Friday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, John Carlson was fantastic. The 2016-17 season has been a bit of a struggle at times for the American defenseman. Carlson scored one goal in his first 31 games. He often foiled the Washington Capitals’ power play early in the year with misplaced passes to Alex Ovechkin or point shots that badly missed the net.
Things seem to be improving, however. Carlson has nine points in his last 10 games. Against Tampa Friday night, Carlson was more aggressive than usual, firing a game-high six shots on net. The two goals he scored in the first period gave the Caps stalwart his second career two-goal game.
Saturday night’s game between the Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals was billed as a sparkling goaltending matchup, featuring Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price for the Habs and Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby for the Caps. Unfortunately for Washington, Price sat idle in his net for large stretches of the game. The Capitals managed just 21 shots on goal in 60 minutes of play, losing 2-1 in regulation.
“We were close enough to get a point, but not good enough to win a hockey game,” head coach Barry Trotz told reporters after the game. The loss ended Washington’s six-game winning streak. The Capitals had scored at least three goals in each of those wins.
On Saturday morning, as the roads piled up with cars driven by Washingtonians befuddled by winter, the Capitals jumbled their roster, calling up Zach Sanford from the AHL.
Sanford started the season with the Caps, playing 19 games. After only registering one point in NHL, he was sent down to the minors at the end of November. In just six games with the Bears, Sanford scored four goals (including his first professional marker) and had three assists, earning his call up back to the Caps.
“It was good for me,” Sanford said of his time in Hershey, which was his first experience in the AHL after signing with Washington out of college. “I thought I went in with a good mindset. I was going to work as hard as I could and not be pissed off about anything. It turned out well for me.”
Friday night, Jakub Vrana scored his first NHL goal after a beautiful setup by Evgeny Kuznetsov. In years past, Alex Ovechkin has pied the rookies during their postgame interviews to both celebrate and keep them humble.
With Ovechkin busy, fellow one-goal-scorer-on-the-season Tom Wilson decided to keep the tradition going, pummeling Vrana in the side of the face with a towel full of Gillette shaving cream.
On Friday night, Matt Niskanen missed his first game since signing with the Capitals in 2014, staying in Washington as his teammates beat the Sabres 4-1 in Buffalo. Two days earlier, he suffered an upper-body injury after being hit by the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron, with Niskanen’s head face-planting into the boards. Bergeron received a two-minute minor penalty.
Niskanen was back on the ice Saturday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, practicing with his teammates for the first time since his injury. He is undergoing the NHL’s concussion protocol to determine if he has a head injury. While cleared for contact in practice, Niskanen is not yet allowed to play.
At the start of Saturday’s session, Niskanen was taking it easy and not participating in rushes, though he later partook in drills with his teammates.
The Washington Capitals have lost three straight games. Their offense has been anemic lately. But one aspect of their game has become infamous this season: the once vaunted power play. After being one of the league’s top units since the Bruce Boudreau days, the squad is ranked 22nd in the NHL this season, converting less than 15 percent of the time. In response, Caps fans have incessantly mocked and or panicked about the man-advantage.
But head coach Barry Trotz has a solution: Jay Beagle. The center, 31, has never scored a regular-season power play goal in his nine year NHL career.
The Washington Capitals have been searching for goals this season. Instead of being powered by a high-flying offense, the Caps’ defense, which allows the fourth-fewest goals against per game, has led them to a 13-6-2 record. On Thursday, Washington will deploy its latest effort to energize their attack when Jakub Vrana, their 20-year-old 2014 first-round pick, takes to the ice against the New York Islanders in his NHL debut.
“I was napping after practice so I got a wake up call,” Vrana told reporters at Kettler Capitals Iceplex Thursday morning, explaining how he learned the news. “I’m very pumped.”
“I missed the call a few times,” Vrana finally admitted with a smirk.
The Washington Capitals were dominated in every facet of the game Saturday night, losing to the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2. The Caps have played three games over the last four nights, but starting goaltender Braden Holtby was not interested in any excuses after the game.
“We were completely embarrassed by a young team,” Holtby said to the media. “I think we need to get to work in practice. Get in better shape. Get working harder. Realize it’s not easy just because we had success last year.”
2016 first-overall pick Auston Matthews turned some heads during his first NHL game this season. The 19-year-old Leafs forward scored four goals – the most ever in a NHL debut.
Ten years earlier, Matthews was present himself for another head-turning hockey moment – this time involving Alex Ovechkin when he was a rookie.
One of the reasons for the Capitals’ success over the last decade is the deep organizational depth they have. Under Ross Mahoney’s lead, the team has consistently drafted well, especially late in drafts. 2014 fifth-round-pick Shane Gersich appears to be another one of those late-round gems.
Last week, the sophomore forward went viral on social media and landed on SportsCenter after scoring a ridiculous spin-o-rama goal against Denver University. Gersich won a National Championship during his freshman season with the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks last year.
The 20-year-old forward currently leads UND in both points (17) and goals (9) in 12 games. Last week, I spoke to Gersich and asked about his sensational goal and how he thought up of the idea. I also asked Gersich about his family’s famous hockey lineage and what former North Dakota players and current Capitals Taylor Chorney and TJ Oshie said in their visit three weeks ago.
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