of “The 3M Line.” Nights like Sunday argue that, maybe, Peters should take the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) approach here.

3. Pheonix Copley

No goalie generated a shutout on Sunday, but there were some nice performances nonetheless.

Both Jaroslav Halak and Matt Murray provided strong performances in an exciting Penguins win against the Bruins, with Murray stopping 39 out of 41 shots. It’s tempting to give Murray something of a “weekend achievement” award after he made some astounding stops on Saturday, too.

Yet, Copley gets the slight nod. Copley made 33 out of 34 saves to help the Capitals beat the Jets on Sunday. As sparsely used as Copley is, he’s now on a five-game winning streak.

Highlight of the Night

From the great Sidney Crosby pass to the fantastic goal by Jake Guentzel, the GWG from the Penguins – Bruins game gets the nod:

Factoids:

Scores

FLA 6 – DET 1
WSH 3 – WPG 1
PIT 4 – BOS 2
CGY 6 – VGK 3
LAK 3 – ANA 2

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.