SteveMasonRobCarrGame2

Photo: Rob Carr

Steve Mason knew the questions were coming. He did not hide from them. For him, the only way out of one of the most embarrassing moments of his life was through it.

“I messed up,” Mason told reporters after a 4-1 loss in Game Two of the first round against the Washington Capitals.

Less than two and a half minutes into the second period, Mason allowed a rolling ground ball to pass through his legs. Mason had made an impressive save a minute earlier, possibly tweaking a muscle, but he denied that played any part in what happened next: a puck deflected by Jason Chimera at the redline that slid into the back of the net with Mason frozen in place.

“It’s my fault and I realize that,” Mason said.

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Photo: Patrick Smith

This season, the Washington Capitals blocked just under 1,000 shots in 82 regular-season games. That averages out to about a dozen a game. In Game One of the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night, the Caps got in the way of 23 shots. The usual suspects of John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner did much of the work. But so did skill players like Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

“Not even pain,” Kuznetsov said when a reporter asked him about a key shot he absorbed. ”I fake it.”

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Photo: Patrick Smith

Wednesday morning, Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner was asked about the defensive pairing of Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov. They were both set to make their NHL playoff debuts in Game One of the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers. He paused halfway through his answer.

“You know, I’m just thinking, laughing in my head about Schmitty,” Alzner said. “He’s always so excited for a regular season game, I can’t imagine what he’s gonna be like for a playoff game. It’ll be fun.”

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Richards during Thursday’s morning skate. (Photo: Chris Gordon)

In Game One, a late game boarding penalty by Tom Wilson almost ended in disaster for Washington. If the Flyers had not retaliated, they would have had their seventh man-advantage of the game with a chance to tie the game. Wilson, however, also showed restraint against the Flyers, a team that has had price on his head ever since his rookie season.

“I think Willy has done a really good job the last little while of being disciplined and backing off any hits,” head coach Barry Trotz said after the game.

Wilson moderation came earlier in the game when Brayden Schenn, who Wilson infamously charged three seasons ago, delivered at hard hit on Mike Richards. Wilson briefly considered engaging in vigilantism until Richards stepped in.

“You do what you have to do,” Richards said of the incident. “Willy’s a really high energetic player. That’s the way you want to see him play. He wants to stick up for his teammates, but at the same time you have to understand the situation.”

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Photo: Patrick Smith

Tom Wilson almost made it through a Caps-Flyers game without getting involved in something foolish. But with six minutes and 51 seconds left in a one goal playoff hockey game, Wilson decided to board defenseman Andrew McDonald. It was an obvious penalty.

Thankfully for Wilson, Wayne Simmonds, who led the Flyers in regular season goals (32), decided a late game comeback push was the perfect time to retaliate. Simmonds took a roughing penalty before he and Wilson decided to punch each other in the face, negating any advantage for Philly when they needed it most.

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Photo: Patrick Smith

With everything locked up and only days to wait until their first round playoff matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers, the Capitals experienced injury scares at the worst time of the season.

First, Jay Beagle went down after blocking a shot with his left ankle during Saturday’s win over St. Louis. Beagle was scratched for Sunday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks, necessitating an emergency recall of Hershey forward Zach Sill. Beagle, however, is set to play Thursday night. Jason Chimera is expected be in the lineup as well after leaving practice for a few minutes the day before because his “mom called.”

But there is one unknown: the status of TJ Oshie.

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Photo: Patrick Smith

Braden Holtby lay on his back with his eyes glazed over looking at the rafters of Madison Square Garden. Derek Stepan celebrated in the corner as the New York Rangers headed to the Eastern Conference Final. Holtby had posted one of the best postseasons performances in National Hockey League history with a save percentage of .944 and a goals against average of 1.71 over 13 games. He had kept the Capitals afloat all playoffs, but he finally cracked.

A year later, Holtby comes into the postseason on a team with one of the best assemblages of talent we’ve seen in recent memory. Holtby is still the Washington Capitals’ rock, but he no longer has to do everything himself. Last year, Holtby played in 73 games, the most of any goalie in the league. As usual, Holtby handled the pressure well, but there was a lot of it. This season, the Caps were able to play Braden less. With a strong backup in Philipp Grubauer, Washington didn’t need Holtby to win every single night. In return, he delivered a Vezina-caliber performance, matching Martin Brodeur for the most victories in a single season. But come Thursday night, Playoff Braden will return.

“There’s something about Holts,” Nate Schmidt said. “Even just watching the last two days of practice. He’s incredibly dialed in. He kicked it into another gear.”

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Photo: Bruce Bennett

As some of you know, I have a rare autoimmune condition. Earlier this month, I went up to the Mayo Clinic to Rochester, Minnesota to get some of that crazy stuff sorted out. As someone who’s never been west of Chicago, I was uniquely well-positioned positioned to ask vaguely informed, stereotypical questions about the State of Hockey. I directed them at former Minnesota Golden Gopher Nate Schmidt, who hails from St. Cloud. Here’s our conversation from last week.

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Photo: Rob Carr

First impressions make a difference. In December of his rookie season, Tom Wilson made himself known to fans of the Philadelphia Flyers with a savage charge on forward Brayden Schenn. Since then, Wilson has been a marked man.

“We don’t want to be liked by them,” Wilson said of the Flyers Tuesday, two days before the Capitals face Philadelphia in Game One the opening round of the playoffs. “Hopefully, we can keep it that way, that they hate our guts.” Continue Reading

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Photo: Justin K. Aller

Bruce Boudreau began the 2011-12 season with his team as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup. In his last two seasons, he followed up a Presidents’ Trophy with an Eastern Conference regular-season title. Now, he had seven straight wins to start the year. A little over a month later, Boudreau, the fastest coach in NHL history to 200 wins, was gone. The man who resurrected hockey in Washington was replaced by two coaches who slowly bled the greatness out of the Capitals.

Just under four years later, Boudreau has found himself in a similar spot. Now the coach of the Anaheim Ducks, he had led his team to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals the year before. But the start of the 2015-16 season was a catastrophe. His team scored 10 goals in the entire month of October. They finished the month with a single victory. Boudreau didn’t have any answers.

“I don’t know,” he said after his team threw away another game on October 27. “I’m sort of at a loss right now.”

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