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Kids show well and Wilson shows leadership as Caps win preseason opener over Hawks

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps /

All The Young Dudes - Although it was seven-year NHL veteran Tom Wilson who supplied the overtime game-winner with a dazzling, highlight reel goal that spanned virtually the entire length of the rink, an impressive group of kids also had a lot to do with the Caps' 4-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday night in Washington's preseason opener.

Aliaksei Protas set up Wilson's goal, the third point (one goal, two assists) of the night for the 18-year-old center, the Caps' third-round pick (91st overall) in the 2019 NHL Draft. Connor McMichael set up Washington's first goal, making a nifty pass in the slot to feed Damien Riat. Joe Snively and Beck Malenstyn each had helpers on Protas' goal.

Protas, McMichael and Snively were all playing in their first ever NHL preseason game.

"Man, they played unbelievable," says Wilson of Washington's youth brigade. "I'd go down the list, but I'd be scared to leave somebody out because there were so many of them that played well. I think they carried us for the most part. Obviously [Protas] and I thought McMichael, they all had pretty strong games.

"Every year, you come out and you play the preseason games, and the last couple of years it has been a team that has been pretty much established, and tough for young guys. But it says a lot to them to come in here and make the jobs difficult for coaches, because they were our best players tonight."

Video: Postgame Locker Room | September 16

Two of the four goals and seven of the dozen points recorded by Washington players came off the sticks of skaters who have yet to play in a regular season game at the NHL level.

"It was fun," says Wilson. "It's obviously nice to get the win, and again, a lot of the young guys with real strong showings: Riat, McMichael, [Protas], I thought [Malenstyn] battled really, really hard - right up and down the lineup. And our [defense] played well and [goaltender Pheonix Copley] played well, so it was good."

Caps coach Todd Reirden had some positive thoughts on a few of the Caps' young players, too.

On Protas: "Just a younger guy that is growing into his body. And so sometimes they don't look the smoothest at times, but he gets there. He is able to make obviously a great play on the power play, and converts going to the net. I liked him at the rookie tournament [in Nashville last week]. I really liked him in the first game at the rookie tournament, and then sometimes you find that players drop off a little bit with the speed and everything as a young player. He kind of went through a little bit of finding his way the next couple of games. And then he came here, and he got a little jolt again, and I was happy to se 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.

"There are not a lot of guys that look smooth that are at that size. Tom [Wilson] is a guy that if you want to go back a few years [and see] how much better his skating has gotten. So I think that will be a similar path. I don't think he will ever be able to have that type of speed; Tom's speed and endurance are the things that separate him and have made him into the top-line player that he is now. But someone that is at that size and has that ability to reach and has hockey sense, 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."

Video: Todd Reirden Postgame | September 16

On Malenstyn: "I like the energy he brings. I've liked him for a few years now. I think back to I think his first year, and we weren't going to be able to find a [preseason] game for him. And I remember taking him to Montreal with us. He wasn't going to play, but just the experience of bringing him around, I just love having him around our room. He is a great kid, a really hard worker, passionate. I definitely gravitate towards that type of a guy. He can change the momentum of a game with his speed; he is physical. I went down to watch him in Hershey last year in the playoffs, and I liked how they used him down there. [He has] the ability to kill penalties and get in on the forecheck and play with speed. To me, that is something we are really looking for in that bottom six, if not this year, then down the road."

On Travis Boyd: "So Travis, obviously we know it's a competition coming into the camp and I think they had him a little bit lower - we had him above 50 percent - on his face-offs. I liked him there; I put him on for a number of difficult [defensive] zone draws and he was able to convert on the power play. That's what he was able to show us last year, was the ability - when he was given the opportunity - to convert, and he was able to do it there."

Leader Of The Pack - As the media poured into the Washington locker room minutes after his overtime game-winner ended the Caps' preseason opener against Chicago on a positive note, the reporters naturally gravitated toward Wilson's stall. Wilson gently tried to steer reporters toward Protas's area across the room. Protas, after all, had set up Wilson's game-winner, and it was the third point for the 18-year-old center in his NHL preseason debut. A few reporters went over to Protas, but just as many stayed to hear what Wilson had to say.

Just as gently, Wilson chided McMichael for leaving his bag on the floor in front of his stall, making it a bit trickier for a media scrum to form. Wilson moved the bag himself - "I've got it, Mac," he joked - and then sat down to field the incoming questions. Although he is only 25 himself, Wilson sported an alternate captain's "A" for Monday's game, and why not? With 454 career games in the league, he was the most experienced player in the Washington lineup.

Leading on and off the ice is something Wilson has done for years now, and Reirden made sure reporters heard about it firsthand after the game.

"Obviously a huge goal for him at the end there," begins Reirden, "but I'll just talk about him for a second. He does such a great job with the young players, and it was really important for me to have him in our lineup tonight just with the next phase of his development as a leader. It was great to see just the stuff that he does behind the scenes.

Video: CHI@WSH: Wilson goes coast-to-coast for OT winner

"We knew we lost some leaders this summer, and that was a challenge for him. I wanted to put him in a situation where he could do that. Obviously he is able to score the winner. He deserves it because he puts the work in.

"He had a strong game, and more importantly, he had an impact that a lot of those young players won't ever forget, and that's the special part."

Quick As Dreams - Although Monday's game required overtime, it was still a lickety-split affair that was over with in a tidy two hours and 22 minutes. There were only 39 face-offs in 62:35 of playing time, so the game featured long stretches of sustained action and plenty of changes on the fly. It wasn't nearly as choppy or unwatchable as many early preseason games of recent vintage.

"It was a pretty good game," says Wilson. "There was a lot of youth on the ice, and the youth game is run and gun now, and a lot of skill, a lot of puck control. We got better as the game went on, I think; we were a little scrambly at first.

"It's really tough to play the first game. You get out there, and some guys have played rookie games and some guys haven't. But the first shift, I had to kind of just smack myself. I was like, 'We're in a real game; it's not a scrimmage anymore.'

By The Numbers - Christian Djoos led Washington with 23:50 in ice time, and Nic Dowd led all Caps forwards with 17:57 of ice time … Wilson and Riat paced the Capitals with four shots on net each, and those two plus McMichael and Garnet Hathaway each had five shot attempts to lead the way for Washington … Malenstyn and Hathaway each had five hits to lead the Caps … Tyler Lewington led the Caps with three blocked shots … Dowd won six of nine draws (67%) on the night.

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