St. Louis, Brewer score twice in Lightning win

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St. Louis, Brewer score twice in Lightning win

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Martin St. Louis and Eric Brewer each scored two goals as the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Washington Capitals 6-3 in the season opener for both teams Saturday night.

St. Louis added an assist, while Vincent Lecavalier and Cory Conacher also scored goals for the Lightning.

Joel Ward scored twice and Wojtek Wolski also had a goal for the Capitals, who lost in Adam Oates' NHL coaching debut.

St. Louis' drive from above the left circle during a 5-on-3 power play gave Tampa Bay a 4-3 advantage at 4:47 of the third. Conacher, who had an assist in first NHL game, scored his first goal to extend the lead to 5-3 with 6:36 to go. Brewer scored his second goal late in the third.

Wilson could learn a few things watching Ward, Brouwer

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Wilson could learn a few things watching Ward, Brouwer

Sudden thoughts and second thoughts as the Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks are now one win away from meeting in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs:

Lessons for Willy: Did you notice that former Capitals right wings Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer each scored goals Monday night by batting pucks out of the air?

NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick noted that both players must have played baseball growing up. What he didn’t point out was that both goals came from about a stick length away from the goal line.

Those goals are exactly the kind the Capitals were missing in their six-game loss to the Penguins in Round 2 and the kind of goals they want Tom Wilson scoring next season. Those goals don’t just happen; they are the result of hours and hours of repetition in the summer months.

By the way, Brouwer now has eight goals and 13 points in 19 playoff games for the Blues. That’s one more goal than he had in his first 78 career playoff games with the Blackhawks and Capitals. His post-season production is adding about a million a year onto his next free-agent contract.

Ward, who has two years left on his deal in San Jose, has four goals and nine points in 17 playoff games for the Sharks.

RELATED: SEASON IN REVIEW: MATT NISKANEN

Rooting interests: Last week, I asked Caps left wing Jason Chimera if he was rooting for Ward or Brouwer in the Western Conference Final. After some prodding he said Ward, because he’s never won the Stanley Cup.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with Justin Williams at the beginning of this season. (Ironically, I’ve had the good fortune of reporting on Williams’ first NHL game and his 1,000th). When I told Williams I root for people, and not teams, and that I was happy to see him win the Cup three times, he quipped, “What about the (jerks)? Do you root for them?”

Fortunately, there aren’t many in this sport. Ward and Brouwer are both quality people, but I’m with Chimera. I’d like to see Ward hoist that big silver chalice.

Statistically speaking: Per Elias, when teams are tied 2-2 in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoffs series, the winner of Game 5 holds an all-time series record of 192-53 (78.3 percent).

But here’s a more interesting stat from this spring: Road teams have won 41 of 82 games this postseason after winning only 38 contests during the entire 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs (38-51). So much for home-ice advantage.

Final word: I’ve always been a big proponent of finding a No. 1 goaltender in the playoffs and sticking with him, even after a lopsided loss.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and Penguins coach Mike Sullivan took calculated risks when they replaced Brian Elliott and Matt Murray with Jake Allen and Marc-Andre Fleury following Game 4 losses.

Facing elimination, the two coaches must weigh the options of sticking with Allen and Fleury or going back to Elliott and Murray. Hindsight is always 20/20 but I’ve always said that if you think you have two No. 1 goalies, you really don’t have any.

That’s why Martin Jones, who has started all 17 playoff games for the Sharks and has won 11 of them, has the best chance to win it all.

MORE CAPITALS: BEAGLE WANTS CAPS TO SEE HIM AS THIRD-LINE CENTER SOLUTION

Season in review: Matt Niskanen

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Season in review: Matt Niskanen

With the Capitals’ 2015-16 season now in the rearview mirror, we begin our player-by-player analysis through their numerical roster.

No. 2 Matt Niskanen

Age: 29 (turns 30 on Dec. 6)

Games: 82

Goals: 5

Assists: 27

Points: 32

Plus-minus: Plus-10

Penalty minutes: 38

Time on ice: 24:39

Playoff stats: 12 games, 0 goals, 3 assists, plus-3, 6 PIM, 26:32

Contract status: 5 years remaining on 7-year, $40.25 million contract ($5.75 cap hit)

RELATED: BEAGLE WANTS CAPS TO SEE HIM AS THIRD-LINE CENTER SOLUTION

When the Capitals gathered at Kettler two days after their season-ending 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins no one looked more heartbroken than Matt Niskanen.

