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Blackhawks 'a good measuring stick' for first-place Capitals

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Blackhawks 'a good measuring stick' for first-place Capitals

To be the best, you've got to beat the best.

The Capitals fell short of that task in Sunday's 3-2 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, but they know they're right there.

"It was a huge test," Alex Ovechkin said after the game. "But how we played in the first period, I don't think any team can hang with us."

The Capitals dominated possession in the opening frame, holding a 16-6 shot advantage over the Blackhawks. Marcus Johansson, on the power play, put the Capitals on the board first, which has been a vital part of the team's success this season, owning the league's best winning percentage (28-1-0 entering Sunday) when scoring the game's first goal.

But the Blackhawks had something to say about that, shifting the momentum just 31 seconds later when Hart Trophy favorite Patrick Kane fooled Vezina Trophy favorite Braden Holtby with a highlight-reel goal, thanks to a heads-up pass by Trevor van Riemsdyk.

"When we got the lead, we sort of had them on their heels and gave it right back," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "To me, that was pretty key for them coming out of the first period even. For us, we put a lot of effort into that first period and you want to get a better result."

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Jonathan Toews potted his 22nd goal of the year on the man advantage late in the second period to give the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead heading into the final frame, putting the Capitals in a position that doesn't faze them — they entered Sunday's contest with a 6-7-2 record when trailing after two periods, which is also the league's best winning percentage in that category.

Unfortunately for Washington, the same applied to the Blackhawks, who improved their stellar record to 63-0-2 when leading after two periods, a run that dates back to the start of the 2014-15 season, including playoffs.

"They're really good in the third period," Trotz said. "They've got their key, core people who have been in real pressure moments and they have really good D, especially their top-four. They're hard to score on. It's why they're such a good hockey team. But I thought we matched up well in a lot of areas, so that's encouraging for us."

Dennis Rasmussen registered, what turned out to be, the game-winning goal — the first game-winner of his career — at the 12:47 mark of the third period, stretching the Blackhawks' lead to 3-1.

T.J. Oshie, who knows the Blackhawks all too well from his days in St. Louis, committed an interference penalty shortly after, perhaps channeling his frustration the wrong way.

[MORE: Blackhawks reclaim Central Division with win over Capitals]

But the Capitals quickly steered the ship in the right direction, capitalizing on a 5-on-3 power play — which was actually a 6-on-3 advantage with an extra attacker on for Holtby — with under four minutes to play and nearly cashed in during the final minute with a late surge.

"We had to hold our breath a little bit there getting that last kill, and it was effective for us," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "It turned out it could have been the differential getting to overtime."

Chicago and Washington met twice last season, both of which resulted in 3-2 victories for the Capitals. They were good then.

But the Blackhawks certainly notice they're getting even better.

"They’re deeper," Quenneville said when asked to compare this year's Capitals team to last year. "They have scoring on most of their lines. Some speed; they’re quicker than I thought. They have a good back end and a great goalie. That depth is showing through and their quickness and skill are very dangerous."

Despite the loss, the Capitals are only six points away from cracking 100 this season with still 20 games remaining.

[RELATED: Five Things - New Blackhawks making immediate impact]

The Capitals have run away with the Eastern Conference, building a large enough cushion that they can afford to take some nights off. It sounds familiar, but this team isn't like the previous ones that win the Presidents Trophy only to get bounced in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

They're structured, well-coached and resilient, like they showed again on Sunday during a valuable matchup against the Blackhawks.

"You see why their top players are top players," Trotz said. "I thought today had a little bit of a playoff feel, especially in the building, there was a lot of real good energy. It's a good experience for us. ... They're always a good measuring stick."

It was a treat to watch for 22,218 fans at the United Center, the largest crowd of the season.

It could be an even bigger treat if these two teams haven't seen the last of each other, with a potential Stanley Cup Final showdown a possibility in June.

If that happens, don't expect the Capitals to back down from that challenge.

"They have a solid group of guys out there that knows how to win," Ovechkin said. "If we're going to meet them in the future, we're going to know how to play and we're going to know exactly what we have to do."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Blackhawks' One Goal be to tank?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Blackhawks' One Goal be to tank?

On the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast, Danny Parkins (670 The Score), Seth Gruen (Big Ten Unfiltered) and Jason Goch (SB Nation Radio) join Kap on the panel. 

The Blackhawks drop their 8th straight. So should their “One Goal” be to tank?

Plus, Jon Lester isn’t a fan of the new pace of play proposals. Is he right?

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here:

With playoff chances all but over, what can Blackhawks do at trade deadline?

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USA TODAY

With playoff chances all but over, what can Blackhawks do at trade deadline?

After losing their eighth straight game and falling 12 points out of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks' playoff chances have dipped to a season-low 0.2 percent. It would take a miracle for them to extend their postseason streak to 10 at this point, where getting just one win seems like a monumental task.

The Blackhawks were probably never really going to be buyers before the Feb. 26 trade deadline even if they were still in the hunt, but it's hard to imagine they had plans to be sellers. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has reiterated over and over again that he's confident in this group, one that's getting younger and faster.

But now they've reached a territory where they have to consider selling off spare parts simply to coup some draft picks or prospects that they could perhaps retain or use as sweeteners in the offseason.

So which players could the Blackhawks realistically sell?

Let's start with the two players getting rewarded with top-six ice time as of late: Lance Bouma and Tommy Wingels.

These are two players that play with high energy and go to the greasy areas, something that's important in the playoffs when scoring goals becomes more difficult. They can clean up rebounds. Wingels, particularly, likely has more value and it's showing given his recent success on the power play as a net-front presence guy. He also isn't a stranger to the playoffs with 54 games under his belt compared to Bouma's five.

Both of them are pending unrestricted free agents and are making $1 million or fewer, which certainly works in the Blackhawks' favor considering they won't cost much and their cap hits are easy to fit in on any interested team.

Maybe a team would like to take a flyer on Tomas Jurco, who's a restricted free agent at the end of the season, but that would be a move somebody makes as more of a longer term project than strengthening your depth for a playoff run this spring.

On the back end, Michal Kempny and Jan Rutta could be in play for a contender looking to ensure some depth as a sixth or seventh defenseman. Again, each of them are making less than $1 million so it's a low-risk situation for clubs whose Plan A or B fall through and may be interested in at least getting something.

While they don't have much NHL experience, they're both 27 years old and have played the sport long enough to know what they can bring to the table.

Once Feb. 26 passes and potential roster spots open up, expect the Blackhawks to start calling up the kids. 

Matthew Highmore deserves a look after leading the Rockford IceHogs with 20 goals and 32 points. John Hayden has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 15 games since joining Rockford, and belongs in the NHL. Even Anthony Louis, who's taken a step forward, should get a taste of the action as he continues his development.

Carl Dahlstrom is getting his shot now. Erik Gustafsson is in that process as well. Gustav Forsling had another extended look during the first half of the season before the team decided it would be wise to continue his development in Rockford, where he can play top-pairing minutes.

All of this would give the Blackhawks a better indicator of how they can approach the upcoming offseason, and which young guys they can possibly add into the mix for 2018-19. But first, we have to see how the end of February plays out before making those calls.