Capitals Come up Big Against Chicago Blackhawks

The only unchangeable in hockey is that roster names constantly change. The preseason is a great time to become familiar with your team’s rising rookies. Several prospects came up big for the Washington Capitals against the Chicago Blackhawks in a 4-3 overtime win on Sept. 16 and a 6-0 trouncing on Sept. 25.

Washington Capitals left wing Jakub Vrana
Washington Capitals (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Capitals Halt Blackhawks, 4-3 (OT)

One Capitals veteran who has earned his place is Tom Wilson who, sporting the prized ‘A’ on his chest, scored a gorgeous goal at 2:35 in the extra session to give the Capitals their first win of the 2019-20 preseason on Sept. 16. It was a wide drive through the neutral zone to crash the net. He skated around talented Blackhawks forward prospect Dylan Sikura, and drove through AHL call-up, goalie Colin Delia. He showed the rookies on both teams how a seasoned player impacts the game. Some might even say he has earned his place as the Capitals’ future captain.

However, Wilson and other Capitals favorites have young guns ready to take their places. The rest of the headlines for the team’s preseason opener went to the rookies. Pheonix Copley played rubber watcher, clocking 62:35 of ice time and a .900 save percentage. His young teammates Damien Riat, Travis Boyd and Aliaksei Protas all scored in the second period. Protas, Connor McMichael and Beck Malenstyn obtained primary helpers. One of the secondary assists came from Joe Snively who signed his entry-level contract this season. The Virginia native entered the Capitals’ system as a Little Cap during the 2008 Explode camp and signed a two-year deal with his hometown team 11 years later.

The contributions from the younger generation could be a window into the future roster of the Capitals. There are times when an established team requires fresh blood. With the way the new kids managed, that time could come sooner than later.

Washington Capitals goaltender Pheonix Copley
Washington Capitals goaltender Pheonix Copley (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

By most measures, the match was an even one. Washington won 51% of the faceoffs, while Chicago won 49%. The Capitals recorded 29 shots on goal, while the Blackhawks recorded 30. Where there was slight separation in stats, there were positive signs. The home team collected more hits and less penalty minutes. Thankfully, the Caps held the determining edge: in goals.

Capitals Beat Blackhawks 6-0

The Capitals continued their solid play on Sept. 25 when the second half of their six-game exhibition schedule moved to enemy ice. After opening the preseason with three games and three wins at Capital One Arena, the team traveled to Chicago’s United Center for the rematch.

Roster slots were still up for grabs with close to three dozen players still vying for attention. On the fifth shot of the game, Liam O’Brien tipped a wrister by Colby Williams to give the Caps an early lead. Blueliner John Carlson, mirroring his goal-scoring predecessor, capitalized from the right point before the close of the first twenty minutes. Assists went to Alexander Ovechkin and Wilson.

John Carlson Washington Capitals
John Carlson, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In the second frame, Wilson converted a tremendous blast from the top of the left circle while short-handed. In the same period, Danish center Lars Eller, returning from injured reserve, shoved home a rebound. Assists went to Carlson and Jakub Vrana. Vrana and Eller picked up the final fifth and sixth goals of the contest for the Capitals.

Everything that shines is not gold. The rookies in red received some negative attention. Lucas Johansen (crosschecking), Colby Williams (holding) and Tyler Lewington (slashing) were nicked for minor penalties. Lewington later added fighting, instigating and a misconduct to his rap sheet. However, those infractions can be forgiven given the win. With the two games taken together, the younger Capitals were quite impressive.

Who is Aliaksei Protas?

Protas had a three-point night (one goal, two assists) in his NHL preseason debut on Sept. 16. The 2019 third-round pick joined the Washington organization this summer, signing a three-year, entry-level contract. The 6-foot-6 forward, the first Capitals draft pick from Belarus, ranked seventh among WHL rookies in points and led the same in playoff points with 22 (12 goals, 10 assists) in 23 games with the Prince Albert Raiders. He helped his team win the championship last season, scoring back-to-back hat tricks in the Conference Final.

Representing Belarus, Protas registered four points (one goal, three assists) at the 2018 Under-18 World Championship and recorded five points (two goals, three assists) at the 2019 Division 1 – Group A World Junior Championship to earn the silver medal. His numbers ranked 16th among centers and 30th among North American forwards by NHL Central Scouting.

Protas lived up to his credentials in his debut with the Capitals, showing skill on both sides of the puck and proficient playmaking. The 18-year-old was even named the first star of the night on Sept. 16.

Capitals head coach Todd Reirden sung his praises in the post-game press conference following his first NHL game: “I liked him at the rookie tournament… I was happy to see him have a really strong performance tonight. But that’s an exciting prospect at that size [6-foot-6], to be able to do those things. He’s got good hands in tight areas, as I’ve seen during the big camp here. It was a real valuable experience, and I was happy to try to get him out there at the end. He does a good job for us…We are just touching the surface with this player. So it’s exciting for our organization, and a real credit to our scouts for doing a great job of finding a player like him.”

The praise from the bench boss indicates a positive career for Protas. Although he is expected to spend most of his time playing junior hockey this season, fans will see Protas again at Capital One Arena. In fact, they will see many fresh faces. This class of rookies, many of whom debuted in preseason, prove the future is bright for the Capitals.