“This is the most hurt I’ve been in my career,” Niskanen said following the Caps’ six-game defeat to his former team. “You don’t know how often opportunities are going to come along where you had this kind of team. You don’t. Things happen, rosters change. Momentum changes.

“I’ve been on some teams where because of the people on your team you think you always have a chance, but this sure felt like the year. It hurts right now, I don’t have  a perfect answer on why it didn’t come about and why it didn’t happen for us.

“Having said that, I’m not a general manager or anything but I think we’re set up pretty well to go at it again. That’s the positive in all this. I think we went after it this year and guys left it out there. I think we showed that in the way Game 6 unfolded (rebounding from a 3-0 deficit to force overtime). We had every excuse in Game 6 to pack in the tent and boy, we didn’t. Just like we did all year, we laid it all on the line in the third period and gave ourselves a chance to win that game. But man it hurts. It hurts that it didn’t happen for us.”

From a personal standpoint, Niskanen said he went into the season wanting to improve on his point totals from last season, when he recorded four goals and 27 assists in his first season with the Caps.

“I beat my total by one point – an empty-net goal in the first game,” Niskanen said with a smile. “That didn’t develop like I had planned or hoped and I think part of that is that my role kind of changed. As the year developed Karl and I took on a bigger responsibility as far as minutes and who we were playing against.

“I think that somewhat changed my focus on what I was going to try to bring. The team was really playing well so I wasn’t going to start adding unnecessary offensive risk to my game based on my role on the team and how we were playing. I think my overall game and defensively, I made big strides this year based on the amount of minutes I played this year, penalty kill, and playing against top guys. My overall game was probably my best season. So that’s positive.

“Having said that if I can keep moving forward I’d like to bring some more offense next year. That’s going to be my challenge. Can I get 5, 8, 10 more points somewhere? How do I do that? Talking with some of the coaches, that’s going to be my goal. I don’t think I’m a play that’s going to get 60 points. I don’t think that’s in the cards for me, but I think I can be a really effective player and maybe add some more (offense).”

Niskanen’s role this season increased because of injuries to defensemen John Carlson, who missed 26 games, and Brooks Orpik, who missed 41. His ice time jumped from a career-high 22:21 to 24:39 and that climbed even higher in the playoffs when he averaged 26:32 a night alongside Karl Alzner.

It will be interesting to see if Caps assistant coach Todd Reirden keeps Niskanen and Alzner together again next season or if he reunites the pair of Alzner and Carlson, possibly moving Nate Schmidt or Dmitry Orlov onto a unit with Niskanen.

“Karl and I had a lot of responsibility this year, especially in some of those times (during injuries to Carlson and Orpik,” he said. “I’m really proud of the team and in the defensive group and how some of the guys played in those moments. Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, (Taylor) Chorney had a really good year. In the beginning of the year those guys weren’t slotted to play that much probably. So it was an opportunity and I thought they showcased really well.”
Niskanen said he also tried to be more of a locker room leader this season, something that he admits does not come naturally.

“People who have been around probably know that I’m not a rah-rah person,” he said. “That’s probably not going to change, but I did get out of my skin a few times this year where I felt the need to say a few things in the locker room. Nothing dramatic or anything, but I thought as a group we were pretty good in that regard.

“Guys were saying the right things. I thought we had really good focus and I think that showed with not having a losing streak all season really. I thought we always had good response and I think that’s a reflection of guys taking responsibility and accountability of how we played and how we bring it all the time. I thought we had really good focus and I think I was a part of that. The biggest thing is the product you put on the ice and this was a pretty good product this year. I think we felt really good about the work we were doing and the potential this team had. Man, we were in a good spot. It didn’t work out, though.”

If anything, Niskanen said he thought the Caps lost their edge in Game 2 when they had a chance to take a 2-0 series lead on the Pens at Verizon Center.

“I said this after the (final) game,” Niskanen said. “It’s almost amazing how fast things can just slip and we’re behind in the series trying to play catch-up. That’s hockey. I don’t think you can just talk about things and protect yourself against every circumstance, but there’s probably a little lesson there. Game 2, maybe we weren’t; as urgent as we could have been. You never know what situation in a series could be a turning point, so you better be on your toes at all times.

“Having said that, this year as a whole and in the playoffs I thought we were pretty urgent. I thought we brought it much better than we had in the past. At times it was championship-type level, the urgency we played with. I think we got a lot better in that regard but there were a few moments where maybe we could have been better.

“I guess the only good thing is we’re set up pretty well to go at it again next year. It sucks and I can’t believe we’re talking about this right now because that sounds like a losers’ mentality -- ‘Well, we’ll get ‘em next year’ – but that’s really all you can do at this point.

“I’m pretty proud of the guys and I wouldn’t change anything about our approach and our attitude and the work we put in this year. We can play better in a few areas, of course, but as far as our approach and our attitude I thought it was outstanding this year. We went after it and we’ll continue to head in that direction.”

MORE CAPITALS: OVECHKIN, KUZNETSOV, ORLOV FINISH WITH A MEDAL

Beagle wants Caps to see him as third-line center solution

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Beagle wants Caps to see him as third-line center solution

Later today we’ll begin our player-by-player analysis of the 2015-16 Capitals’ numerical roster (beginning with Matt Niskanen and ending with Evgeny Kuznetsov).

But since the topic of improving the Caps’ third-line center position has been a hot one lately, fueled by general manager Brian MacLellan stating it’s one of his top priorities in the offseason, it’s worth revisiting Jay Beagle’s take on where he’d like to fit into the Caps’ lineup in 2016-17.

“I want to be a third-line center,” Beagle said. “That’s what I want to be. That’s up to the coaching staff. Coming into this year that was my goal, to make that third line stronger and I felt the coaches gave me that opportunity and when I had that opportunity I did my best with it. Playing with guys like Chimmer (Jason Chimera) and Willy (Tom Wilson) was awesome. It was a lot of fun.”

RELATED: OVECHKIN, KUZNETSOV, ORLOV FINISH WITH A MEDAL

And until Beagle broke his hand on Dec. 30, when he was slashed by Buffalo’s Jake McCabe when trying to glove an airborne puck, the Caps’ third line was pretty productive.

At the time of Beagle’s injury, he had six goals and six assists in 32 games. Chimera had 10 goals and 10 assists and Wilson had two goals and nine assists for a total of 18 goals and 25 assists.

Beagle underwent surgery on Jan. 2 and sat out the next 24 games, forcing the Caps to move Marcus Johansson into the role of third-line center. Johansson infused speed onto the line but was eventually replaced by Mike Richards.

Beagle began skating five days after his surgery but had just 70 percent grip strength when he returned to the lineup on Feb. 28, nearly two months after the injury.  

He finished the season with just two goals and three assists in his final 21 games of the regular season and notched three goals in the playoffs, two against the Flyers and one against the Penguins.

With two years remaining on his three-year, $5.25 million contract with the Caps, Beagle said he’d love to be given another chance to play alongside Chimera and Wilson on the third line next season.

Whether he gets that chance depends on what the Caps are seeking in the free agent and trade markets.

“I think I had a pretty good season,” he said. “Breaking my hand midway set me back a bit, I think coming back on the ice I didn’t feel like I was 100 percent with grip strength and it took a bit to find a groove again. The start of the season I felt really, really good. I think it was the best hockey I played. Playing with Chimmer and Willy for as long as we did, they kept that third line together until I busted my hand, really.

“I felt like we had a lot of good chemistry and we were playing really good hockey. It was a lot of fun playing with them. I think it was the best hockey I played. Coming back (from the injury) I think I could have been better. I felt like I was not as good. I was still trying to find my groove but I found it later in the season and in the playoffs I felt pretty good.”

MORE CAPITALS: CAPITALS SETTING THEIR SIGHTS ON A NEW THIRD-LINE CENTER?